Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Ghosts of prime ministers past

“We have just pissed up against the wall another two terms in government.” That was the angry response of a senior minister in the Rudd Labor government the day after Julia Gillard mounted her palace coup in 2010.

Three months later, Gillard did manage to pull together a minority government after Kevin Rudd’s 16-seat majority was wiped out. His return in 2013 failed to hold off a Coalition opposition led by the brutally effective Tony Abbott. In truth Abbott didn’t have to do much. Labor did all the hard work of dismantling itself for him.

The trauma of that experience in government is seared into the brain of Anthony Albanese. Albanese was close to Rudd and, on the night of the coup, was charged with checking where the caucus numbers were. Ashen-faced, Albanese reported back to the prime minister that his support in the party room had evaporated.

There are many theories about the implosion of the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd governments. The most enduring is the failure on the part of Rudd to implement a proper cabinet government based on respect for the ability of ministers to do their jobs with due autonomy, and whose political assessments were sought and noted. Albanese will not repeat that mistake and did not with his shadow cabinet during the past three years.

A former cabinet colleague of Albanese says the new prime minister is a very different prospect to Rudd. He can relate to people and he doesn’t think he is the cleverest person in the room. He also doesn’t have in his ranks an obvious alternative leader itching to replace him. Former leader Bill Shorten is resigned to the fact his colleagues believe his moment in the sun has passed.

Albanese would have to seriously stuff up to trigger a search for an alternative ahead of the next election. His record in tight situations such as the minority parliament of 2010-13 was calm assurance and astute negotiating skills, though he didn’t do it all alone. Gillard, her treasurer, Wayne Swan, and other senior ministers made it their business to keep communications with the crossbench open – something Albanese intends to replicate in this term, even though they are not as critical to him as they’ve been in the past.

Albanese brings to the job the enormous authority of leading the party out of the wilderness after almost a decade. Over the past three years there were plenty of wellwishers but also plenty of doubters. Albanese’s “come from behind, kicking with the wind in the fourth quarter” strategy was a worry. For starters, borrowing an Australian rules metaphor didn’t sound convincing coming from the mouth of a Rabbitohs rugby league tragic.

Albanese reminded his jubilant troops on Tuesday that his plan wasn’t “a small strategy” but a “smart strategy”. And the next phase is to deliver on the core promises to lay the foundations for a second term because, he says, Labor reforms can only be entrenched if there is a long-term Labor government. Few would need reminding after the reform vandalism initiated by Tony Abbott – the most obvious being the dismantling of much of the infrastructure for climate change action based on a carbon price. Not far behind was the assault on the national broadband network and its future-proofing fibre-optic design. All were sacrificed on the altar of partisan politics or toadying to vested interests.

Albanese is making much of having learnt the lessons of past failures and is urging caucus members to continue the discipline, the unity and the sense of purpose that saw them all migrate along the corridor from the opposition party room to the government party room.

Enhancing Albanese’s authority more generally in the parliament is the fact that, despite losses to the Greens in two Brisbane seats and the miscalculation of parachuting Kristina Keneally into the hitherto safe seat of Fowler in Sydney, he is now the prime minister of a majority government with 77 seats. He has the ability, therefore, to push his legislation through the house of representatives without needing to negotiate with the Coalition, Greens or the 12 independents. Talk earlier in the week of shoring up the numbers by offering the speakership to one of the independents appears to be receding, but Albanese may still be attracted to the insurance it offers against voting mishaps on the floor of a tight parliament.

The senate is an entirely different matter. Not unusually, the governing party is in a minority, with the Greens dominant on the crossbench, where they have 12 senators. Labor would need either the Coalition to vote with it or the Greens and one other independent to get legislation through.

Greens leader Adam Bandt will not follow the example of the party’s founder, Bob Brown, in 2009, by making the perfect the enemy of the good on emissions reduction legislation. Labor still sees the Greens voting with the Coalition to defeat Rudd’s carbon pollution reduction scheme as a major contributor to the decade-long climate war. Bandt says he is prepared to accommodate the government but will draw a line at allowing new gas or coal projects. He is unimpressed with new Climate Change minister Chris Bowen’s willingness to leave it to the market. “They don’t leave it to the market on wage-setting, why would they on something as existentially threatening as climate change?” he says.

Bowen will chance his arm at legislating Labor’s 43 per cent target, ending the Morrison government’s practice of withholding contentious bills. He says it’s the right thing to do but will not spend an inordinate amount of time in futile negotiations, because the target can be otherwise mandated.

Sure, it can, but the Greens and the teal independents will be able to leverage enormous political pressure on the new government by pushing for stronger targets through attempted amendments. There will be a lot of interest in the performance of the raft of independents who took six blue-ribbon seats from the Liberals. Climate change and integrity in government were top-order issues for them.

Albanese is not about to adjust the target he took to the election, but he says he will treat the parliament with respect. On Sky News’s Sunday Agenda, he drew inspiration from his success in doing just that as leader of the house in 2010-13. He says he will treat the new opposition leader, Peter Dutton, with respect “if we can get some agreement from him – that would be good – on measures that we have a mandate for”.

It didn’t take long for the new, “softer” Peter Dutton – who is promising to smile more – to disabuse Albanese on the issue of climate change action. At his first news conference as leader, Dutton could not hide his contempt for Labor. He may have been aiming at his shattered base but to do it so bluntly to the national media confirmed this leopard is finding it very hard to change his spots. He said by 2025 he will have presented a plan that “will clean up Labor’s inevitable mess and lay out our own vision. We won’t be Labor-lite.”

Dutton spurned the pleadings of the Liberals’ defeated candidate in North Sydney, Trent Zimmerman. He won’t be adopting or backing Labor’s 43 per cent emissions reduction target. In fact, he sees not identifying with it as a chance, yet again, to turn the issue into a cost-of-living weapon to wield against the government.

The two seats the Liberals lost to the Greens in Brisbane were severely inundated during the recent floods and Adam Bandt says urgent action on climate change was a key topic on the booths. How Dutton plans to win back the teal seats with his persistent comfort to the coal lobby and climate sceptics is a mystery. Even Michelle Landry, the National who held her coal seat of Capricornia, says climate change needs to be addressed.

It will take some time for the Liberals and Nationals to adjust to the fact they will be an afterthought in the media for a while, after nine years of mostly dominating the narrative. However, Albanese says he doesn’t underestimate Dutton.

Back in 2001, some senior Labor figures could not see Dutton defeating Cheryl Kernot in the seat of Dickson. One consoled himself by saying, “You ought to see the gormless dork the Liberals have put up against Cheryl.” Twenty-one years later the “dork” is still the member after a career as a senior minister. But he will certainly need to read the national mood much better than Scott Morrison did, because he can’t count on Albanese “messing up” to the extent his prejudices dictate.

Judging by his spiel on Tuesday, Dutton sees the economic headwinds of higher inflation, rising interest rates, petrol prices and a more aggressive China as enough to defeat Labor in 2025. After all, the Coalition copped all the blame this year. This is a misreading of the broader picture, however.

The Liberals had been in power for nine years of leadership ructions. In their last term, climate change was inadequately addressed, and there was a refusal to enact an integrity commission and an appalling record on responding to women’s issues. Dutton speaks of policies “squarely aimed at the forgotten Australians across regional Australia and in the suburbs”. These are the same Australians the Coalition forgot to address and who rejected them at the recent election.

Albanese, meantime, is determined not to relive the nightmare of Labor’s last stint in government. Fortunately for him, his colleagues seem similarly persuaded. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2022 as "Ghosts of prime ministers past".

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

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