The people of Australia deserve a new government and a new start this weekend. The Morrison government has done more than enough on its own account to deserve to lose power, and its abuses in power make it dangerous were it be allowed to continue. Normally this would automatically imply that Labor, the alternative party, should be given the keys to The Lodge.
But even now, at the last hour, there are signs of voter hesitation in opting for a government led by Anthony Albanese. Its lead in the opinion polls appears to have contracted, and while Labor must still be rated the favourite, a repeat of Scott Morrison's "miracle" victory of 2019 is by no means impossible. In recent days Morrison has been improbably suggesting that he will undergo a personality change, but if he again feels the touch of God on his shoulder it is doubtful that he will much repair his style, his manner of governing, or the corruption of purpose that now pervades it. Australians are perfectly entitled to vote for the Coalition and hope for better economic outcomes than under Labor from doing so. But those who do so must understand that the Coalition will see re-election as an endorsement of the worst as well as the best of what has gone on before.
Labor and other critics of the Morrison government have made the case for its removal. If Labor does not win on Saturday, it will be because it failed to make the case for itself as the superior alternative. That will be because the government and its allies, including a very hostile mainstream media, raised enough doubts during the campaign about Labor's economic competence that some voters retreated to the devil they know. Once again, as in 2019, Labor will seem to have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. That's a result I will bemoan but I will not be proclaiming Trump style, that the result was fixed, that the combined opposition was robbed, or that it was all Murdoch's fault.
Whenever a party loses four elections in a row, as Labor did between 1996 and 2007, or the Coalition did between 1983 and 1996, observers will stress the devastating impact on the morale of followers and question the very future of the political movement involved. Inevitably, the defeated array regathers, re-organises and re-dedicates itself to the task. This is not only because of hope that power and what it means is attainable, but because the institutional party is still a formidable and wealthy institution, in power in most of the states and territories and offering careers and rewards for those who stay the course.
But there are good reasons to think that a Labor defeat will be peculiarly flattening for the parliamentary Labor party, its organisation, its membership and its broad base of support. Last time about, in 2019, Labor was led by Bill Shorten, favoured son of the leading right-wing factions and a strong and selfish factional player in his own right. The opinion polls suggested that he was motoring to victory, and he had a big and ambitious policy platform. It was his campaign to lose, and most doubted Morrison's capacity to beat him. Morrison did - after most of his colleagues had given the game away - and succeeded largely because of the doubts he raised about Shorten's character.
There was an inquest by party elders into that defeat, even if it was after a fresh leadership ballot which saw Anthony Albanese given a go. But it did not focus so much on the character of Shorten, as on alleged deficiencies in the campaign, not least the suggestion that Labor had had too grand a plan. It had too many components, each open to attack, and Labor's candour on having revenue as well as spending proposals (by way of demonstrating its fiscal responsibility) had left it open to piecemeal attack, not least after one component was able to be mischaracterised as a death tax. The lesson of this, at least as absorbed by Albanese was of the virtues of being a small target, and of shedding all baggage standing in the way of victory. Instead, Labor would have several big policies and points of differentiation with the Coalition. And, even as the pandemic developed, and Morrison's management style became exposed, Labor would stand back on pure oppositionism, trying instead to be helpful, if critical of poor administration. The advantage of this, in theory at least, is that Morrison could not complain of Labor sabotage as the nation faced the unprecedented challenges of a pandemic. But he would get no leeway for his misjudgements.
Albanese himself got only a little leeway from his own side. He has always been a suit, a powerbroker for a faction comfortable enough with ignoring branches. But a part of his legend of himself, along with the housing commission flat and the single mum, is of a firebrand organiser of leftish party causes, and a complacent and corrupted right-wing party machine ever anxious to deny him any practical power. His character has also been popular among members - in some contrast to Shorten, who had power and respect, but not a lot of trusting friends.
As leader, Albanese has had leeway Shorten wouldn't have had, because of his leftist credentials. Shorten devoted a lot of his time to affirming the Labor heritage, proclaiming Labor values, and arguing that his program distilled the right ones of these for the present moment. It was simply part of the packaging, not least when everything is about marketing and mostly in slogans. Albanese, with more of a cloth cap, and more of a Labor story seemed more cavalier about junking policy that branch supporters thought intrinsic to party philosophy and approach. And he was impatient with those who worried about his small-target strategy, and its lack of deep roots in Labor philosophy and values. It was of the essence of the Labor movement that it seeks to win and exercise power, he said. He wanted to win and be rid of obstacles standing in the way. His lines were like those Gough Whitlam threw at the Victorian Left in 1968 - that they were so determined to be pure that they would rather be losers, pure and proud, than somewhat soiled winners.
The curious thing about the uninspiring campaign we've just been through was the general vagueness of both sides on the existence of any plan or vision for the Australia of the future. Morrison spoke of an economic plan, though it remains undetailed other than in a claim for superior ad hoc management. Albanese linked childcare, improved aged care, and wage justice into talk of a post-COVID society and economy, but was remarkably short on detail. Debate, particularly when it was economic, was focused on the short term, and most of it took place without any reference to what was happening in other economies not at war.
