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Anthony Albanese’s first phone calls as prime minister reveal a man keen to rebuild the parliament and implement an ambitious agenda. By Karen Middleton.

Week one: Albanese seeks to build Hawke-like consensus

Penny Wong (left), Anthony Albanese (centre) and Richard Marles (right) after being sworn in at Government House, Canberra, this week.
Penny Wong (left), Anthony Albanese (centre) and Richard Marles (right) after being sworn in at Government House, Canberra, this week.
Credit: David Gray / Getty Images

They were quick phone calls but they had a common theme. When Anthony Albanese rang each of the five returning lower house independents on Sunday and Monday, he emphasised that he wanted this to be a different parliament. He wanted standards to be higher. He wanted a better tone.

“He has an ambition to have a very respectful relationship with the crossbench, a strong and collaborative, respectful relationship with the crossbench,” the independent MP for Indi, Helen Haines, told ABC Radio later. “And integrity is at the core of that.”

Facing the possibility of governing in minority, the new prime minister phoned the returning independents whom he already knows – Haines, Bob Katter, Rebekha Sharkie, Andrew Wilkie and Zali Steggall – to gain the essential assurances required to do that. He secured an undertaking from each that they would guarantee his government supply and not support no-confidence motions.

He also volunteered a view about how things could and should be done differently in the parliament – better, he said, than they had been.

At the heart of this was a word he has been using a lot: respect. “It is important that we respect the outcome of the election on Saturday,” Albanese said at his first news conference on Monday, after being sworn in as Australia’s 31st prime minister.

Despite believing he would ultimately secure enough seats to govern in majority, without the need for crossbench deals, he revealed he had made those calls, just in case. “I have stuck to what I said before the election, as have they,” Albanese said of the returning independents. “They will consider legislation on its merits. I expect that to be the case. I will treat them with respect.”

He also emphasised respect for Indigenous Australians, for public servants and for democracy itself. But the new prime minister had to move quickly to match word with deed, after frontbencher Tanya Plibersek likened the man expected to be the new Liberal leader, former Defence minister Peter Dutton, to the Harry Potter villain Voldemort.

“We need to treat each other with respect,” Albanese told Sky News on his return from Tokyo on Thursday. “Tanya recognises that.” Plibersek contacted Dutton to apologise, and he called it “water off a duck’s back”.

Before flying to the Quad security dialogue in Tokyo alongside new Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong, Albanese reeled off a list of changes he wanted to make fast.

High among them was his commitment to establishing an Indigenous Voice to Parliament and a national integrity commission. He also nominated creating his proposed national reconstruction fund and implementing his powering Australia plan to turn climate action into an economic opportunity, boosting childcare, aged care and Medicare, and implementing the Respect @ Work report recommendations on sexual harassment.

Overlaying those plans is an objective of inclusiveness. “I said on Saturday that the ‘how’ was just as important as the ‘what’, and indeed it is,” Albanese said, referring to the election-night speech he had delivered two days earlier to a hollering room of Labor faithful at the Canterbury-Hurlstone Park RSL in his inner-western Sydney electorate. “I want to bring people together and I want to change the way that politics is conducted in this country.”

Albanese faces a very different parliament to any that has greeted incoming leaders before him. A third of Australians voted for candidates other than those in the major parties and there can be no avoiding that message. His drive for unity is more than just Pollyanna sentiment: it is essential if he is to win again.

“I look forward to leading a government that makes Australians proud,” he declared on Monday. “A government that doesn’t seek to divide, that doesn’t seek to have wedges, but seeks to bring people together for our common interest and our common purpose. I think that is one of the messages that came through on Saturday. People do have conflict fatigue. They want to work with people. And I will work with people, whether it’s the crossbenchers, or the opposition, to try to, wherever possible, get agreement.”

In last weekend’s huge swings against incumbents – mostly, though not entirely, Liberals – there was a message to all politicians, including Albanese: don’t take your community for granted.

It was there in the anti-Coalition vote among Chinese Australians, apparently angry at the former government’s weaponising of rhetoric about China. That cost the Liberals seats in Sydney and Melbourne.

It was there in the election of so many female independents, who delivered a message about – among other things – former prime minister Scott Morrison’s attitude towards women.

It was there on climate change, in the form of both the so-called teal wave and the significantly higher vote for the Greens, especially in Queensland.

And it was especially obvious in the former Labor stronghold of Fowler in Sydney’s west, with the rejection of parachuted star candidate Kristina Keneally in favour of Vietnamese–Australian local and former city councillor Dai Le. Labor colleagues had urged Albanese to endorse another Vietnamese–Australian local, Tu Le, but he backed his former Home Affairs shadow minister instead. The mutterings of “we told you so” are soft in the wake of overall victory but audible nonetheless.

While Albanese seeks to borrow from the late prime minister Bob Hawke’s consensus style, in these early days of his prime ministership there is also more than a passing nod to the Whitlam government of 50 years ago.

Albanese’s opening statement on election night lifted a familiar phrase from Whitlam’s pre-election pitch in 1972. “I say to my fellow Australians,” Anthony Albanese began, after acknowledging Indigenous traditional owners and committing himself to implementing the actions laid out in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. “Thank you for this extraordinary honour. Tonight, the Australian people have voted for change.”

And change is what they are getting already. Like Whitlam, Albanese had a skeleton interim ministry sworn in immediately, until his full team can be selected next week. This time it involved five members instead of two and was forced by circumstance – his attendance at the Quad international security meeting in Japan just three days after his election.

