Chris Wallace
As his voter appeal slides, Albanese must share spotlight with Chalmers

First the fireworks, then the floods, fires and fights. It’s been business as increasingly usual in new year 2024.

Swaths of Victoria and Queensland were under water and the national “My FireWatch” map freckled with hotspots as 2023 was declared the hottest year yet by the Copernicus Climate Change Service this week.

Oblivious, 100,000 petrolheads arrived in Canberra for the Summernats streetcar festival, to play in the national capital while the politicians are away.

Fisticuffs broke out when ACT Policing moved to contain what acting inspector Mark Richardson described as the festival’s “moron tourism” element.

“I don’t know what goes through their mind, but they just haven’t evolved very far, these people involved in these organised burnout events,” Richardson said. “They were all over Canberra, and we’re literally just going around playing Whac-A-Mole.”

Summernats patrons vote. It’s a salutary annual reminder that mullet-coiffed, flannie-wearing revheads still exist and will donut and fishtail their V8s anywhere they damn well like, including in the pristine home of national politics.

The Albanese government has to keep enough of them in tow to ensure they don’t do burnouts on the government through the ballot box at the next election. The same applies to the ACT’s Barr Labor government, which faces an election in October, just a week before Queensland’s new Miles Labor government goes to the polls.

Shortly afterwards, the United States holds its presidential election, on November 5. The European Parliament election is in early June. The flailing government of British prime minister Rishi Sunak will face the polls whenever he musters the courage to do so, sometime this year.

Ahead of all this is the small but telling Dunkley byelection, brought on by the untimely death late last year of Melbourne Labor MP Peta Murphy. The exact date, likely to be in February or March, will be announced soon. Dunkley is just one seat, but the outcome will set the tone for the 2024 political year.

Retaining it would help Labor soothe a caucus unsettled by cost-of-living complaints among constituents smarting from high interest rates and housing woes. A Liberal win would restore to the Peter Dutton-led opposition the political momentum that built on the defeat of the Voice to Parliament referendum but dissipated over the holidays.

A political reset like the one Labor’s just enjoyed won’t come until next year’s summer break, if at all.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese toured flood-devastated areas in the north and south of the country this past week, reassuring stunned survivors.

Triple M Gold Coast host Peter “Spida” Everitt endorsed Albanese’s common decency for showing up. “And to be here on the Gold Coast today is great,” Everitt said. “You’re not holidaying in Hawaii, which is awesome.” The prime minister easily clears low bars such as that one, set by his predecessor, Scott Morrison, at the beginning of the Black Summer bushfires disaster.

Morrison is now a mere backbencher and, according to an experienced Canberra hand, his “ghost is good for a laugh but no help with the vote”.

Dutton’s net approval rating is negative but now so is Albanese’s. So Labor cannot rely on the prime minister’s voter appeal to win the next election.

The higher bars Albanese has to clear this year involve profound social, economic and security challenges that mounted up unaddressed over the past couple of decades of mostly Coalition government. Some poked rudely into view even as Albanese toured flood-stricken areas.

Increasing desperation over the cost of living will be the story in 2024, and housing security will be at its heart.

PropTrack figures released this month showed rental prices rising 11.5 per cent in Australia over the past 12 months, far outstripping wage growth. The only capital city where rents fell was Canberra, which has laws limiting annual rent increases to a maximum of 1.1 times the annual consumer price index (CPI) gain.

Both renters and home owners with mortgages face a complicated mix of availability and affordability issues driven by inadequate supply, deepening inequality and high interest rates. “There’s no easy solution,” Albanese said in response to the rent-rise figures. “You need to build supply.” This was part of a 207-word answer to a question about the figures, every word of which was worthy and true.

Worthy and true didn’t deliver a win for the Voice to Parliament, though. Labor knows it has to harness its best talent in more proactive ways to make its re-election likely rather than just possible.