Labor, under Albanese, has had an opportunity to revive the party's branch system, party democracy and intense membership participation in policy and program formulation. It's had fresh opportunities to rework its relationship with the trade union movement, and to democratise the way union affiliation represented power in the party administration. Only outsiders have any opportunity to do this. Bill Shorten, Julia Gillard, Simon Crean and Kim Beazley, even Paul Keating and Bob Hawke, have had no interest in disturbing central control of the party in the hands of powerful factions and large unions.
One must go back to Gough Whitlam and Bill Hayden, and to a lesser extent Kevin Rudd, to find party leaders deeply concerned with nurturing the party's capacity to bring up policy ideas from below, and to fostering debate within the party in a way that bound the party together. Just as important is a branch structure that develops potential members other than careerists whose experience has come from working with unions, Labor-friendly law firms and ministers, and from branch stacking. Yet despite the appearance of being an outsider, and despite the potential advantage to his faction of reviving the branches, Albanese has been a classic insider.
Even if he proves a winner, Albanese should contemplate throwing himself into party reform. He needs institutions within the party with which to keep the factions at bay. Nobody knows better than he does that the traditional power brokers have little respect for him, his stock of ideas, or his judgment. He is leader more as a branch favourite than as a caucus favourite. As prime minister, he would have considerable power - if he chooses to exercise it - over the staff selections of his ministers. In some administrations this is a power exercised to maintain discipline and unity over ministerial offices, and to coordinate public relations. In others, it is a way of checking the tendency of ministerial offices to become fiefdoms organising factional games, down to branch stacking, coups against party folk, and the rewarding and punishing of those in and out of favour. Albanese simply cannot count on this system working for him and should seriously consider whether the minder system should be wound back by bolstering public service advice.
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If Labor loses, there should be bloodletting around the organisation, within its most senior member unions and among the suit-geniuses who devise and market policy, as within the parliamentary party itself. There is plenty of room for scapegoats, not least among forces and factions associated with the previous factional leadership. Some of these have spent a long time undermining Albanese's leadership, whether because he purported to be a left-winger or because they thought he, like Bill Shorten before him, was not up to the struggle for victory at the polls.
One of those consciously seeking to destabilise Albanese was the late Kimberley Kitching, but her death brought many of the issues into the open, including her close relations with Liberal right-wingers, and her intimate relations with habitually anti-Labor journalists, undoubtedly seasoned with copious leaking. She leaked details of opposition tactics to senior Liberal ministers, and - as a person with no sense of shame whatever - pretended she was being bullied by the "mean girls" of the senate leadership when they responded to her admission of tipping Morrison ministers by excluding her from their counsels. Other former senior minders of past leaders gave lengthy and disloyal commentaries in Murdoch organs on the weaknesses of the Labor team at the height of the campaign. There's a tendency, both during the excitement of victory, or the humiliation of defeat, to sweep such matters under the carpet in the hope that everyone will start anew. Others will wonder why there is room under the umbrella for those who were effectively campaigning for a victory by the other side.
At some point during arguments about sport rorts at the time of the last election, the minister for finance, Simon Birmingham suggested that if there were any irregularity about the spending, it had been dealt with and approved by the return of the government. One can be certain that a returned Morrison government will claim much the same over its irregular and illegal activity over robodebt, its rejection of an effective integrity apparatus, and its habitual secretiveness and refusal to account. Likewise with any sort of inquest into pandemic, bushfire or flood management. The sins of Alan Tudge, whatever they are, can be taken to be shrived without the public having any right to have its curiosity sated, and the department of finance will be able to continue to keep mum behind non-disclosure clauses it has itself insisted upon. Public interest, in short, will suffer yet further setbacks, even if the new government will continue to face challenges in getting the senate to ensconce its new standards in law. But tame consultants, and senior departmental secretaries, more anxious to serve their ministers than the public interest will continue to act as though the "new" standards are matters of common sense.
It may even be that a chastised Labor party, remembering how little traction it got for its criticism will want to walk away from it, in much the same way that it walked back on old environmental policy, tax policy and the issue of the government's handing out billions in Jobseeker payments to companies and bodies who, it turned out, were ineligible for what they received and were not required to return. Perhaps any elected teal independents will maintain zeal for the environment, action on climate change, good government and a more coordinated and well-directed attack on sexism, men's violence and workplace justice. Perhaps, but then again Labor might come to feel itself squeezed between the "goodness" of the Greens and the teals - cast as the worse, "pragmatic" choice compared with groups that are a little more fair dinkum on their aims, their ideals and their reasons for existence.
These may be mere nightmare scenarios, designed to strengthen resolve and determination that the Morrison government be put out of office. Paul Keating, and echoing him, Scott Morrison, are both perfectly correct in arguing that if you change the government, you change the country. People must decide that they want that, from the evidence they have been presented. Morrison is making people panic about walking through the gate. The test of Albanese this weekend is whether he has drawn a credible picture attractive enough to lure a majority through.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
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