Also like Whitlam, Albanese has big plans and great urgency about implementing them. Unlike Whitlam, he hopes to be around for more than one full term.

From the world stage in Tokyo, Anthony Albanese was focused on the task of reinforcing Australia’s policy direction in some areas and shifting it markedly in others.

He assured allies that Australia had not changed its position on its core diplomatic and security relationships, nor on resisting pressure from China. He put climate action squarely in the context of national security, describing climate change and regional security as “the biggest challenges of our time”.

“We will act in recognition that climate change is the main economic and security challenge for the island countries of the Pacific,” he told the Quad in his opening remarks.

With China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, on a swing through eight Pacific countries, Wong arrived back from Japan and travelled straight to Fiji, to underscore Australia’s renewed commitment.  “After a lost decade,” she told journalists on the flight back from Tokyo, “we’ve got a lot of work to do to regain Australia’s position as the partner of choice in the Pacific, in a region that’s less secure and more contested.”

Back home, the changes were rolling out apace. Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Finance Minister Katy Gallagher were all sworn in to multiple portfolios for a week, until the full Labor caucus formalises its candidates for the ministry next Tuesday and Albanese announces next Wednesday who gets what. Each also moved fast.

Chalmers said he would make a statement to parliament on the state of the economy when it resumed in June or July and flagged that another federal budget would be handed down in October. He offered the predictable warning that, having looked at the books, things were worse than feared.

“There’s no use mincing words about that or tiptoeing around the serious nature of the economic challenges,” Chalmers said on Wednesday.

He also announced the first Reserve Bank board review in the past 40 years, in the wake of its inconsistent forecasts and changing advice on inflation and interest rates.

And he clarified an initial suggestion that perhaps Labor would not make a detailed submission to the Fair Work Commission’s minimum wage case after all, later confirming a submission would be made.

Chalmers also confirmed the long-detained Nadesalingam family, also known as the Murugappan family, would be returned to the town of Biloela, in his home state of Queensland, as soon as that could be arranged.

Expected to become Defence minister, Richard Marles ordered an inquiry into the role of the Department of Home Affairs in the apparent politicisation of an asylum-seeker boat interception on election day.

As acting Health minister, Gallagher reported that the government was moving to draft a new plan for tackling Covid-19 and had obtained updated medical advice from the government’s immunisation taskforce, expanding eligibility for a fourth Covid-19 shot. People aged 16 to 64 with underlying medical conditions and people with disability who have complex health needs would now be added to those already eligible for a second booster, known as the winter dose, from later this month.

As Finance minister, Gallagher also announced a “waste and rorts” review to seek savings by scouring the previous government’s grant programs.

Other incoming ministers outlined their plans, too. Soon-to-be Indigenous Affairs minister Linda Burney said that aside from prioritising the Uluru statement’s implementation, especially consultation on a referendum timetable for constitutional recognition, she wanted to examine the ACBF/Youpla fund, which had allegedly preyed on Indigenous people in selling funeral insurance.

Former shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said he wants an urgent briefing on the controversial prosecution of lawyer Bernard Collaery for disclosing information about an Australian secret spying operation against the Timor-Leste government. This week, it was announced October 24 had been set as the date for Collaery’s trial.

On top of the new Labor government’s agenda, the crossbench MPs bring ideas of their own. Helen Haines has already told Albanese she wants to talk about the need for a new hospital in the Albury-Wodonga region in her electorate, as well as seeking a key role in the design of a national integrity commission, having designed her own highly regarded legislation in the previous parliament.

The incoming independent member for North Sydney, Kylea Tink, foreshadowed on Thursday that she wanted to talk about introducing real-time disclosure of political donations.

With former Defence minister Peter Dutton firming as the Liberals’ likely choice for leader, and former Environment minister Sussan Ley as his probable deputy, Albanese appeared to extend his consensus model – for the time being at least.

“I have a much better relationship with Peter Dutton than I had with Scott Morrison,” Albanese told Sky News on Thursday. “Peter Dutton has never broken a confidence that I’ve had with him. I think it’s very important that the prime minister and the leader of the opposition are able to exchange ideas and information and get co-operation wherever it’s possible.”

On Saturday night, Albanese paid tribute to Morrison and his family for their contribution to the nation. The former prime minister re-emerged publicly on Thursday, describing his concession phone call with Albanese on Saturday night as dignified, respectful and professional.

In an interview with Sydney’s Radio 2GB, Morrison thanked those who supported him but showed no magnanimity for those who did not, especially those in the teal seats. He described them as having run “very vicious and very brutal campaigns”.

“They’ve made all sorts of big commitments about how they think they can change everything,” he said. “Well, we’ll see, won’t we? And they should be held to account for that.”

He defended his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and touched on what it felt like to be rejected “after all of that”. Morrison quoted his former deputy to describe what he believed had happened: “As Barnaby said to me the other day, sometimes people like to change the curtains just because they like to change the curtains.”

The former prime minister insisted he was philosophical about the outcome: “You treat victory and defeat often as the impostors they are.”

Refusing to canvass other reasons for the loss or offer advice to his Liberal colleagues about who should lead them or how, Morrison said only that when he became prime minister former treasurer Peter Costello had told him: “Never waste a day.”

Perhaps from a different source, Albanese is following the same advice.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2022 as "Week one: Albanese seeks to build Hawke-like consensus".

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

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