Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Labor’s Quad workout

There has been an earthquake in Australian parliamentary democracy, which has checked the dominance of the two major parties and demonstrated two-thirds of the country were hungry for change.

The Liberal–National Coalition government was swept from power by voters rushing to support not only Labor but the Greens and the independents. All now have a significant presence in both houses of parliament. The crossbench in the lower house hasn’t been this large since the earliest days of federation.

Labor’s projected slender majority in the house of representatives has not been replicated in the senate. It is rare for the governing party to pull off this feat anyway. But in the upper house the Greens have extended their presence and influence and, along with a couple of new independents, have insured the red chamber has skewed decisively progressive.

On Saturday night Labor’s Tanya Plibersek was chided on the ABC election panel for her party not delivering a more decisive victory. She retorted: “A win is a win is a win.” Indeed it is. But the premise of the question was in line with the scepticism many commentators had about whether Anthony Albanese would be a roadblock to a Labor victory.

This view was mightily encouraged by Labor’s political opponents and the Coalition’s cheer squad, particularly in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp newspapers and platforms. Doubts about the Labor leader were reflected in the opinion polls but as election day neared he was lineball in all of them as preferred prime minister – notably, he was also less unpopular than Scott Morrison. The Coalition never once bridged the six to eight point two-party preferred lead Labor had in the Newspoll all year.

The fact is that Scott Morrison was the biggest obstacle to another come-from-behind victory. He was toxic throughout Australia, unwelcome in many Liberal electorates under siege in the capital cities, and his picture was used by his opponents in their advertising. According to an insider, in the last weeks of the campaign a sign went up at Liberal campaign headquarters reminding staffers “No more Morrison posters”.

A statement to party members sent on Monday by Labor’s national president, Wayne Swan, explained that the party’s low primary vote, at that stage hovering around 32 per cent, was the result of “tactical voting by Labor supporters to defeat entrenched Coalition members”. Analysis of voting in the “teal” electorates goes a long way to support this.

Swan noted in his email that Labor “didn’t have an oligarch like Clive Palmer funneling preferences to us in return for who knows what”. He pointedly said the party also did not have “a media company acting as a free publicity machine” for it. These facts alone are a cause for optimism about the sophistication of the Australian electorate. Voters are served by so many other sources of information, through social media and the newer online independent news and information platforms.

But what Australians were seeing on their free-to-air news bulletins or hearing on radio was a prime minister and government increasingly out of touch with contemporary values and concerns. Climate change, integrity in government and gender equity were near the top of the list. These remained crucially influential in the rise of the vote for the Greens and independent female candidates running in the Liberal’s heartland electorates.

This is not to deny real concerns about the cost of living. They were exacerbated by galloping inflation figures and the beginning of a new cycle of interest rate rises towards the end of the campaign. Swan – echoing the strategy pursued by Anthony Albanese – reminded his thousands of members that if the Labor government is to succeed it will have to deliver its promises “on the economy that works for working people, higher wages, more skills, better jobs, making more things at home and making clean energy work for all”.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers made it very clear on Wednesday that the Albanese government would not be radically departing from its campaign undertakings. There would be no revisiting of reforms championed at previous elections – to capital gains, franking credits or negative gearing. The stage three tax cuts, which make our progressive system less fair and are exorbitantly expensive, are legislated already and will remain.

There is a clear strategy here to consolidate politically. Although we have the first interim cabinet since Gough Whitlam and his deputy, Lance Barnard, held all the ministries in 1972, there will be no rush to changes generating more hostility than consensus. After his swearing in on Monday Albanese said the “how” is as important as the “what”. He said, “I want to bring people together and I want to change the way that politics is conducted in this country.”

Before he departed for the Quad summit in Tokyo, Albanese said he wanted to lead a government “that makes Australians proud”. Ironically, based on consistent polling over the past three years, he is assisted by the fact people have low expectations of him. This gives him the ability to surprise on the upside.

Morrison, after warning in the campaign that Albanese would be an embarrassment on the world stage, unwittingly gave Albanese the greatest opportunity to prove this claim wrong. The former prime minister did so by holding off the election until the last possible minute before the scheduled top-level meeting in Japan. It gave the new prime minister the earliest opportunity to crash or shine. Albanese shone, instantly enhancing the status of his fledgling government.

His quick rapport with United States President Joe Biden was in itself an endorsement for the kid from council housing in Camperdown, New South Wales, now an equal with world leaders. The Indian and Japanese prime ministers were no less welcoming. Albanese said he was “warmed” by their acceptance. It came after a well-crafted speech to the world’s news cameras, about the continuity of Australia’s longstanding strategic alliances and the reality of a shift in climate policy, linking it to security.

China was the elephant in the room. No one mentioned Beijing by name, but Albanese lined up with the others in pitting democracy against autocracy. After all, the Quad’s main purpose is to act as a counterweight to China’s soft power push into the Asia Pacific. However, the US can no longer assume that most other countries in the region see its global rival in the same terms. Certainly, Pacific nations do not see China as a strategic threat. There are issues, particularly with fishing rights, but they see the Asian giant as an opportunity and that applies to our large near neighbor, Indonesia.

The Quad partners are looking to Australia to play a more effective role in the region. The biggest opening there was to demonstrate that Canberra now takes the existential threat of climate change more seriously than it has for the past decade.

Albanese stressed this in the meeting, in his bilateral talks and in his news conferences. It has a double benefit for him. It assures South Pacific nations their concerns are shared and it also sends a message to voters who deserted Labor for the Greens, as well as engaging those who support the “teal” independents for more climate change action.

Repairing connections in the South Pacific is one thing, but even more pressing for Australia is restoring communications with our biggest trading partner, China. There is little doubt the Morrison government’s cack-handed trashing of this vital economic relationship played a significant part in the outcome of the election. One in four jobs in Western Australia are dependent on China and focus group research found voters were appalled by Morrison and his Defence minister, Peter Dutton, delivering “moronic” and “childish” attacks on Labor for wanting a thawing in the diplomatic deep freeze.

Booth by booth analysis by Ben Raue of The Tally Room found swings to Labor in suburban seats in Sydney and Melbourne were largest where there was a significant Chinese–Australian constituency. It’s described as the “silent uprising” and it cost the Liberals the seats of Chisholm, Reid and Bennelong, as well as contributing to losses in Kooyong and North Sydney and the failure to take Parramatta.

Albanese has plenty of incentive to end the slide into mindless McCarthyism where even the mention of diplomatic re-engagement is condemned as “appeasement” of the Communist Party of China. James Laurenceson of the Australia–China Relations Institute says now is the perfect time for a face-saving circuit breaker on both sides.

China’s No. 2 leader, Premier Li Keqiang, has formally written to Albanese congratulating him and saying, “The Chinese side is ready to work with the Australian side to review the past, look into the future and uphold the principle of mutual respect and mutual benefit.”

Albanese was masterful in welcoming Li’s congratulations while at the same time saying the China trade sanctions, which have cost $20 billion over the past two years, should be removed. He didn’t make it a condition of détente but a signal of goodwill.

Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong is more than willing to put down the Morrison megaphone in the hope of achieving the same level of diplomacy and co-operation with Beijing enjoyed by the other Quad partners including the US, its biggest competitor.

In this game it shouldn’t be hard for Albanese to play a better round than his predecessor. 

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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