Soon after the Covid-19 pandemic began, Anthony Albanese and his leadership team were being warned that the community was fracturing. A sense the nation was no longer pulling together was making Australians anxious and unhappy. States and territories were doing their own thing with borders. It felt like no one person was in charge.
“The extent to which people are feeling anxious is that it feels like Australia is a whole lot of different, separated countries and there’s no unified approach,” says social researcher Rebecca Huntley of the sentiment that coalesced early in the pandemic and has prevailed for the past two years.
“There’s no unified approach to Covid, there’s no unified approach [generally]. Basically, it’s just state against state, which is fine for football but not fine for a crisis.”
Huntley, who is an independent social researcher, talks to a lot of Australians in focus groups and was one of those whose work helped inform Albanese’s decision to emphasise – heavily – Labor’s key priority of uniting the country.
He did it on election night, as incoming prime ministers often do, pledging that he and his team would “work every day to bring Australians together” and be a government that was “worthy of the people of Australia”.
What is less usual is that, a month later, he is still emphasising it.
“I want to be a prime minister who represents the entire country, our cities, our regions, our rural communities,” Albanese told journalists this week, as he began a news conference following the Fair Work Commission’s minimum-wage decision. “And I want to make sure, as well, that we listen to Australians wherever they live, whoever they voted for. We will be a government that represents the entire nation. And I want to bring the country together and concentrate on what unites us rather than look for division, which is what characterised the former government.”
Albanese remains highly focused on the messages from the electorate that pre-dated the pandemic but were amplified steadily throughout. Australians are demanding both unity and delivery. And they’re serious.
Government strategists point to what Australians demonstrated vividly in the manner of their vote for independents: you must act in the national interest and do what you say.
As Huntley describes it: “They actually do want some kind of sense of national progress – that there’s somebody making sure that all of those different players are moving forward.”
Albanese’s first news conference as prime minister emphasised this again. “I look forward to leading a government that makes Australians proud, 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…” he said. “People do have conflict fatigue. They want to work with people, and I’ll work with people … whether it’s the crossbenchers or the opposition, to try to, wherever possible, get agreement … I do believe that we can do politics better and I hope to do so.”
Huntley says Albanese needs to prove he means it, with at least a couple of early concrete moves that demonstrate national leadership and governing for all. According to her, voters feel there is “this kind of patchwork policy response to issues that actually should have a national framework”.
She identifies the current problems with the national energy market and the desire for a national integrity commission as two issues that represent political opportunities as well as challenges. Later, an Indigenous Voice to Parliament is potentially another.
In his campaign director’s post-election address to the National Press Club this week, Labor’s national secretary, Paul Erickson, framed the task similarly.
“The scale of the challenges that we face are also an opportunity for the new Labor government to reshape the country and to deliver that better future that we campaigned on,” he said.
To underline the point about collaboration, Albanese invited representatives of big business, the environment movement, the energy sector and the unions to Canberra on Thursday to witness him signing a letter to the United Nations upgrading Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction target. He went on to condemn successive Coalition governments for inaction on climate change.
Rebecca Huntley says the electorate is asking for the new government and its leader to repair whatever isn’t working in the whole country’s interests. The ambition is modest, not grand.
“Vision is probably too ambitious and hifalutin for people as they are right now,” she says. “It’s the difference between ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’ and ‘I’m going to restump the house’ … It’s actually quite an important difference. ‘I’m just going to fix the machinery.’ ”
Huntley believes that if Albanese can position himself as the leader of a team with practical goals, fixing what’s been allowed to languish and creating a sense of being “more than just the sum of our parts”, he’ll be on his way to a successful first term.
Before the election, Albanese made a virtue of keeping the grand vision in check. “One of the things we’re doing at this election is under-promising,” he said, 10 days out from election night, “so that we over-deliver.”
The need to manage expectations is seared into Labor’s consciousness after the turmoil of the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd years. So, too, is the need to not squander the opportunities of government, both to shape the nation and to foster a new generation of Labor voters.
“The Labor Party has a moment for redemption for all of that time,” Huntley observes. “And if you look around the [cabinet] table, even though not all of them were serving ministers, they all have really strong memories of how they threw that opportunity away. And I think it drives them.”
Albanese’s determination to forge unity and conduct “better” politics are key objectives that carry their own expectations and their own risk. Labor strategists say public frustration with the previous government was so high that just governing – doing something – is likely to be credited as positive change, at least initially.
In his speech this week, Erickson emphasised that Albanese’s team needed to build support “through good government and by delivering on what it promised”. He argued the New Zealand and Australian state Labor governments were rewarded with re-election after keeping their promises. “And that’s the challenge that’s in front of us.”
Erickson said what Labor calls “conflict fatigue” drove its strategy of offering broad support for the Coalition’s public health response to Covid-19, while seeking to stand up for “people left behind”.
“This was appreciated by the voters and helped federal Labor maintain a sound position, especially in states where the Liberal oppositions took an alternative approach and behaved and looked like wreckers,” he said.
But Albanese’s unity pledge has a party-political dimension as well. Insiders argue that advocating to reshape the adversarial nature of Australian politics – no small task – is itself both delivering on a promise and responding to a clear public demand. It also puts the new opposition leader, Peter Dutton, in a difficult position, not dissimilar to the one Albanese faced two years ago.
Either the Coalition demonstrates a willingness to collaborate on policy or it continues to play a more combative role. Dutton is better known for the latter.
Combat is where differentiation lies, essential for an opposition. As Albanese knows, collaboration gets very little attention.
Rebecca Huntley says despite Albanese’s 26 years in parliament, a significant number of voters still don’t feel as if they understand who he is – including some who are glad he won. She suggests this demand for new politics gives him the opportunity to continue to shape those views in office. It may also help in dealing with a bigger, mostly female, teal-coloured crossbench.
“If he can pull it off, it is going to help him win over at least some of the relationships with those on the crossbench and potentially make it a bit harder for Dutton to be the kind of opposition leader he’s more naturally inclined to be,” she says.
Some Labor figures expect Dutton will choose the “wrecker” course on a couple of key issues. The political risk for the government is that if Albanese can’t achieve the harmony he seeks, voters may blame him and not his opponent. Like the Coalition, Labor is conscious of the leadership legacy that Dutton has inherited.
The current community anxiety had its genesis in the bushfire crisis of 2019-20. When then prime minister Scott Morrison took a holiday in Hawaii rather than staying to serve at least as an emotional anchor for the nation, there was a surge in strong sentiment around responsibility.
Huntley says Covid-19 connected that to a sense that there were too many people in charge, because Morrison wasn’t. While the prime minister succeeded initially in positioning himself as a co-ordinator of the national response, the brawling over borders and the federal failure to deliver on core responsibilities involving vaccines and rapid antigen tests undermined that.
When the voters exchanged the Morrison government for the Albanese team last month, they expressed a sense of “relief”, Huntley says, not the euphoria that accompanied Kevin Rudd’s victory over John Howard in 2007, or the “resignation” that saw Rudd and Labor swept out in 2013 for Tony Abbott’s Coalition.
But Huntley warns that pandemic-induced anxiety has worsened with economic conditions. The contradiction in voter sentiment is that people want change but won’t cope if it comes too quickly.
She insists that in this environment, Australians need Albanese to be “quiet, grounded, pragmatic, reassuring”.
“If he can do that and take the community along with him on that process, that is better than where the Rudd government was at any particular time,” Huntley says. “That would be quite miraculous.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2022 as "Lessons for governing".
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