Comment

Nick Dyrenfurth
The Albanese doctrine

The labour movement has a long, sometimes proud, history of anti-intellectualism. In 1983, when Bob Hawke proposed the slogan “Reconciliation, Recovery, Reconstruction”, he was met with a blunt assessment from Neville Wran, then the Labor premier of New South Wales. “If the greedy bastards wanted spiritualism, they’d join the fucking Hare Krishna,” Wran told the then opposition leader. “Give ’em a tax cut!”

Eighteen months into the Albanese government’s first term, however, it is worth asking what sort of government this is and what ideas animate it. Gough Whitlam shifted his party’s traditional labourism towards a more universalist social democracy, while Hawke pivoted back, emphasising market forces and fiscal rectitude. Kevin Rudd’s era was defined by his Keynesian response to the global financial crisis, while Julia Gillard is perhaps best and most unfairly known for her “we are us” Laborist mantra. Anthony Albanese is harder to pin down.

In late 1980s Australia, party members and intellectuals passionately debated whether Hawke–Keating Labor had “betrayed” or “modernised” party tradition in its embrace of free-market ideology. Today’s absence of such deliberations is striking.

Political scientist Paul Strangio speaks for many when he says Labor made an “impressive, mature transition to government” and enjoyed a “better beginning than either the Hawke or Howard governments”. Albanese, who regards Hawke as the “gold standard”, has exuded a “flinty pragmatism” and “chairman of the board” approach to leadership. Yet Strangio, like others, struggles to identify an “overarching narrative”.

Labor activist and businessman Sam Almaliki detects a curate’s egg quality to the government: “Competent and considered, it has exercised fiscal discipline and restored Australia’s place as a middle power by rebooting our engagement with allies and partners in the Asia Pacific. It has brought civility to public discourse. Nonetheless, there are enormous economic challenges. The government needs to address these or otherwise face electoral problems.”

Osmond Chiu, a well-regarded Labor Left thinker, stresses the “context of the broader post-GFC climate”. Globally, centre-left governments recognise the need to intervene in markets, and discernible threads can be seen across climate and housing policy, tackling inequality and boosting workers’ bargaining power and attentiveness to the care economy. Former Gillard speechwriter Michael Cooney echoes these sentiments: the prime minister and his genuinely “cabinet government” have articulated a clear, unifying vision of “making the place fairer, more productive”. Notable is the pursuance of “institutional reform” aimed at locking in long-term cultural change. The Reserve Bank, Productivity Commission, Fair Work Australia, Administrative Appeals Tribunal and diplomatic service have all seen significant changes. There have also been micro-reforms that have clearly made a material difference to people’s lives – higher childcare rebates and cheaper prescription medicines for starters. It is difficult, however, to assess the scale or pace of Albanese’s macro ambitions. The executive director of the think tank Per Capita, Emma Dawson, nominates Labor’s rethinking of full employment, but is this enough?

In the eyes of historian Frank Bongiorno, Labor is offering a “solid, incrementally reformist government” with an “emphasis on order and of not being ideological”. If one is “looking for boldness in the manner of Hawke and Whitlam, it is not going to happen”. Bongiorno says the “charismatic, visionary leadership” template is “obsolete”. Rather, as Chiu expresses it, Albanese presents as a “centre-left John Howard”. Bongiorno finds echoes of Whitlam’s flurry of committees and inquiries following the policy indolence of the Abbott–Turnbull–Morrison years. Treasurer Jim Chalmers is a name mentioned in dispatches as someone keen on greater reforms, along with Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke, Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil and Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles. Yet, as Kos Samaras, former Victorian Labor Party assistant secretary and director of RedBridge Group, warns: “Policy fruit won’t be ripe enough to be picked for years.”

On one hand, the absence of a clear agenda reflects the government’s thin mandate, low primary vote and small majority at the 2022 election. It also reflects the intellectual habits of the prime minister himself. Albanese has never been prone to theory or regarded as particularly bookish, which isn’t to say he is not clever or canny. His dogged, prosaic government perhaps reflects the desire of Australians to draw a line under a long era of hyper-partisan Canberra conflict. Cooney argues Labor has never had a more “ideologically coherent and unified view” of “what it is”, which explains any lack of theoretical precision. In any case, the idea of a narrator-in-chief is misplaced, reflecting a United States-style impulse to see the leader as “some kind of Philip Roth”.

In this, Albanese arguably reflects the trajectory of the post-1996, post-Keating party. A guiding philosophy of social democratic labourist empiricism has given way to a catch-all postmodern progressivism. It’s an ideological fashion better suited to campaigning than governing. Have the chickens of Labor’s 2022 small-target strategy come home to roost? More critical voices sense a government at risk of wasting a golden opportunity to achieve big reform. A former senior strategist says Labor is “held back from addressing the questions of the moment by the shackles of the past”.

