Chris Wallace
Summertime and the leading is easy

If there’s one thing Australians want in January, it’s not to be bothered. The Albanese government is doing its best to oblige.

This time last year the Morrison government’s continuing existence interfered with Australians giving themselves over fully to the traditional summer torpor.

The Liberals had no clue about what lay ahead. A year ago today, then treasurer Josh Frydenberg visited Mt Eliza Village Fruits with the local Liberal candidate for Dunkley. At the election four months later, Frydenberg lost his seat and was out of a job.

At the time, in the summer of 2022, Frydenberg losing the blue-ribbon seat of Kooyong seemed a laughably remote possibility to most, though not quite all, politicians, journalists and others. Monique Ryan’s ouster of the treasurer and putative future Liberal leader put every Australian politician on notice that no seat is safe, ever.

The nation breathed a sigh of relief that government by inflammation – with voters constantly riled into frenzy one way or another by then prime minister Scott Morrison – was over. The national blood pressure dropped. Policy lymphocytes kicked into gear.

People mostly got happier. Even Frydenberg looks happier. He’s grown a beard and finally learnt to be graceful in defeat to accomplished women – in this case his wife, Amie, who last weekend beat him in the Lorne Pier to Pub ocean swim. His Twitter post after the event said she “not only beat me in the water, but racked up her ‘Shark Bait’ medal for 10 swims”.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is happy too, relaxed and at ease on a successful visit to Papua New Guinea last weekend that showcased his ongoing delight in the job.

Whereas Paul Keating looked a bit wary, pictured wearing an Oro headdress on a visit to New Guinea while prime minister, Albo in Wewak positively beamed wearing an equally striking one. His friendly ease is one of his greatest prime ministerial assets.

On Monday Albanese kept the glow going, with his office publishing transcripts of the prime minister’s interviews with Mick Molloy on Triple M Sydney and Dave Hughes on 2DayFM.

Molloy got a consult on what Melbourne boys like Molloy should get up to in Sydney.

PRIME MINISTER: I would take you to Balmain to a pub crawl. It is the closest place where there are pubs on every corner. But I’d also take you, on a similar bane [sic], there’s a theme here, to all the craft breweries around Marrickville, which is fantastic. And I would take you to the places that I guess people don’t know about … the best Greek in Marrickville. I will give them a free ad here, the Corinthian restaurant. Because you’re a Melburnian and you’ve got to like Greek food.

HOST: I do, indeed.

PRIME MINISTER: And they still have the whole sheep’s head … The mum cooks the lamb. It is to die for.

Meanwhile, Hughesy wanted to know the prime minister’s New Year’s resolution – specifically, whether it was to get abs.

PRIME MINISTER: You might recall us talking about me getting fit before the election campaign. Let me tell you, as prime minister, it’s a lot harder because there’s a lot more function [sic] to go to and [it’s] hard to make time to exercise and all that. I’m trying to be disciplined about that. I’m finding it more difficult.

HOST: It feels like, Anthony, it feels like you get fit to get married. And once you get married, you let yourself go. And you becoming prime minister is like, you know, you’ve achieved your life’s goal now. So, you’re able to let yourself go.

PRIME MINISTER: Able to just pack it on after that, you reckon?

So it is that Morrison’s government by inflammation has been replaced by Albanese’s government by banter, at least when it’s Albo on the mic. Government by banter has so far been mood-elevating and worked well where quality frontbenchers have their portfolios in hand.

Not everyone is performing well, though. Laura Tingle’s ABC 7.30 interview with Mark Butler on Tuesday night had many viewers wishing Albo would do a Morrison and secretly take over Butler’s Health portfolio in order to actually do something with it.

Butler’s banal, mealy-mouthed performance deepened concerns that there is a plodder at the helm of one of the portfolios of the moment.

Collaborating with state governments on how to restore a close-to-broken primary healthcare system in Australia is a huge job for a bold reformer and Butler does not look like that person.

He can’t even manage straightforward public health challenges such as bringing down Covid deaths.

