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While Labor faces a raft of legislation intended to split the party’s loyalties, the opposition leader has dismissed critics in his ranks who say he is capitulating to Scott Morrison’s agenda. By Karen Middleton.

Albanese attempts to pacify backroom disquiet

Anthony Albanese had a singular purpose when he addressed a gathering of the Labor caucus and staff in the opposition party room on Wednesday night: to remind his party that they still had things to fight for – and against.

Leading a party with no policies, pending a post-election review, Albanese declared he had unilaterally adopted at least one.

His office, said the opposition leader, was a “no dickheads” zone – an apparent assurance that if parliamentarians wanted to raise issues, their concerns would be heard, and elected representatives should not fear that staff would fob them off.

He said his door was open to ideas and together they could win the next election.

The day before, in another room at Parliament House, Scott Morrison gave a different sort of speech.

Addressing Australia’s chief diplomats from around the world, who were in Canberra en masse for their yearly confab, the prime minister spoke about cultural affinities and harnessing all available advantages in diplomacy.

For example, he told them, in dealing with his Pacific Islands counterparts, his own religious faith was a particular asset.

The prime minister explained that when Pacific leaders came to Australia, as the Fijian prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, did officially for the first time this weekend, Morrison had resolved to always put two things on their itineraries: a trip to the footy – the rugby league – and one to his Sydney church.

Far from fearing scrutiny of his Christian values as Labor invited last week, Morrison is ready to use his faith as both a diplomatic tool and occasionally a political weapon.

The two speeches – and a string of others in the Labor caucus room on Tuesday – help sketch a picture of the kind of political contest emerging between Morrison and Albanese.

Albanese’s first job is to regroup and rebuild a shattered Labor Party. Morrison is aiming to make that harder and ensure the main response to Albanese’s first months in leadership is disappointment.

With political reality seeping into Labor, the Morrison government is pushing forward a barrage of what Albanese has termed “wedgislation”. Already there are accusations from within opposition ranks that they are acquiescing to it too readily.

As Albanese tries to restore hope among the devastated Labor faithful, he must also repair relationships and manage expectations.

He has indicated he wants to lead a constructive opposition that will not be contrary for its own sake.

But some are wanting another glimpse of the man who declared, tearfully during the Labor leadership combustion of 2013, that he liked “fighting Tories”.

Others are defending his taking the time to regroup and tread carefully in an environment where Morrison has declared his primary objective is to make the parliamentary session “a test for Labor”.

One senior Labor MP told The Saturday Paper that pushing a series of bills into parliament expressly to wedge Labor was not something Coalition governments had done in the recent past.

“[Tony Abbott] wasn’t interested in wedging us,” the MP observed of the period after the 2013 election. “He just wanted to drive a tank over us.”

The difficult bills for Labor include drug-testing of welfare recipients and mandatory sentencing for child sex offenders. Mandatory sentencing is opposed in Labor’s party platform.

They also include the so-called farm invaders bill.

In Tuesday’s caucus meeting, those concerns about acquiescence spilled out.

Labor has decided to support the farm bill, which was drafted in response to an animal activist website that revealed the precise location of Australian farms to encourage protests. The bill would ban using a carriage service to incite trespass on a farm.

The position comes despite the Labor members of a senate committee recommending the bill be blocked.

One of them, Victorian left-wing senator and long-time Albanese nemesis Kim Carr, rose in caucus on Tuesday to put his case.

In a robust performance, Carr told his colleagues that letting the legislation pass could have unintended consequences, exposing other groups – including unionists and potentially farmers themselves – to prosecution for organising protests.

Carr is understood to hold genuine concerns about both the bill and the need to stand up to the government. At the same time, he is a strident critic of Albanese and lost his frontbench position under the new leadership.

Fellow Victorian Ged Kearney, whose Melbourne electorate is home to a high number of Greens voters, voiced alarm in the caucus that constituents were accusing Labor of “capitulation” on a range of progressive issues.

South Australian left-wing senator and shadow foreign minister Penny Wong emphatically rejected the assertion and said capitulating to a “Greens tactic” was not the answer.

The new MP for the Victorian coastal seat of Corangamite, Libby Coker, also spoke about the need for Labor to uphold progressive values and think carefully before walking away from policies.

Julian Hill, from the outer-suburban Melbourne seat of Bruce, asked for clarification on the unintended consequences of the bill. Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said the government had not been entirely forthcoming about this.

In a difficult debate that had some shifting in their seats, seven others spoke in favour of backing the bill, including frontbenchers Joel Fitzgibbon, who said farmers held a genuine fear of violent protest, and Catherine King, who described the fear of a single-mum farmer in her Ballarat electorate whose childcare details had been published online.

There was a vote and the motion to back the government’s bill passed. Those opposed didn’t vote against it but had made their views clear.

Afterwards, Albanese responded, laying out the positions Labor had taken on a range of legislation and gave reasons.

“We are not the Liberal Party and we are not the Green party,” he said.

He told the MPs that trade unionists were part of Labor’s constituency.

“Vegan terrorists are not,” he said.

Responding to the concerns about progressive values, Albanese said Labor was pushing for an increase to the Newstart payment and an Indigenous Voice to Parliament while arguing against drug-testing welfare recipients.

