Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Albanese finds his balance on a bamboo bike

Visual stunts – or picture opportunities, as they are called in the trade – are nothing new in contemporary politics. Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo is just as addicted as any of the practitioners. On Tuesday, he provided the visual metaphor of a bike ride, which neatly summed up the progress of the fledgling Anthony Albanese prime ministership: a shaky campaign but a much more assured and proactive performance now he is in the job.

Equilibrium is being maintained as Albanese and his ministers quickly begin implementing their agenda. Refurbishing foreign policy was the PM’s main concern this week – and the priority he gave to the two-day trip to Indonesia, our increasingly important neighbour, was a perfect example. Meanwhile, his ministers were making progress with the implementation of a national anti-corruption commission, climate and energy policy, and a response to cost-of-living pressures.

In what must be one of the strangest stunts sprung on a visiting leader, Widodo invited Albanese to join him on a bamboo bike ride around the gardens of the presidential palace in Jakarta. Aware of his host’s quirky gestures, the Australian PM obliged, but for a few seconds disaster seemed to beckon as Albanese struggled to get his balance.

The wobbles didn’t last long and the two were filmed in lively conversation. The locals were quick to point out that the Australian leader was being shown particular respect. This was not lost on Albanese. He said he was “deeply touched” by the fact Widodo had researched his life story and they discussed their humble beginnings. The bike ride was the president’s way of symbolising millions of Indonesians who rely on bicycles “for the essentials of their everyday lives”. More to the point, it was an expression of Widodo’s belief in a shared vision with Albanese on how the two countries could best work together.

Significantly, the high-powered business delegation Albanese took with him at short notice was clearly relieved there is a new government in charge and a prime minister quickly comfortable in the saddle. Privately business leaders were despairing at the inertia of the Morrison government on key issues.

Chief executive of the Business Council of Australia Jennifer Westacott was effusive in her praise of Albanese. She told RN Breakfast it was a very important trip and the delegation had been well received. “The prime minister has also been magnificently received,” she said. “This is going to be the fifth-largest economy in the world and it’s right on our doorstep.”

Nine months ago the BCA attempted to break the logjam on climate change action caused by the Morrison government. It commissioned modelling to back a target of 46 to 50 per cent reduction of emissions on 2005 levels by 2030. It argued this was “pragmatic, ambitious and will drive investment”.

Scott Morrison duly ignored it and the Albanese opposition wasn’t brave enough to match it after the shellacking Labor received at the 2019 election for being too ambitious. The Greens and a raft of independents successfully filled the vacuum at the election and there was a severe backlash in blue-ribbon seats.

The early signs from the vanquished Coalition are that it still hasn’t heard the clear message from voters. In what could be a potentially disastrous move for a Liberal leader, Peter Dutton seems to be spurning not only business but the “well-heeled” in the seats where the teal independents deserted the party on the issues of climate action, gender equity and integrity.

Former Liberal premier of Western Australia Colin Barnett is despairing at the state of the party. He thinks Australia is “looking at a scenario of probably a decade of Labor”. The Liberal moderate, who watched as his party was taken over by conservative hardliners in WA and elsewhere, offered his solution to the ABC: “Get some young people in. Put them in charge and build a modern party.”

Albanese’s attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, is not waiting for the Liberals or the Nationals to catch up with contemporary sensibilities. Nor is his department. No sooner had the new government been sworn in than
a taskforce was set up to develop the promised integrity commission, with the department’s deputy secretary, Sarah Chidgey, assigned to work exclusively on the task. Advertisements for staff were published.

The new attorney-general was presented with an expedited timetable that would see a bill introduced into parliament next March. But Albanese had given Dreyfus no wriggle room. Dreyfus says Labor made a commitment to legislate by the end of 2022, “and we’re going to keep that commitment”. He expects a national anti-corruption commission to be active by the middle of next year.

The Greens are urging the government to adopt their bill, which passed the senate last year. Peter Dutton is musing that he would support independent MP Helen Haines’s bill, although by midweek he had not contacted her. Albanese says he wants the bill to be the Labor government’s. Haines has no plans to reintroduce her bill, which is a vote of confidence in Dreyfus.

The attorney-general has been in discussions with the Victorian regional independent and the government is sympathetic to Haines’s suggestion that she should play a significant role in the commission’s development. The thinking is that, in order to fast track the parliamentary process, a joint select committee of the house and the senate will be established. This will give all sides an input, especially the new teal independents. There seems to be no resistance to Haines being co-chair of such a committee.

Dreyfus had contacted all the new teal independents within days of being sworn in. It is not lost on Labor that their continued success is in the best interests of the longevity of the Albanese government. After all, it was these independents who denied Morrison any chance of retaining government and would similarly play a significant part in blocking Dutton regaining the Treasury benches.

When you drill down, there is not a significant divergence between the Greens, the independents and Labor on what the new federal commission should look like and what its powers should be. All agree the commission should be independent of government direction and capable of initiating its own inquiries based on a variety of sources including whistleblowers. It should be able to hold public inquiries when it is judged to be in the national interest – not only as a deterrent for corrupt behaviour, by naming and shaming, but also to encourage further information.

Dreyfus is particularly keen not to be seen as setting up a body whose sole purpose is embarrassing his political opponents. This commission is no Abbott royal commission into unions or the home insulation scheme. But it will be able to look into the past, with no time limits. This is the way all the state and territory anti-corruption commissions function and it is vital in addressing “serious systemic corruption”.

But former deputy prime minster Barnaby Joyce is stridently wary. In an extraordinary opinion piece this week, Joyce claimed a federal anti-corruption commission would “manacle political vision”. To take Joyce at his word, you can’t have “vision” without corruption. Truly bizarre.

Maybe the deposed Nationals leader shared these fears with Morrison when they were both in office. Much to the chagrin of many Liberals – those who survived and especially those who lost their seats to independents – this self-serving myopia was unhelpful and unnecessary. It was certainly out of tune with contemporary demands for accountability, transparency and integrity.

But while Labor will not need the support of the Coalition to establish an integrity commission with teeth, it is a different story with Albanese’s other landmark imperative: a referendum enshrining in the constitution a First Nations Voice to Parliament. The sad history of failed referendums suggests that without bipartisan support this goal is doomed.

Dutton appears open-minded, although he says he’s waiting to see the detail. It sounds like a fudge, especially in light of his own history on Indigenous issues. He recently explained his walkout on the apology to the Stolen Generations, saying he did not believe an apology could be delivered while there was unaddressed domestic violence in Indigenous families. As if this behaviour is restricted to any one race or ethnicity: it is a national crisis.

But the fact he has not flatly rejected it, as former prime minister Tony Abbott did this week and Malcolm Turnbull did when it was first proposed, suggests Dutton has sniffed the wind. Albanese, using the authority and gravitas of his office, has tapped into the national ethos of a fair go. After all, this was the motivating force in the successful 1967 referendum recognising the dignity of Aboriginal Australians as citizens. There is still another injustice to be addressed and that is the dispossession of the continent’s first inhabitants.

Despite the Mabo High Court judgement 30 years ago expunging the lie of “terra nullius” – the empty land with no rightful claimants to it – the dispossessed have still not received the respect of formal recognition in the founding document of our Commonwealth.

In this, Prime Minister Albanese is showing the sort of decent political vision the nation has been aching for. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2022 as "Commission district".

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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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