Further, the campaign will necessarily be on two fronts: a “red on blue” campaign pitting Labor against the Coalition, and a “red on green” competition between Labor and the Greens.

Labor has to be seen to exceed the Coalition’s traditional perceived advantage on economic management and security policy, while simultaneously meeting the bulk of voters’ expectations on climate policy and also on housing policy – which the Greens spent 2023 making their own.

At an operational level this is going to be hard to pull off without the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) loosening its tight rein on ministers’ media operations. An overwhelming focus on prime ministerial activity works when the leader has tremendous standing, but that’s not where Albanese is any more. He must at some level know this and needs to get his office to switch out of crushing control mode – and soon.

The departure of Albanese’s communications director Liz Fitch last month opens the way for a reset in the PMO’s media relations, including with Canberra press gallery journalists, who get a “played with a dead bat” feeling from the prime minister’s press staff way too often.

In contrast, Morrison’s media operatives were daily, enthusiastic interlocutors with the press gallery – often in the greatest numbers on his worst days. It paid off handsomely for Morrison until his political franchise inexorably expired.

Could Albanese’s tour of inundated Queensland and Victoria be the harbinger of a changed, improved, more inclusive approach? Possibly.

As was the case in the Gold Coast earlier in the week, his press conference in Cairns on Wednesday was with Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Queensland’s Premier Steven Miles. Chalmers spoke appealingly of ensuring “a fair go for farmers and families” when talking about former competition policy and consumer affairs minister Craig Emerson’s appointment to review the Food and Grocery Code of Conduct.

It’s not Albanese’s fault Chalmers was born on the same day 15 years after him – but it’s not Chalmers’ fault either. For Labor to build real political momentum in an incredibly tough year, the prime minister needs to be with his treasurer the way Bob Hawke was with the younger Paul Keating in the 1980s: putting him strongly front and centre for the collective good of the government and its re-election prospects, no matter how privately galling that may be.

Albanese could seize on this week’s Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showing the annual rate of inflation has halved in the past year under Chalmers’ stewardship, for example, to highlight how much better his team is than Dutton’s. It would make Albanese himself look big and reinforce an essential plank in Labor’s re-election strategy: to convince voters it is a better economic manager than the Coalition.

Things are trickier on the defence and security front.

The opposition, including shadow home affairs minister Senator James Paterson, tried to rev up community angst this week over the 149 detainees released after the High Court’s recent NZYQ ruling against indefinite detention for unsuccessful migration applicants. Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil is going to have a hand-to-hand battle over the consequences of that High Court decision for as long as she’s in the portfolio.

The government has not yet done the obvious and reverted the failed, unmanageable Department of Home Affairs arrangement to the previously highly workable Department of Immigration structure, in the process sending ASIO back to the Attorney-General’s Department, where it belongs. The government’s defence and security cred remains vulnerable to the current flawed structure for as long as it continues. A government with a view to re-election would deal with this proactively rather than wait for further problems to arise.

Then there’s the big one: defence. It’s the steaming disaster for which the Coalition is most culpable, yet on which the Albanese government is most vulnerable.

The depleted state of the Australian Defence Force was symbolised by the government’s correct decision last month not to send a ship in response to the US call for coordinated international action to defend Red Sea shipping security from Houthi rebel attacks. We don’t have the capacity and won’t any time soon. This is the result of years of appalling defence mismanagement by successive Coalition governments – something Defence Minister Richard Marles communicates well in parliament but that has not cut through with the public.

There’s broad despair behind the scenes that Marles is locked into a circle of advisers who are the authors of our long-running defence malaise and have a vested interest in maintaining some of its key fictions – primarily, that Australia has the means and personnel to meet its current security needs and that it is making sound procurement decisions to meet its future needs.

While this continues, it’s going to be hard to convince Australians that Labor has anything more to offer on defence than the same cast and crew that delivered sustained failure under the Coalition.

Paul Bongiorno is on leave.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 13, 2024 as "Albanese must learn to share".

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