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After confronting Craig Kelly over his coronavirus scaremongering, Tanya Plibersek says it’s time to hold the government to account. By Karen Middleton.

Tanya Plibersek on post-Covid politics

Tanya Plibersek
Credit: Mick Tsikas

When Tanya Plibersek took on Craig Kelly in the press gallery corridor at Parliament House recently, it illustrated a shift in the politics of Covid-19.

“My mum lives in your electorate,” Plibersek told the rebel Liberal backbencher, “and I don’t want her exposed to people who are not going to be vaccinated.”

The on-camera confrontation – provoked by the conspiracy theories and anti-vaccination messages Kelly posts online – prompted Scott Morrison to discipline his MP. But the incident may also serve as a marker for the point at which Australia’s pandemic politics changed from compliance to combat.

Having decided to support the Coalition’s major decisions throughout 2020 in the interests of national unity, Labor is now changing gears.

“I think at a time of national crisis, people expect politicians of all persuasions to work together in the national interest,” Plibersek tells The Saturday Paper, defending the party’s stance throughout last year. “And we have consistently put the national interest ahead of any political interest. And that’s exactly the right thing to do.

“People would never forgive us if we had undermined or nitpicked when we were faced with such critical decisions at a time of national crisis. That doesn’t absolve us from looking at the areas where the government has failed and holding them to account for failures where they exist.”

The recent findings in the Scanlon Foundation’s annual survey of social cohesion bear out that assessment. During the crisis, Australians showed little appetite for bickering and politics-as-usual.

The survey revealed unusually high levels of trust in government and overwhelming endorsement of pandemic management at both the federal and state level.

“As an opposition, we have really been trying to work constructively with the government,” Plibersek says. “We suggested wage subsidies and that became JobKeeper. That’s a good thing … We backed the rollout of the [contact tracing] app. We hoped for its success. We have really tried to be constructive and supportive. And I think for the most part, that has been exactly the right thing to do. But it shouldn’t stop us now starting to look at the areas where the government could have done better and seeing what the lessons are to learn from that.”

As the sense of national emergency dissipates, Labor strategists believe the need to fall in behind the government is also diminishing. And as it seeks to craft a more cohesive narrative, the attacks are ramping up.

“I think things like aged care, the Australians who are still stuck overseas, the failure of the Covid tracing app, the design of JobKeeper – which has allowed some companies to claim millions of dollars in subsidies at a time where they’re achieving record profits and paying record executive bonuses – these types of issues we do need to hold the government to account on,” Plibersek says.

The opposition’s more subdued approach to date has not won universal support from its own core constituents. Although key opinion polls record the two-party vote as level-pegging at the start of 2021, Anthony Albanese’s approval rating is low. Having surged when Morrison stumbled in his bushfire response a year ago, it has trended down as Covid-19 dominated all other issues and voters marked Morrison higher and higher.

With many Labor MPs convinced they are facing a loss at the next election, Plibersek is among those listed as potential leadership contenders. But it’s an open question whether that becomes an issue before the poll or after, in the event their fears are realised. The member for Sydney, who sits in the party’s Left faction, consistently rates most favourably among possible candidates in opinion polls but is not considered first choice within the party. With the Right’s Jim Chalmers and Richard Marles ahead of her on the factional numbers she appears more likely to return to the deputy’s position than be elevated to leader in any post-election ballot.

Albanese and his close supporters remain convinced the election is winnable; although there is significant internal malaise, there is not currently momentum for a leadership change.

Regular opinion polling, including some conducted by at least one outside organisation, suggests Morrison’s stratospheric approval rating is still soft. The Albanese camp believes this is where their best chances lie.

But others see Morrison as deeply entrenched and on a Howard-like path to long-term incumbency.

Plibersek’s profile has increased in recent weeks, but she will not discuss leadership.

“I’m just not going to talk about that, because the last thing people want to hear when they’re worried about their own jobs is us talking about our jobs,” she says. “That’s just not my focus.”

Asked why Labor is being marked down, if the government has mishandled so many issues, she says: “I think you need to ask journalists why journalists ask those questions. We are laying out a vision, for a stronger, fairer country.”

Plibersek says it’s understandable that the Scanlon survey, like others, detected high levels of satisfaction and even confidence among Australians through the pandemic’s first year.

“I really think people look around the world and just feel grateful to be in Australia right now,” she says. “And when you look at the death toll … and unemployment rates in similar countries, I don’t think it’s any surprise that if you’ve got a job and you’ve got a roof over your head and you’ve got your health in Australia today, you feel like you’ve won the jackpot.”

Labor is now starting to detail aspects of its policy agenda for the next federal election, whether that comes late this year or some time in 2022.

“Of course, there’ll be an element of holding the government to account for what’s happened during the pandemic,” Plibersek says. “But the much more important focus will be what comes next. What sort of country do we want?”