In a lengthy contribution, which some saw as defensive and others say was a positive and necessary catalogue of activity, Albanese’s list of Labor decisions continued: support for a national integrity commission, for the ABC, for an end to Centrelink robo-debts.

“We have put the structures in place to properly regroup and review,” he told the room.

One more pointed remark appeared to flag substantive future policy change.

“If you do the same things in politics, you can expect the same outcomes,” he said.

He also spoke of his determination to prioritise economic growth and jobs and vowed to take “strong decisions”, including expelling the Victorian leader of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, John Setka, from the Labor Party.

While many in the Labor Party support removing Setka over his attitude to domestic violence, Albanese’s outspoken insistence on his expulsion has made some colleagues uneasy, amid concerns it may be seen not to afford the unionist procedural fairness or natural justice.

Setka’s attempt to have the courts overrule the party’s plans has failed and is now under appeal.

Albanese’s address followed public contributions in the preceding days from two Labor Party presidents – the incumbent, Wayne Swan, and his immediate predecessor, Mark Butler – on what should or should not change in the wake of the election defeat.

Launching a book by Labor historian Adrian Pabst last week, Swan said Labor’s suite of election policies was “an agenda to be proud of, not resile from”.

“A victory built on winning a race to the bottom on cheap tax cuts or consolidating power in the hands of a few is not a victory at all,” he said. “Sometimes, you’ve got to take one for history and maybe, in a sense, we did that in May.”

Speaking at the Canberra launch of the same book three days later, Butler rejected the Swan thesis, without referring to it directly.

Butler said Labor needed to conduct “a deep, broad and ruthlessly unsparing review” and that neither tax nor climate change policies – in his own portfolio – should be exempt.

Labor is understood to be willing to re-examine its emissions reduction target as part of that overhaul.

This week, former leader Bill Shorten said a degree of change to the election policies was inevitable. Some colleagues continue to argue that it was his unpopularity, and not the policies, that cost them the election.

But it will not proceed formally with policy changes until after a review of the election defeat, which is being conducted by Labor veterans Craig Emerson and Jay Weatherill and is due to be completed by October this year.

In the meantime, the malaise within the parliamentary Labor Party is deep and wide.

A few parliamentarians have mused privately about quitting politics in the wake of the election loss, with others counselling them to hold tight until the summer break, when lengthy holidays would restore perspective and enthusiasm.

“I don’t think anything matters in the next six months,” one Labor MP told The Saturday Paper, talking about the political climate. “It just doesn’t mean anything.”

Senior Labor figures are making the same argument in downplaying this week’s Newspoll, which showed a six-point slump in Albanese’s approval rating. Too early, they say.

But the result doesn’t help restore the confidence of those who are confused and disillusioned and want the party to push back harder against the government.

Another MP said Labor risked undermining the credibility of its own ideas if the party junked all the policies it took to the election – policies that had been devised in response to identified problems.

Senior Labor backbencher Ed Husic suggests the shock of the election loss naturally leads to soul-searching on policy.

“Remember that time we won 50 Newspolls in a row and we lost an election?” he asks. “In that environment, you then start questioning what is right and what is wrong, what works and what doesn’t.”

In contrast, Scott Morrison is leaning hard on the idea that he is both a steady hand and a known quantity in the wake of his surprise election win. That is perhaps ironic given his prime ministership came from nowhere just a year ago.

By mid-week, every government backbench question in question time included the phrase “stability and certainty” or a variation thereof.

The opposition found one issue on which to strike back, in the form of concerns about Victorian Liberal MP Gladys Liu and reported intelligence agency queries about her alleged past links to the Chinese Communist Party.

Mark Dreyfus asked on Thursday if Scott Morrison had received advice about Liu “from government agencies before or since the May 18 election”.

Making such an issue of Liu was risky, given Labor’s own current difficulties in New South Wales over links to banned Chinese donors.

There were also those damaging revelations before last year’s state election that then NSW Labor leader Michael Daley had told a gathering in Western Sydney that young people from Asia “with PhDs” were taking jobs from “our kids”.

Morrison accused Labor of smear in asking a question about intelligence agencies that it knew could not be answered in public, because of protocols around not discussing whether security briefings have been received.

Citing Daley’s past comments, Morrison suggested federal Labor was running a racist campaign against his MP.

“Just because someone was born in China doesn’t make them disloyal,” he added, calling it an attack on all Chinese Australians.

Dreyfus called the suggestion “disgusting”.

For Labor MPs, Liu’s predicament has presented an unexpected opportunity to pull together and focus on something other than themselves.

The leadership team hopes it is the start of Labor’s long road back.

The caucus party on Wednesday night was part of that, too, helped along by the presence of former prime minister Julia Gillard, who posed for photographs with Labor staff.

Gillard was in the building to attend some of the new parliamentarians’ first speeches but her being at the event sent a separate message.

Despite holding Albanese partly responsible for replacing her with Kevin Rudd, and although some others in the party have not forgiven him, Gillard’s presence was a reminder of the need to be – as her election slogan once advocated – moving forward.

A political advertisement for the healing properties of time.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 14, 2019 as "Albanese attempts to pacify backroom disquiet". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.