Albanese’s China dream and poll reality
Between a landmark foreign policy reset in China and the political calamity of the 13th interest rate rise in 18 months and 12th during its reign, the Albanese government straddled heaven and hell this week.
On the eve of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s flight to Shanghai, a heavenly tone was set at the state funeral of former Whitlam government minister and Labor leader Bill Hayden in Ipswich, Queensland.
Albanese took the sacrament with observant Catholics at the funeral, after the homily by Father Stephen Bliss declared Hayden a shoo-in for heaven, given the more than 11 million Australians with Medicare cards in their wallets and purses today.
It is a point Sister Angela Mary Doyle made earlier in the mass, noting even Hayden’s lifetime of atheism before a late conversion couldn’t keep him out.
Hayden initiated Medicare’s original incarnation, then called Medibank, in the face of vicious opposition. The Fraser government largely dismantled it in 1981, and the Hawke government resurrected it in 1984 as Medicare. Such are the hellish tribulations Labor reforms must endure to survive.
Soon after Albanese was in China, strolling The Bund in Shanghai in a Matildas jersey at the beginning of a trip that for him was a kind of political heaven on earth.
Chinese Premier Li Qiang quipped that he was tagged “handsome boy” on social media – a playful line characterised as flattery by some of the travelling media, who missed the patronising undertone in a polity where men, not boys, rule.
Not that Albanese would have noticed or cared. He secured his place in Australian history with the successful China reset after years of embarrassingly cack-handed, crisis-riddled foreign policy mismanagement under successive Coalition governments, and he got the picture to prove it. Fifty years after Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam was photographed leaning, eyes closed, against the curved wall of Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, Albanese was photographed in the same spot this week.
Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong got the fruits for Australia from 18 months of serious, grown-up diplomatic work together on the critically important Australia–China relationship. This is a credit to Albanese and Wong personally and a reassuring reflection on the capabilities of DFAT.
Whitlam probably gave himself over to an ecstatic daydream about the life and times of the Ming Dynasty Yongle Emperor, who built the temple complex in the 15th century. Albo was more likely thinking, “I’ve been underestimated all my life but here I am, standing where Gough stood in 1973. Cop that!”
Albanese is pretty much unperturbable. His confidence is a political asset born of getting life’s big prize ahead of so many that he knows consider themselves more worthy.
Whatever happens, Albanese knows he is a winner. He made it all the way to The Lodge – and this week as far as China’s Great Hall of the People, where Chinese President Xi Jinping and “handsome boy” did good diplomatic business together.
Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong got the fruits for Australia from 18 months of serious, grown-up diplomatic work together on the critically important Australia–China relationship.
This stabilisation – through diligent, strategically minded diplomacy – saw goodwill gestures such as the release of Australian journalist Cheng Lei from prison ahead of the visit. It also saw material gains, with trade sanctions following the breakdown of the relationship under the Morrison government largely lifted.
This is a credit to Albanese and Wong personally and a reassuring reflection on the capabilities of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade after liberation from its Morrison government-appointed secretary, Kathryn Campbell, of robodebt infamy.
Albanese beamed delightedly from one end of his Middle Kingdom trip to the other this week, then flew on to the Pacific Islands Forum in Cook Islands, untroubled by adverse developments at home.
Those developments included the 13th interest rate hike since early May 2022, Albanese’s Newspoll disapproval rating exceeding Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s for the first time, and widening concerns about Labor’s prospects for anything better than minority government at the next election.
Those operating on the commonplace assumption that Dutton is unelectable were shaken by the latest Newspoll leadership polling, published on Monday.
Albanese’s commanding lead has vanished. Of those surveyed, 52 per cent were dissatisfied with his performance. This was more than the 50 per cent dissatisfied with Dutton’s.
Significantly more people disapprove of Albanese’s performance than approve: his net approval rating (minus 10) is only marginally better than the widely dismissed Dutton’s (minus 13).
In short, Australians see Albanese and Dutton as pretty much on a par now. Shocking but true, according to Newspoll at least.
Interestingly, and in contrast, the Newspoll party vote has held up for Labor. The government retains a 52-48 per cent lead over the opposition after the notional distribution of preferences.
In Jim Chalmers the Albanese government has had a Hayden-standard treasurer from the outset.
Economic policy is credible and well executed, within the orthodox bounds in place for the past 40 years. Those bounds were laid down in the early years of the Hawke government by then treasurer Paul Keating, influenced by the Hayden approach.
A student of Keating’s rhetoric, Chalmers has a comparable talent for explaining difficult economic concepts to voters – a good thing, especially in times of economic turmoil.
The history lesson Keating meted out at Hayden’s funeral, highlighting his own oft-repeated “good policy is good politics” lesson, had mourners in rapt attention. He pointed out that in the 34 years leading up to the Hawke government’s election in 1983, federal Labor was in office for just three years.
The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was the bogeyman that set up the Whitlam government’s economic problems and brevity in office. The Reserve Bank of Australia, responding to international and domestic factors, is the bogeyman setting up those of the Albanese government.
As the prime minister jetted to the Pacific Islands Forum, Chalmers led the government’s response to the dreaded news on Tuesday that new RBA governor Michele Bullock and her board had raised the cash rate by another 0.25 percentage points.
This equates to an extra $1562 a month on a $600,000 mortgage since rates began rising 18 months ago. That’s a lot of money.
Chalmers projected a united front between the government and the RBA on the ABC’s 7.30 the night of the announcement, while underlining that the rate hike was the RBA’s call, not his.
“[T]hey did that independently, but recognising that the bank and the government have the same objective to get on top of inflation, we’ve just got different jobs to do,” the treasurer said.
“I’m prepared to explain my part of it and they will explain their part of it.”
In the modest dwellings of Bill Hayden’s Ipswich, and indeed Chalmers’ own hard-scrabble home of Logan City in Brisbane, voters tend not to carefully apportion blame when they’re hurting.
The rage can be as indiscriminate as the pain inflicted by the RBA through tight monetary policy. It can lead even good governments to fall.
The Albanese government’s foreign policy success this week, so refreshing after nine years of national embarrassment under the Coalition, from former prime minister Tony Abbott’s “Canadia” to the Morrison government’s self-interested China sabre-rattling, makes the nascent risk it could prematurely lose office too poignant.
“Anyone involved in politics – you better bring your A-team to the next federal election because no one will be winning seats because their opponents are useless,” RedBridge Group’s Kos Samaras warned in a tweet on the day of the latest rate rise.
More than a million Australian households are already suffering mortgage stress, Samaras calculates. Their residents will be looking for someone to punish at the next election.
The divergence between federal Labor’s 52-48 advantage over the Coalition in Newspoll and Albanese’s and Dutton’s now virtually neck-and-neck net approval rating suggests that person might be Albanese.
RedBridge’s own polling shows only 38 per cent of voters feel the government “is focused on the right priorities”. On the other hand, only 30 per cent of voters feel “Dutton is ready for government”.
Like Morrison at the 2019 election, however, Dutton knows every election is there for the winning.
Should the Albanese government fall at the next election, the prime minister will still have his Temple of Heaven snaps and foreign policy legacy. The rest of us will have been returned to a place well short of heaven, a place of mortgage-stressed Australians’ own choosing.
Paul Bongiorno is on leave.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2023 as "Handsome boy is as handsome boy does".
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