Chris Wallace
Labor pressed for more reform

Labor Party national conferences – Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has seen a few. He’s been going to them all his life. His attendance at this week’s three-day conference in Brisbane, which concludes today, will be as familiar as putting on an old jumper.

This one may have felt scratchy at times but that’s what happens when improving life circumstances means old polar fleeces get swapped out for wool. It all boils down to the strength of the fibre.

Albanese and the rest of the Labor leadership have had to be only mildly flexible at the 2023 national conference to minimise disquiet from rank-and-file members wanting a better, faster, more far-reaching reform agenda. The government continues to get the benefit of the doubt from party members still thrilled Labor tipped the Coalition out of office.

A bit of a rewording of a motion here, a massaging of approach there, a few stroked egos – pretty soon, awkward challenges on AUKUS, Palestine, tax, housing policy and the rest became no problemo.

Since the national conference is a triennial event, Albanese won’t have to worry about it again this term. If a week’s a long time in politics, three years is forever.

And it’s not as though the conference has firebrands like Albanese was, back in his polar fleece days.

After Albanese won government, journalist Paul Cleary, who covered him on the barricades back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, recalled the “formidable political firebrand” of the Left and “fierce opponent to his political foes” the prime minister was in his youth.

Albanese’s onslaught on NSW Labor general secretary Stephen Loosley was his political coming of age, Cleary said, culminating in Loosley “falling on his sword” at the 1990 state conference. “This was the moment, you could say, that Albanese arrived as a political force, even though he’d inflicted some reputational damage on his own party.”

Back then Albanese appeared most opposed to those on the right wing of his own party, according to Cleary.

Now he’s penning paeans to the gradual, strategic pursuit of Labor objectives in the foreword to the national policy platform, “because real, enduring reforms that change a country for the better take time”. These are words that could have been written by any Right faction leader any time over Labor’s 123-year history.

Albanese is correct, of course; but it’s fun to think what Young Albo’s likely contributions would have been to any of the hot-button debates at the 2023 conference. How much slack would he have cut a Labor prime minister arguing that things “take time”?

His boilerplate certainly does not allay the underlying question, nascent inside the government and louder from outsiders, about Labor’s performance so far, even among those who agree a measured approach is merited.

Is what the government is doing proportionate to the scale and urgency of the problems Australia faces? If not, what are the substantive and political consequences?

These questions will be asked in the week Albanese’s personal standing went pop! The Nine newspapers Resolve poll showed his net approval rating has plunged from +16 a month ago to just +2 now. It’s still way ahead of Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, of course, who stands at –13, a modest two-point improvement from July.

The comment on Albanese of one of those surveyed in the Resolve poll encapsulates the concerns of some: “I used to think he was very good, but now just okay. The Voice is hurting him.”

Other prime ministers have had popularity slumps and recovered, including Albanese’s predecessor, Coalition prime minister Scott Morrison. His standing collapsed during the 2020 bushfire crisis, then zoomed during the Covid-19 pandemic. It slumped again as evidence of pandemic mismanagement and Coalition misogyny grew and was a key factor in the Coalition’s 2022 election loss.

The Resolve poll shows the Albanese government would be re-elected if an election had been held this month. Albanese’s net approval slide will be rationalised as predictable given the current cost-of-living crunch, and likely reversible once Australians have endured it and come out the other side.

Others are less sanguine.

“What are we doing?” a Labor person queried this week. “Where’s the ambitious reform agenda? People say it’s going great – it’s going well because cabinet is running properly again. But is that it?”

The plan to boost national housing supply, agreed at national cabinet on Wednesday, is a case in point: useful, sensible, worth doing.

But where’s the policy for stopgap assistance to save mortgagees from losing their homes and adding to the burgeoning national homelessness problem over the next several months? Where’s the policy stopping banks widening spreads to achieve record profits, like the Commonwealth Bank announced last week, even as interest rates begin to bite their customers hard? Where’s the Labor leader who might dare to establish a government-owned bank to be a competitive pacesetter in our shockingly oligopolised finance sector, as Labor prime minister Andrew Fisher dared and did a century ago?

In a FIFA Women’s World Cup-soaked week, consider this analogy. Would the Matildas have done as well had their campaign been built on achieving high performance “over time”? Or did they go for broke, getting the team, from the captain down, performing so well they could actually win the trophy?

The sneaking feeling that the Albanese government’s performance is like a star-studded team you nevertheless worry about slipping into the second division is real. Underlying it are well-founded political insecurities.

They include that the government only has a two-seat majority after going up against the worst government since Federation, and that the Albanese campaign was in trouble in that election’s early weeks, with old stager Stephen Smith having to be slotted in to steady it.

The biggest political challenge since is one Albanese set himself – the Voice – and it’s floundering.

Earlier this year Albanese’s chief of staff, Tim Gartrell, addressed ministerial staffers and said when inflation settled down and the economy was back on track, voters would give Labor permission to do things like the Voice.

That was optimistic on the timing back then. Months later, when Labor national secretary Paul Erickson addressed ministerial staffers with the same line, the timing was plainly wrong.

RedBridge Group pollster Kos Samaras is the Cassandra of the piece. Samaras warned about, and is tracking, falling support for the Voice in line with the beginning of what he estimates are more than 600,000 households moving from fixed rate to variable mortgages from May this year. Samaras says their number is growing every week. “More found themselves having to skip meals (just ask any food bank),” he says, and have become “less willing to think outside their home”.

The logic of this would’ve made independent Senator Lidia Thorpe’s call for the prime minister to call off the referendum, made in a speech at the National Press Club this week, tempting to some worried Labor strategists. Not Albanese, though, who is not for turning.

Samaras’s warning about using “successful Australia”, in the form of chief executives and the like, to sell the Voice to “unsuccessful Australia” enduring the cost-of-living crunch, will have been equally unpopular with the government.

Yet it’s likely accurate, too, and uncannily like the error the Keating government made when it appointed the plutocrat Malcolm Turnbull to head the Republic Advisory Committee in 1993, considered a factor in the failed republic referendum of 1999.

So it is that this week’s pictures of Albanese with unpopular Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce, alongside a Yes23-liveried Qantas plane, may come to be an enduring symbol of this referendum.

The quagmire of “uncertainty” in which the Voice campaign is stuck is reminiscent of another more recent political lesson, too: Labor’s franking credits policy disaster, which contributed to its shock defeat in the 2019 federal election. If you have to explain a policy, you’ve probably already lost it.

With neither franking credits nor the Voice did Labor come up with a short, memorable, persuasive encapsulation of the policy at the outset. This created a great big blank canvas onto which the Coalition could project a massive and diffuse threat, however wrong in fact.

How often do basic lessons of political craft have to be learnt and relearnt by Labor leaders?

Meanwhile, Matildas-like, the Albanese government needs to get way more ambitious. “It’s not like we’ve got this incredibly busy reform agenda,” as another Labor insider put it this week. “We’ve already done all the things we said we’d do.” 

Paul Bongiorno is on leave.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 19, 2023 as "Three nights in Brisbane".

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