That focus underpins the industrial relations policy Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese unveiled this week, with a jab at Scott Morrison.

“For this prime minister, the concept of job security for working families is as fair dinkum as when he told Malcolm Turnbull that his job was secure,” Albanese said on Wednesday. “We know how that ended.”

His policy undertakings included entrenching “job security” in the Fair Work Act and extending its powers to cover low-paid contract work; legislating a definition of casual work; limiting the number of fixed-term contracts employers can offer for the same job, capped at 24 months; ensuring workers employed through labour hire firms are paid the same as direct employees; and seeking to extend existing entitlement portability schemes that cover holidays, sick leave and long-service leave to casual workers.

The government seized on the portability element as most ripe for exploitation. Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter commissioned his department to produce a costing of it, before the formal announcement had even been made.

Because Labor was backing the principle of portability with little detail, Porter chose to assume maximum new entitlements for all 3.5 million non-permanent casual and contract workers, arriving at a cost of $20 billion and calling it a “business tax”.

Porter said the version he costed would be “an extinction-level event for tens of thousands of Australian businesses”. Business organisations echoed his concerns.

But Labor’s shadow Industrial Relations minister, Tony Burke, suggested the assertion was hysterical and false. “What we saw from Christian Porter in that media conference was absolutely next-level weird,” Burke told the ABC. “He invented a policy that’s not ours, then got a cost [for] it, and then got really worked up about the cost of the policy he had invented.”

Albanese said the government could not be taken seriously. “What should be taken seriously is the fact that workers are doing it tough,” he said.

The speed and force of the government’s attack confirms industrial relations as a key election battleground, one on which the Coalition has overstepped before, via Howard’s WorkChoices.

Plibersek notes the economy was flagging before the pandemic, listing structural problems, flatlining wages, underemployment and low consumer and business confidence and productivity.

“The problem with Scott Morrison’s agenda at the moment is what he wants to do after the pandemic is exactly what he wanted to do before the pandemic,” Plibersek says. “And you see that in the first big piece of legislation he’s rolling out this year: an industrial relations bill that is designed to make it easier to cut wages and sack people. That’s exactly the wrong prescription for growth.”

Labor is emphasising what the pandemic exposed about the extent and precarious nature of casual employment, particularly in the gig economy.

“I think a lot of people have looked at the world of work and really been reminded that secure work with decent pay is not just important for the individual who’s in the job, it’s actually good for our whole society,” Plibersek says.

“We’ve seen people who have been forced to work multiple jobs because their one job as a hotel security guard doesn’t pay them enough to live on. So I think, if anything, this has been a reminder that secure work with decent pay is critical to a good life and that it benefits all of us to have a system that supports that.”

Plibersek says her own experience as the child of Slovenian postwar migrants confirmed the precious opportunity Australia offers for both work and education.

“They were children during the Second World War,” she says of her parents. “… They came to Australia with literally nothing: a suitcase with a change of clothes, that’s it. And they managed to work hard, save hard, buy a home of their own. My brothers and I managed to go to university, all three of us. We went to fantastic public schools. We had great teachers who believed in us.”

Plibersek counts among the pandemic’s key lessons that teachers must be better paid, and valued as highly as doctors. In the Education portfolio, she believes competition should be as tough to study teaching as it is for medicine. She wants incentives to keep the best teachers teaching, not see them forced to move into administrative jobs to earn more.

She also sees a role for teachers in the moral, ethical and values education of children as a supplement to learning at home or, in some cases, in lieu of it.

Plibersek recalls the gratitude she felt for an Australian education on the day she first arrived at Parliament House as a young staff member in the mid-1990s.

“I just thought there are so few countries on earth where you can go in the course of a generation, really, [from my parents] arriving in a country with nothing and then I get to participate in our democracy,” she says.

More than two decades later, her robust exchange with Craig Kelly was not the first time she had referenced her own family’s experiences in a political argument.

She has spoken about her husband Michael Coutts-Trotter’s historical conviction for heroin trafficking – as he has also done, when newspapers have raked over it repeatedly – and about the murder of one of her brothers in Papua New Guinea.

On the issue of Craig Kelly and his coronavirus campaign, Plibersek restates her concern for one of his constituents, her mum.

“She’s almost 90. I really don’t want her going to the shops and running into people who refused to be vaccinated because their local MP tells them that they should be careful about it. And of course, you know, the government’s spending $24 million of taxpayers’ money urging people to get vaccinated. It’s just not acceptable that one of their own MPs is undermining that program.”

Plibersek hopes Morrison’s intervention means Kelly’s conspiratorial frolic is “sorted” but says that remains to be seen.

“I must confess, I’m not keeping an eye on his Facebook,” she says. “Life’s too short for that.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2021 as "Tanya Plibersek on post-Covid politics".

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