Tellingly, not a single person interviewed for this piece could identify a campaign narrative, let alone suite of policies, that Labor would take to the next election. The horror of Bill Shorten’s election loss in 2019 still shapes the party’s thinking on emission reductions, negative gearing reforms, capital gains tax and other revenue-raising prescriptions. Equally, Labor remains chastened by the fallout of Gillard’s promise that there would be no carbon tax under a government she led. It hesitates to burn political capital by taking on big economic reforms early in its incumbency – against the alleged private instincts of Chalmers.

Global events such as the war in Ukraine have restrained the government’s ambitions, but such forces affect every administration. There are growing concerns that, as polls tighten, the Albanese government is treading the path of the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd governments. There is fear of the narrative of drift and disorder that followed the collapse of the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009.

However, unlike the deposed Rudd, Albanese is a creature of the Labor Party, cognisant of its internal quirks and tribalism. In this he is closer to a Hawke or John Curtin. Still, it is hard to escape the impression that the defeat of the Voice referendum means something in the absence of a grand vision. According to Strangio, it “sucked oxygen” from the government and left Albanese at an “inflection point”. The Voice will mostly be forgotten by the next election, but is the campaigning modus operandi a harbinger of things to come?

In winning office, Albanese replicated the successful template of state Labor governments coming to power this past decade, presenting as a “plausible alternative” to unpopular conservative opponents who had failed in basic service delivery. In doing so, however, he recognised that the ability of Labor governments to enact sweeping reform is greatly diminished. Changes to the nation’s political economy and the ways in which we are governed – the neoliberalisation of almost the entire economy and dominance of market signals in sectors such as housing, welfare and childcare – means no government sees this as their policy domain. Without it, though, what is left?

The factional realignment and ideological convergence in the Labor Party is another factor defining Albanese in office. Holding a majority at national conference and de facto control of the party’s national executive, the Left faction finds itself in unfamiliar territory. The prime minister was not just a loosely allied Left member but a serious factional player in New South Wales Labor. The first serious Left faction prime minister – Julia Gillard was left-wing neither in her ideology nor factional backing – cuts against the grain of the grouping’s historical role as the party’s oppositional tendency and moral conscience. Shorn of its dissenting bloc, there was little debate at the party’s recent national conference. Once upon a time, Albanese would have led the charge against AUKUS. It is instructive to compare the Hawke government and its fierce contest over uranium mining. In 1984, cabinet minister Stewart West “half-resigned” over the issue. Tellingly, the union movement has few quibbles with the government. How long will forces on the left accept long-cherished party control without profound reform?

Others place the Left’s muted dissent amid broader internal trends. “The party has become intolerant of criticism – most conspicuously the Voice’s prosecution,” Samaras says. “People are attacked and written off as disloyal.” Few are encouraged to challenge prevailing “orthodoxy”. Strikingly, one of the few caucus members who could robustly criticise Qantas at the peak of its public opprobrium this year – and refuse a membership of the Chairman’s Lounge – was NSW Labor Right senator Tony Sheldon. A senior Labor staffer is scathing of this, taking aim at the growth of “unprincipled careerists in caucus”.

In the absence of neat Left–Right factional divergence, a frequent refrain is that “intergenerational tensions” might be the most intriguing arena of ideological and policy conflict. A generation of younger MPs across factions are hungry for transformative reform. Bongiorno and others sense divisions “might sharpen”. One observer predicted we would see generational tensions like those that shadowed both Hawke and Keating and Howard and Peter Costello.

Strangio suggests the government is “going to rely heavily on Chalmers … as they pivot to campaigning on the economy”. The treasurer faces the challenge of the Commonwealth’s revenue problem and the limits of a New Labour/Hawke–Keating low-tax social democracy. There is also the fact the government came to power just as the economy began to slow and cost-of-living pressures rose, possibly cruelling whatever reform agenda it might have had. As Osmond Chiu notes, Labor governments succeed where the centre-right is divided. Rolling back stage three tax cuts would be a “unifying” issue for Peter Dutton, big business, and right-wing ideologues.

Will this government be rewarded with a second term or will it be the first oncer since Labor’s Jim Scullin in 1931? Cooney issues a blunt judgement: “People who bet against Albo generally lose.” The recent defeat of the New Zealand Labour government is a warning against complacency. The prospect of minority government is a very likely outcome. Kos Samaras is sanguine, however: “Enough voters will give them a leave pass as it’s their first term, but Labor will come under pressure from the Greens and Fowler-type independents. Seats will be lost.”

The last word goes to Almaliki, a former refugee from Western Sydney, arguably representative of Labor’s aspirational suburban, working-class base and its desire for change: “A moral obligation rests with the Albanese Labor government to drive an economic reform agenda. Courage and conviction are in order. We can’t afford more of the same.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 25, 2023 as "The Albanese doctrine".

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