Excited by competence

The night Anthony Albanese won, he told a room of supporters he would govern for Australia. For a moment he looked surprised. Emotion folded across his face. He buttoned his jacket.

“My Labor team will work every day to bring Australians together,” he said. “And I will lead a government worthy of the people of Australia, a government as courageous and hardworking and caring as the Australian people are themselves.”

These words do not seem like much. Character is the boilerplate of speechwriting. Scott Morrison’s Australians were quiet and humble. John Howard’s were comfortable and relaxed.

The difference is that Albanese was not projecting these traits; he was promising to match them. In Morrison and Howard’s formulation, there was a subtle trick: these were not the characteristics of Australia, but the rules to which a person must subscribe if they were to belong.

“Tonight, the Australian people have voted for change,” Albanese said. “I am humbled by this victory and I’m honoured to be given the opportunity to serve as the 31st prime minister of Australia.”

Albanese was an unlikely prime minister, even to himself. A decade ago, no one close to him expected it. He was a numbers person. He did factional business. He was a capable deputy. His defining characteristics were his love of the Labor Party and his strategic cunning.

For the first few months of his prime ministership, it was not clear what this would mean. He had not imagined himself into the role and it was difficult for others to. Much of what was needed was repair.

Morrison had left the country in a scandalous state. His appearance at the royal commission this week confirmed what had long been plain: absent the slightest integrity or curiosity, grifting and obfuscating to the end, he was profoundly unfit to hold public office. The flag pin on his lapel, still there on Wednesday, as embarrassing as an unwanted gift to an exchange student, could comfortably top the pole on the parliament he led.

In his half-year of office, Albanese has easily bettered Morrison. The courage he promised has been there in his commitment to the Voice and his reforms to industrial relations. It has been absent in his climate policy, although there are signs Tanya Plibersek might use her portfolio to embolden Labor’s ambition. His refugee policy is a disgrace.

After the worst government this country has known, it is too easy to be excited by competence. That should be a minimum. With Albanese, however, it is never clear that what he is delivering now is what he intends to deliver. He plays a long game. That works in state branches but not in response to calamities such as the ones we are facing.

“I firmly believe that Labor should be the natural party of government,” Albanese told Karen Middleton during the election. “I believe that Labor represents the interests of the overwhelming majority of Australians at our best, and that we should be able to deliver that. And I’m determined to do that. Which is why I’ve spoken about two dates: this election and the next one.”

Seven months in, Albanese has made an encouraging start. As a strategist, though, he cannot be left to believe he has two terms to deliver. The world is much too urgent.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 17, 2022 as "Excited by competence".

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