Paul Bongiorno
Albanese takes front foot on Israel–Hamas war

For a prime minister on leave, Anthony Albanese had a busy week. It’s a sure sign of knowing you can take nothing for granted in politics, especially when everyone keeps telling you to lift your game. Oh, and of the fact that, with our short federal parliamentary terms, we are getting uncomfortably close to the next election.

While everyone takes as gospel truth the campaign motto used by former United States president Bill Clinton – “It’s the economy, stupid” – it is wise to remember the lesson learnt by his wife, Hillary Clinton, after her loss to Donald Trump in 2016. The Democrat candidate took for granted the so-called blue states, in part because of their industrialised workforces and history of voting one way. Feeling ignored, they changed the habit of a lifetime.

The economy got more than a decent run while the prime minister was out of sight, but a Monday opinion piece made sure Australians were reminded Albanese leads a government already “delivering for families and nation”. This boast was aided by a last-minute parliamentary coup pulled off by the minister for employment and workplace relations, Tony Burke, who got Senate support to criminalise wage theft and close loopholes allowing employers not to give the same pay for the same work.

“Getting wages moving and boosting job security have been key priorities of our government through 2023,” Albanese wrote.

While it’s true there has been evidence of wage growth in the past six months, it hasn’t been enough to help workers feel confident they can pay their bills. According to a senior cabinet minister, until that happens many voters will continue to feel the government isn’t doing enough for them.

Noting his success on hospital funding, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and national guns register at the meeting of state and territory leaders, Albanese produced what sounds like his next political slogan: “Working together, working for Australia.” There are resonances of his hero Bob Hawke, but no one in government believes slogans or vision statements are the key to continuing electoral success. Delivery is – and only if people give the government due credit.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers, who released the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook this week, went a long way towards making the case for that credit.

The numbers he released showed wages growth had increased to its fastest annual real rate for 14 years. In what would be music not only to Albanese’s ears but to hard-pressed workers, Chalmers said “annual real wage growth is expected to return in early 2024”.

Chalmers, in what is seen by economists as a bit of political posturing, did not forecast a second budget surplus for the current financial year. Instead, he put forward a minuscule deficit of $1.1 billion, which in an almost trillion-dollar budget is as good as balanced.

Independent economist Chris Richardson believes high commodity prices and boosted revenue from higher company profits and more people in work paying taxes will see a second surplus in a row.

Richardson says it hasn’t got much to do with the government, more the luck of the draw, but Chalmers could have chosen to do what his predecessors did for years and spend more rather than put it to the bottom line to pay down the massive debt and constrain the $20 billion annual interest rate bill, which accounts for more than the spending on health.

Not to be missed was Monday’s release of the new migration strategy. Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil wasted no time in sheeting home the blame for “Australia’s broken migration system” to her favourite target, Peter Dutton, who was also one of her predecessors in the portfolio.

Any headline foreshadowing a halving of the annual immigration intake has to be seen as insurance against a looming battle over “Big Australia” and charges Labor was allowing migrants to take jobs and push up the cost of housing.

Dutton was quick out of the blocks on that. He claimed the plan would not, in fact, cut numbers, but at the same time he also complained the government was making it harder for more “tradies” to migrate here to fill urgent vacancies.

Another significant moment came for Albanese midweek, when he put distance between Australia and its main ally, the US, over calls for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.

Australia was among 153 countries in the United Nations General Assembly, including Japan, France, India, Canada and New Zealand, expressing grave concern over the “catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip”. The US joined nine other nations voting against the motion, while 23, including the United Kingdom, abstained.

The US vote comes despite President Joe Biden warning Israel was losing international support and would be increasingly isolated the longer the bombardment of Gaza continued. The development on Wednesday suggests the pressure is as much on Washington as it is on the Israelis.

Ahead of the UN vote Albanese joined the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, and New Zealand’s Christopher Luxon in releasing a joint statement whose first paragraph made no distinction about the victims of the conflict. The prime ministers said they “mourn every Israeli and Palestinian innocent life … and express our condolences to all families and communities affected by the violence”.

The second paragraph “unequivocally” condemned Hamas’s terror attacks on October 7 and called for “the immediate and unconditional release of all remaining hostages”.

The next paragraph recognised Israel’s right to exist and the right to defend itself but said “international humanitarian law” must be respected.

The three prime ministers said they were alarmed “at the diminishing safe space for civilians in Gaza”. “The price of defeating Hamas cannot be the continuous suffering of all Palestinian civilians,” they said.

Australia’s changed position was signalled by Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong in the Senate late last week. She cited the US secretary of defence, Lloyd Austin, who cautioned Israel that “if you drive the civilian population into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat”.

Wong’s concerns were picked up by her colleague, Minister for Industry and Science Ed Husic. Husic, the first Muslim cabinet minister, holds the Western Sydney seat of Chifley with a 13 per cent margin. Like other Labor MPs, he is being inundated by constituents complaining the government is ignoring their pain over the treatment of family and friends in Gaza.

Husic told ABC Radio that Israel’s military action was “disproportionate” and children “are not Hamas” and should not bear the brunt of the war.

It’s easy to see the government’s policy shift in terms of Albanese learning from Hillary Clinton and not wanting to ignore safe seats – in this case the significant number of voters of Middle Eastern heritage in a swath of Labor seats in south-western Sydney and parts of Melbourne.

Labor does not diminish the trauma of Israeli families, while expressing alarm at the growing death toll among the Palestinians – more than 18,000, of whom an estimated 70 per cent are women and children.

By contrast, the shadow foreign affairs minister, Simon Birmingham, was inexplicably blithe in his dismissal of Albanese, Trudeau and Luxon’s scrupulously crafted humanitarian pleas. Birmingham, who is currently with a joint parliamentary group visiting Israel and the West Bank, said “in some ways” the prime ministers were trying “to be all things to all people”.

Dutton went further, accusing Husic of “flying off again … with comments that are offensive to the Jewish community here in Australia”. The Liberal leader rarely if ever mentions the Palestinian victims of the war.

Labor is convinced Dutton’s reason for this is his targeting of the Melbourne seats of Macnamara and Higgins and the Sydney seat of Wentworth, which all have significant Jewish populations. There is also a view that his rhetoric is intended to appeal to latent Islamophobia.

RedBridge Group political consultant Kos Samaras says his research suggests the Gaza war is not factoring into people’s voting intentions. Many, particularly in outer metropolitan seats, see the Middle East conflict as not being their concern. Samaras says this is not to imply these voters aren’t appalled by the war as they see it in the media – just that it doesn’t touch their daily lives.

The pollster says there is also research suggesting Australians have a deep-seated prejudice fed by fears of Islamist terrorist attacks around the world and in this country.

The conflict has also seen an exponential rise in anti-Semitism in this country – all the more reason to be grateful for the measured and strong leadership shown by Albanese, Trudeau and Luxon in their statement.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 16, 2023 as "The wages of spin".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription