Comment

Paul Bongiorno
What the prime minister did next

Anthony Albanese was in an ebullient mood when he hosted the parliamentary press gallery for end-of-year drinks at the Lodge. Although some thought he was Scrooge-like in putting an hour time limit on his hospitality, he was far more expansive in his ambitions for the coming year than is usual at these functions.

The prime minister was pleased with his government’s successes in getting major pieces of legislation through the parliament, but he assured the gathering he was not content with the things achieved. Albanese told the snappers and scribblers assembled by the Lodge’s pool that he had not come into government “as a Labor prime minister” to play it safe. He said he came to change the nation for the better and that involved “taking risks”. There was plenty more to do, he said, and he was prepared to take the chances needed to implement an ambitious, unfolding agenda.

What we are seeing already is a government comfortable in the exercise of power and confident enough to risk losing a fight that it judges worth having. A Newspoll analysis of support for the past four incoming governments at the end of their first six months shows the Albanese government second only to Kevin Rudd’s in popularity. Rudd had a four-point gain two-party preferred on his election result, compared with Albanese’s three points. But if these early months of the Albanese government are any guide, the risks the prime minister is prepared to take will be calculated and politically astute. The two most contentious pieces of legislation steered through parliament were the industrial relations reforms and the energy intervention plan. Both had a laser-like focus on the frustrations of the community and solutions that were readily appreciated.

The Coalition, in both cases, resorted to almost hysterical hyperbole in criticising them. In doing so, it ended up being seen as on the side of bosses who didn’t want to empower their workers to bargain more effectively for higher wages. On energy, the Coalition sided with the cartel-like behaviour of the gas corporations against consumers and businesses hit by crippling power bills.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and his shadow minister for Climate Change and Energy, Ted O’Brien, parroted the talking points of the gas companies. They warned the moves would fail to deliver “in the short term” and were a “monster in the making” that would have a disastrous effect on the industry in the longer term because “it will kill supply”.

Wittingly or unwittingly, the opposition was also sending the message to voters who deserted them for the Greens or the teal independents that the Labor government’s intervention would hasten the demise of coal and gas – just what these voters want. Clearly the Liberals haven’t yet got a clue how to win them back. Albanese and Energy Minister Chris Bowen stressed all week that their plans also involved a quicker transition to more dispatchable renewable energy, which can be stored for use as needed.

Unlike Dutton, Albanese has not missed the significant shift in community sentiment away from the status quo on energy: prioritising private vested interests, often at the cost of billions of taxpayers’ dollars, over service delivery. While this is most acutely felt at the moment in the energy markets, it is true across the board from aged care to employment services, disability and the like.

Bowen’s resistance to the bullying of the gas industry is an example of the government being more in touch with this contemporary zeitgeist. He said: “I understand that gas companies want to maximise their profits. That’s their job. We have a different job. Our job is to protect the Australian people. Gas companies want to protect their profits.”

Not to be missed in the government’s success this year is the role the Greens have played in the senate. Its 12 senators have wielded their significant share of the balance of power constructively. When the Coalition chooses to oppose government legislation, it puts the Greens and other crossbenchers up in lights. On energy intervention, Tasmania’s two Jacqui Lambie Network senators were quick to grab centre stage with the Greens. The price caps on gas and coal offered some relief and they judged anything was better than nothing.

Greens leader Adam Bandt was thrilled by the attendance at his end-of-year cocktail party, held in a chic Canberra bookstore restaurant. It was a far cry from the handful who used to show up for drinks in the senate office of the party’s founding leader, Bob Brown.

Bandt told the crowd of journalists, lobbyists and others that the honeymoon for the government was ending. The plaudits for doing what the defeated Morrison government could not or would not do would fade. As vegan canapes went around, he cited the legislated emissions reduction target, the national anti-corruption commission and industrial relations reforms as examples.

The party leader said next year he expects Labor to consolidate as the centre-right party of government on economic issues, which would leave plenty of room for the Greens to be the party of social democracy. Bandt is convinced voters are demanding a greater role for government than was fashionable in the days when utilities and other public assets were being sold off at bargain basement prices. He intends to push hard for the stage three tax cuts to be scrapped and the $254 billion in savings to be diverted to things such as greater relief for families and households, and boosting of the Newstart unemployment payment above the poverty line.

The Greens won a commitment from Albanese to produce a package for renters, smaller businesses and lower-income earners to transition to cleaner renewable energy. It will be released ahead of the May budget. Bandt says a lot more could be done if the government also picked up his call for a windfall profits tax on gas and coal companies.

Bandt says the “greedy coal and gas corporations should be compensating people, not the other way around”. He says people need more support than the government is offering and clearly hopes the agreed package means that once the price caps end in 12 months, “we won’t be back to where we are now”.

Just where Dutton intends to take the Liberals next year isn’t clear. Some on his backbench, such as veteran Victorian MP Russell Broadbent, were very unimpressed with the negative posturing ahead of the energy package vote. Broadbent went on the record early in the week to flag that he would not be voting against a benefit for pensioners and low-income earners in his electorate. Not everyone in the Coalition shares Scott Morrison’s jaundiced view of welfare recipients, a view that reared its ugly head again in his evidence to the robo-debt royal commission.

One second-term city Liberal says he’s been assured “we will have a comprehensive energy package to take to the next election”. It will be fascinating to see how Dutton resolves the conflict between pandering to Coalition members in regional coal seats in Queensland and urban voters everywhere else who see no reason why coal and gas should not be more quickly phased out and renewables more seriously promoted.

Chris Bowen accuses Dutton of acting in bad faith. He says that, unlike Labor in opposition during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Coalition leader is not seeking to engage constructively in a difficult situation. He says Dutton is “playing old-fashioned denial politics blaming renewables” and in doing so the Coalition have “made themselves irrelevant”.

Albanese is hoping Dutton doesn’t make himself irrelevant for the constitutional Voice to Parliament. At his end-of-year event it was the issue the prime minister nominated as his 2023 priority. He hasn’t given up on the opposition leader getting off the fence and supporting the referendum, which will most likely be held in October.

Dutton says he’s waiting for details before he makes a decision. More likely he is waiting to see if there is more in it for him politically to oppose the Voice. The temptation to burst Albanese’s bubble by denying him another win would be tantalising for such a partisan warrior.

But Albanese has strong community support as a starting point, according to the latest Essential poll. It found 63 per cent of Australians support the Voice. The minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, says it is an idea whose time has come and she will be accelerating the build-up to the referendum early in the new year.

Exactly what the Voice will look like will wait until after the referendum. The working group advising the government will produce an indicative model and design principles by March.

Another advisory group of legal and constitutional experts has supported Albanese’s draft wording for the referendum and has concluded “the Voice does not confer ‘rights’, much less ‘special rights’, on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Nor would the Voice change or take away any right, power or privilege of anyone who is not Indigenous.”

You would imagine only unchecked lies could defeat it. With that test in mind, 2023 is going to be a big year.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 17, 2022 as "What the prime minister did next".

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