Paul Bongiorno
The flailing kangaroo

On Tuesday afternoon, immediately after Question Time, Anthony Albanese flew out of Canberra, Jakarta-bound for the beginning of a five-day, three-country series of summits. By all reports, the flight was smooth, unlike the turbulence buffeting his government at home.

The flak was coming from many sides. Anxiety over cost-of-living pressures, the rolling Qantas scandal, more evidence of falling support for the Voice, and major business groups warning the world will end if Labor’s second tranche of industrial relations reforms are implemented.

The latest Newspoll suggests it is all taking its toll on the prime minister and his government. For the first time since the election, the Coalition’s primary vote actually topped Labor’s (37-35), although the two-party preferred survey still has the opposition lagging by a hefty six points. Albanese’s own approval rating saw a 12-point turnaround, landing him at minus one. This is his first taste of negative territory.

Earlier on Tuesday the prime minister tried to assure his caucus that from time to time “we will do things where there is pushback”. He said: “We are in government to make a difference, not to take up space.” Albanese was specifically referring to the doomsaying coming from business groups and the Coalition over Tony Burke’s Closing Loopholes bill workplace changes. He said the reforms “will make a difference”.

There was a similar resoluteness about the government’s commitment to see through the referendum, enshrining constitutional recognition via a Voice to Parliament. Albanese said “changing the Constitution is hard but it can be done”. He drew a parallel with Labor’s Mary Doyle, who defied historical precedent by winning the Aston byelection for a government from an opposition.

If successful, he said, the referendum will make a difference because listening to First Peoples “will give us better results”. Besides, the prime minister said, “no one loses, there are only winners from this referendum”.

Curiously, according to the official briefing, there was no mention of the Qantas imbroglio at the meeting. The prime minister ignored it and no one raised it with him. It’s a fair indication Albanese’s colleagues reject the Coalition’s attempts to paint him as guilty of consorting with the airline’s now departed chief executive, Alan Joyce. The shadow transport minister, Bridget McKenzie, says the prime minister is running “a protection racket for the most complained about company in Australia”. She conveniently ignores the $2.7 billion the Morrison government forked out to the company in the depths of the pandemic, with no requirements to pay back any of the $900 million in JobKeeper payments when the Covid-19 situation dramatically improved.

Somehow Albanese is being blamed for the catastrophic failure of governance by the Qantas board and its long-time chief executive. The behaviour of Qantas since Joyce became boss almost 15 years ago is marked by arrogance and anti-competitive bullying.

Seared into the memory of the unions and senior ministers in the Gillard Labor government was Joyce’s 2011 grounding of Qantas and the worldwide lockout of its workers, who were engaged in bargaining on a new enterprise agreement. The tactic stranded thousands of passengers and millions of dollars’ worth of cargo.

Then treasurer Wayne Swan first heard about it on the radio, the morning it happened. Only the rare and urgent intervention by the federal leadership and three state governments had the lockout terminated.

Theoretically a privatised company would always have an eye on its customers first, because without them there is no business. Joyce, with the connivance of the board, leveraged the company’s near-monopoly status to treat customers and governments with disdain.

The problem for the Albanese government is the shocking extent of this behaviour, which emerged again when the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission launched legal action against Qantas last week. The watchdog alleges the airline advertised and sold tickets for more than 8000 flights it had already cancelled but not removed from sale.

In July, when Transport Minister Catherine King decided to reject Qatar Airways’ application for more flights into Australian airports, the ACCC’s allegations of false, misleading or deceptive conduct against Qantas had not been made.

But five Australian women in June, reacting to reports Qatar wanted more flights into Australia’s major airports, wrote to King asking her to block the request. They had been unsuccessfully seeking redress for an incident at Hamad International Airport in Doha in 2020 when they were removed at gunpoint from a Qatar Airways flight and strip-searched. They implored the minister to block the application and instead “consider an airline that will uphold human rights”.

On July 10, the same day King made the decision to reject Qatar Airways’ request, she wrote to the women telling them of it. King now says it was a factor in her rejection, but her office says the correspondence between the minister and the women was released to the media by their lawyers not the government.