The founding director of the Australian Health Services Research Institute, Professor Kathy Eagar, congratulated Tingle for pushing Butler about the government’s “weak and ineffective Covid containment strategy”. Eagar said Butler’s responses showed how badly he’s being advised. She said Australia’s “vaccine only” strategy needs to be urgently replaced by a “vaccine plus” approach.

“The evidence speaks for itself,” she said on Twitter. “COVID is 3rd leading cause of death & is not seasonal. ATAGI is out of its depth”.

Current government policy is just another version of Morrison’s notorious “it’s not a race” approach, according to Eagar. “It wasn’t true in 2020,” she said. “It’s still not true in 2023. Very obvious that nothing will change until there is a change in advisers.”

Extraordinarily, Butler used one of Morrison’s infamous dead bat devices in the interview, telling Tingle “I don’t accept the premise of that question” when pressed on a prominent epidemiologist’s characterisation of government strategy as giving “as little as possible to as few people as possible”.

Tingle’s attempt to get some accountability from Butler was a significant moment in the history of the pandemic. Tingle pushing for answers gives hope that other journalists may follow her lead, particularly given her prominence. “One death is a tragedy and journalists write a story,” Eagar observes. “One thousand deaths is a statistic and isn’t worth reporting.”

The striking example this week was the response from government ministers to the death of Australian Myron Love in a plane crash in Nepal. “Extraordinary that Albanese today expressed sympathy on the death of ONE teacher in the plane crash in Nepal, tragic as that is,” a former politician said in a message to me. “Not a worry about 413 Australians killed by COVID IN THE LAST WEEK.”

Summer torpor is one thing, summer stupor another.

In his Hughesy interview, Albanese said how well he and Indonesian president Joko Widodo got on during the prime minister’s visit to Jakarta last year. He recalled their bike ride in Jakarta, during which Albanese risked losing his balance. “Sometimes you can ride a bike too slow,” Albanese said. “We were riding really slowly and being filmed by this drone … I said, ‘Can we go a bit faster?’ ”

Albanese’s hands-off approach is fine when things are going fast enough. In nearly all the major portfolios, ministers are doing the grinding, detailed work of reviving public policy and administration after the sustained abuse and neglect of the past decade. Most ministers aren’t wobbling.

Butler is the exception. Albanese needs to get him to ride his bike faster before he loses balance, crashes and damages the government. Spurring Butler to shift fast from a “vaccines only” to a “vaccines plus” policy advocated by the most credible medical experts would save thousands of Australian lives too.

That’s not the only challenge. The most important story of the week, which The Sydney Morning Herald relegated to seven paragraphs on page 15, underlines just how much faster the government must move on inequality to arrest Australia’s accelerating polarisation into rich and poor.

The Oxfam “Survival of the Richest” report found 11 Australians became new billionaires over the past three years. It cites World Bank figures showing the planet is in the middle of the biggest increase in global inequality since World War II. In the past few years, the world’s richest 1 per cent of people increased their wealth by nearly twice as much as the rest of the world combined.

“Billionaires have seen huge gains during the pandemic,” the Oxfam report said. “A flood of public money pumped into the economy by the rich countries, which was necessary to support their populations, also drove up asset prices and wealth at the top. This meant that in the absence of progressive taxation, the super-rich pocketed unprecedented fortunes.”

In Australia, the 42 richest people now have a combined wealth of nearly $236 billion. Meantime, mortgage stress will bleed into housing precarity and – eventually for some, even among the middle class – homelessness, and that’s on top of already dire levels of homelessness around the country.

Rising interest rates are increasing the cost of everything for everyone, the perverse outcome of monetary policy designed to lower prices in the end. It’s madness, especially when the Oxfam report found 60 per cent of Australia’s inflation was driven by booming corporate profits.

And then, of course, there’s climate policy.

Summertime is easy. When the torpor passes, the Albanese government is really going to need to rev things up. 

Paul Bongiorno is on leave.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 21, 2023 as "Summertime and the leading is easy".

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