Paul Bongiorno
Albanese needs to find his mojo

Who would have thought that, as we near the end of 2023 and approach what could well be an election year, the Albanese government would be no longer dominant?

The “unelectable” Peter Dutton, according to the only measures we have, is lineball with Anthony Albanese – in personal unpopularity or disapproval – and the Coalition is definitely in the frame, polling 50-50 with the government or just a point or two behind.

It’s true, as has been noted with each report of the trending slide for the prime minister and his government, that polls are not predictive of the next election result. But the Liberals are very happy with the position in which they find themselves and it is hard to argue against the proposition that Albanese ends the year in something of a predicament.

For that, the prime minister shares a lot of the blame. Labor’s carefully built-up political capital evaporated with the miscalculation of the Voice referendum and a failure to respond nimbly to the reality that without the support of the Nationals and Liberals it would be nigh impossible to gain the overwhelming national consensus needed to get a majority of “Yes” votes in a majority of the states.

This flat-footedness was capitalised on by a ruthlessly efficient Dutton, with the support of a devastatingly effective “No” campaign. A post-mortem following the vote showed key groups on the “Yes” side were shocked by the slickness of the Advance machine, the right’s answer to GetUp!

Albanese’s determination to crash through or crash became more foolhardy the longer the campaign went on. There were options such as a pivot to postponing the referendum and legislating a Voice to Parliament. The numbers were there in the House of Representatives and Senate for that and, according to research by the Australian National University, even now a significant majority of Australians support the idea.

Albanese put his full weight behind the referendum, but his laudable conviction needed to be matched by better campaigning. He wasn’t helped much by his minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, but the buck stops with him. According to the latest Morgan trust and distrust survey, the Nationals’ Jacinta Nampijinpa Price is second only to Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong for the politician with the highest net trust score. There was simply no prominent Indigenous Australian to match the carefully prepared and crafted Price. Burney, like her prime minister, lacked the cut-through and dexterity to match Price and Dutton’s spoiling tactics.

Apart from the damage done to reconciliation in this nation, the exercise sapped Albanese of the authority needed to confront the near intractable cost-of-living crisis, caused by mainly internationally induced inflation. The ongoing impact on energy prices thanks to conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, and the overhang of supply-chain disruption due to the Covid-19 pandemic, are challenges demanding wise and brave leadership. We aren’t getting it from an opportunistic Dutton, whose main offerings are glib populist criticisms. We may still get it from Albanese, backed as he is by a largely capable cabinet and ministry, but we are yet to see that.

In the Morgan poll, Treasurer Jim Chalmers comes in as the third most-trusted politician. Yet he, like Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil in the immediate aftermath of the High Court’s decision on indefinite immigration detention, needs the prime minister to step up and show he is leading the nation.

Would it have been so hard for Albanese to have called a news conference on the day of the High Court decision and announce, for example, an urgent meeting of the national cabinet and police ministers?

This is a question being posed quietly but seriously by worried caucus members. Instead, the political initiative was taken by Dutton, who was allowed to confect a disproportionate security crisis.

The Reserve Bank’s war on inflation, with 13 interest rate hikes since May 2022, has taken a toll of the government’s credibility, aided in no small way by a relentlessly negative framing in the Murdoch media conglomerate, which on all the evidence supplies the Coalition with its best lines. This is not to say millions of Australians aren’t hurting – they are, which gives force to claims from the shadow treasurer, Angus Taylor, that the government is showing no urgency in delivering relief.

Like the commentators on Sky News after dark, the Coalition ignores the constraints of government. It isn’t required to accept basic economics and has the luxury of calling for more relief while demanding more restraint, without being held much to account by large sections of the media.

So how have we got to this and how is Albanese going to respond? After all, power is his to lose. The fact is, a government that cannot sell its policy agenda will be incapable of delivering it for very long. There are big lessons from this year that, unless learnt, bode very poorly for the survival of the government. Albanese and his closest confidants know it.

The prime minister’s end-of-year social media message ditched any idea of small targets and hastening slowly – a real break from the strategy that landed him in the Lodge. “[W]e’ve got a big agenda for 2024,” Albanese said. “Delivering more cost of living relief, continuing to strengthen Medicare…” He nominated more housing and making more things “here in Australia” as priorities.

The list of achievements in the prime minister’s earnest spiel hardly matched other slick offerings on TikTok, but Albanese’s no-frills, knockabout style, delivered from behind his desk, is authentically him. So on Monday, when he marked his return to work after a week off in Western Australia, he was flummoxed by a question put to him by Sabra Lane on the ABC’s AM program about whether he would use the summer break to find his “mojo”.

The journalist’s question has some currency in the Canberra press gallery, but there is a strong argument the prime minister has never claimed to have that magic “mojo” quality anyway.

Albanese was not swept to power like Bob Hawke in 1983, who was at the time Australia’s most recognised and popular public figure. No, Albanese won as a small target with the huge advantage of not being Scott Morrison. His election campaign was so ordinary Labor actually consolidated its position when Albanese was sidelined with Covid-19 and his colleagues stepped up.

The mojo Lane was after is a perception built on an extraordinarily successful first period as the new government. It spilled over into this year but began spiralling downwards with the defeat of the Voice referendum.

Until then, the opinion polls had the prime minister’s approvals soaring into the stratosphere and his government built levels of support that even outstripped Hawke’s. Australians certainly appreciated that they now had a government that was stable, competent and doing things, in contrast to the do-nothing circus Morrison’s had become.

Three times Lane came in search of lost mojo and three times the prime minister ducked. Instead, he emphasised his government’s policy agenda, with the promise to “continue to examine ways of taking the pressure off Australians whilst not also adding to inflation”. He complained that while his opponents “opposed our measures to provide support on cost of living, they haven’t come up with a single proposal”.

That argument will have much more salience in an election campaign, when voters have to choose between Albanese and Dutton, but even on this the polls are flashing amber for the prime minister this week.

Doing its bit for its preferred candidate, The Australian ran a headline on Tuesday saying Newspoll found Dutton was the first opposition leader since Tony Abbott to have a higher rating than a prime minister on decisive and strong leadership. Albanese out-rated his opponent on vision for Australia, caring, being in touch and trustworthiness.

The Morgan poll, on the other hand, found the opposition leader was the most distrusted politician in the country. That’s some consolation for Albanese, although for the first time in this survey he recorded a net distrust score of minus three compared with Dutton’s minus 14.

History tells us governments lose elections rather than oppositions winning them. Albanese has the next 12 months to arrest the slide. How he and his treasurer respond to the worst cost-of-living surge in decades will be critical. Respected economics writer Ross Gittins says those hurting the most are on very modest salaries of about $45,000.

Gittins suggests cheering up these many voters by rejigging the coming stage three tax cuts so that “the lion’s share of the $25 billion they’ll cost the budget” goes not to those who have had the least trouble coping but to those suffering the most.

A largely hostile media and an unscrupulous opposition leader have more than likely convinced Albanese he would need more mojo than he has ever claimed to possess to risk crashing through or crashing on that one.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "In search of lost mojo".

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