In parliament King explained her decision as being “in the national interest”, citing the example of her Coalition predecessor, Michael McCormack, who similarly blocked a Qatar application. She agreed with his reasoning that “we can’t have” Qatar, a heavily subsidised, government-owned airline, “unfairly competing with majority-owned Australian companies”.

At the very least this defence suggests the minister has missed the moment. The Australian company has now been accused by the government’s consumer regulator of egregiously deceiving its customers to fatten its bottom line. The public’s rage, which has been building against Qantas for years, will not be assuaged by equivalence arguments.

Labor’s national president Wayne Swan – whom Joyce treated with contempt when he was treasurer – was more on the ball when he told Channel 9 he thought the Qatar decision could be reviewed. Albanese is so far unpersuaded and believes Australians’ anger at Qantas is best resolved by the company itself. Joyce’s sudden resignation is a start. The board and its chairman surely must follow.

Bridget McKenzie had a victory in the Senate when the entire cross bench supported her motion to set up an inquiry into “Commonwealth bilateral air service agreements”. McKenzie says Australians are “rightly concerned about transparency”.

They certainly are, with the National Anti-Corruption Commission receiving 800 referrals on various matters in its first nine weeks. A substantial number of them have already made it to the second stage, where the criteria of naming the person and the alleged corruption is met. One of Albanese’s key advisers says the NACC alone establishes the government’s reputation for accountability.

A conspiracy theory doing the rounds in the opposition and among some of its media supporters is that the Qatar decision was a favour for Joyce in gratitude for the airline publicly supporting the “Yes” case in the referendum. Dutton told his party room “there’s more than meets the eye on this decision” and “the cosy relationship between Qantas and the prime minister needs to be unpacked”.

Dutton’s decision to champion the “No” case and throw whatever comes to hand at “Yes” appears to be paying dividends. “No” leads “Yes” 53-38 in Newspoll. Dutton himself, however, is still deeply unpopular and a long way from putting the Coalition in an election-winning position. The average lead for Labor in the four published opinion polls is still more than enough for it to improve its numbers in parliament.

There is a debate over whether the Coalition’s improved results are due to the Voice or to cost-of-living pressures. The reversal of support for the referendum in the 35-49 age group suggests this demographic – hardest hit by rising prices and interest rates – is in a negative frame of mind. RedBridge Group pollster Kos Samaras alluded to this a few months back.

On Tuesday, the Reserve Bank kept interest rates at 4.1 per cent. Although outgoing governor Philip Lowe warned another rise may be needed, the slowing economy in the June quarter National Accounts could more likely mean a cut may be required.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers noted inflation was falling but how far and how quickly is the issue. It is probably not fast enough to alter the mood of younger families struggling to pay their bills, juggling work–life demands and trying to find the extra $1000 a month by which average mortgages have gone up.

In the face of this, the Yes23 campaign is doubling-down. It has thousands more volunteers than the marriage equality campaign was able to muster. In the weeks left it will be relying more on prominent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander figures to prosecute the case. Professor Marcia Langton’s National Press Club speech on Wednesday was part of this strategy.

There is an awareness in the campaign and in the government that Anthony Albanese has a dilemma. The more he campaigns on it, the more many voters will say he’s not focusing on the economic impacts being felt by individuals and households.

Albanese told caucus that in the weeks ahead he will be doing much more than the referendum. He dismissed Dutton’s promise to hold a second “Voiceless” referendum if this one fails. The jury is still out on whether the pledge was more than a thought bubble. Albanese said, “The opposition wants to vote ‘No’ in this referendum. They would probably go on and vote ‘No’ to their own as well.”

Certainly, the Liberals’ record gives credence to this barb. Dutton says recognition has been party policy since 2007, when John Howard was prime minister. Yet despite promises and three terms in government, they did not deliver on it. What we have is a cynical ploy. There is more credibility in claims this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give First Peoples the recognition and respect in the Constitution that all sides claim to agree on.

Maybe Dutton has done Albanese and the “Yes” campaign a favour by threatening another referendum if this one fails. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 9, 2023 as "The f  lailing kangaroo".

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