Comment

Paul Bongiorno
Albanese with the kingmakers

With the prime minister in Britain to attend the coronation of our unelected head of state and the treasurer back home doing last-minute bean-counting ahead of Tuesday’s budget, the Greens’ Adam Bandt seized the moment to pose the key question confronting Australia: What kind of country do we want to be?

It’s hardly surprising that Anthony Albanese’s attendance at this apex royal event gives fresh life to the republican issue. He is, after all, a prime minister who has resolutely put back on the agenda our identity as a truly independent nation without a borrowed monarch.

But there is another side to the question Albanese himself wasted no time putting on the night he was elected. He asked Australians if they would join him by agreeing to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full this term.

Recognition of First Nations people is a chance for reconciliation based on amending our founding document to reflect a united country, finally based on justice for those who were so cruelly displaced 250 years ago.

Some in Labor are worried that voters hit by cost-of-living pressures and looking to the Albanese government for relief will see it as being distracted from their struggles to make ends meet. The budget next week will have to prove decisive in convincing them this is not the case.

Albanese himself sees no such conflict. Addressing Aboriginal disadvantage is of a piece with his often-stated aspiration that he wants to lead a country where “no one is left behind”. When challenged, for example, on the manifest inadequacy of the JobSeeker unemployment benefits or the single parent allowance, he does not resile from insisting “Labor must always be the party of the disadvantaged”.

These commitments have become something of a cudgel with which the government’s friends and foes can beat it over the head. The Reserve Bank’s shock raising of the official cash rate by a quarter of a percentage point on Tuesday, to an 11-year high of 3.85 per cent, has only added to the degree of difficulty in meeting expectations.

Economist Stephen Koukoulas was typical of most commentators, being critical of the decision for taking no notice of its own forecast of weaker growth, falling inflation, low wages growth and rising unemployment. If the Reserve Bank believed its own forecast that inflation would not return to its target range of 2-3 per cent for three years, then, he says, it should have lifted the rate by at least half a percentage point.

For Koukoulas, the outlined reforms to the RBA can’t come soon enough. If they were already in place, he believes, there would have been a different result. He says the “inflation forecasting record of the bank under Dr Lowe is shockingly bad”.

According to Pradeep Philip, of Deloitte Access Economics, “The rate increase shows that the Reserve Bank is still playing recession roulette, despite briefly and sensibly walking away from the table when it paused rate hikes last month.”

The Australian Council of Trade Unions was just as scathing in its criticism. Secretary Sally McManus says working people are bearing the brunt of fixing inflation, but the real driver is corporate profits fuelled by excessive price rises. “There is no wage-price spiral,” she says. “It’s time to cease interest rate rises and for corporate Australia to moderate their profits.”

In responding to the hike, Treasurer Jim Chalmers promised there would be “a cost-of-living package in the budget and it will prioritise the most vulnerable Australians”. He bristles at suggestions he is excluding younger Australians from that relief and warned against making assumptions ahead of his speech.

The hard bit, Chalmers concedes, is providing meaningful relief that “won’t add substantially” to the inflation problem the Reserve Bank governor, Philip Lowe, is targeting. He warns no government can satisfy “all of the demands for new spending in the budget”, especially as the rate rise “is really a pretty stark, pretty brutal reminder of the difficult economic conditions that we confront”.

The opposition is demanding a brutal response. Shadow Treasurer Angus Taylor says the inflation crisis is “homegrown”< and blames the spending the government included in its October budget. He says it dropped any commitment to budget-balance and that “forces an increase in interest rates that we’ve seen”.

So, while blaming the government for failing to deliver energy price relief, he says returning the budget to surplus, which record commodity prices and low unemployment have facilitated, is “achievable” and ongoing surpluses are “absolutely crucial to taking pressure off interest rates”. Stand by for Taylor and his colleagues to condemn any relief in JobSeeker, family payments, rents or housing as reckless.

Taylor’s heroic commitment to budget surpluses and the austerity to achieve them rings hollow. It was certainly not matched when his party was recently in government. The Coalition left it to the Albanese government to deal with the trillion dollars in debt that it significantly created – despite trying to rewrite history and blame the Rudd and Gillard governments.

Wayne Swan, who was treasurer at the time of the global financial crisis, says the Coalition has “left a mess Chalmers has to clean up”. From his own experience, he says the current treasurer will be condemned for whatever he does by the Liberal Party and its cheer squad in the media.

We are seeing the same dynamic at work in the Coalition’s determination to defeat the Voice to Parliament referendum. It demands to be taken seriously at the joint committee inquiring into the wording of the referendum, calling for a watering down of the Voice’s constitutional scope for consultation, while at the same time maintaining a commitment to just say “no” to whatever is proposed.

The committee finished its public hearings this week with former prime minister Tony Abbott saying the Indigenous Voice is “wrong and potentially quite dangerous”. He claimed it was rushed and called for everything to be scrapped and for the process to start again.

His claims were comprehensively rejected by Noel Pearson. The Aboriginal leader and lawyer outlined the 16-year gestation of the proposal and Abbott’s previous support for it. He said the former prime minister had reneged on past commitments. Pearson told the committee “it’s absurd to suggest that we should ditch it and go back to the drawing board”. He said the conservatives had nine years in power to “bring this to fruition” and, despite promising to do so, had failed.

A committee source says “the overwhelming advice” from legal and constitutional expert witnesses was an endorsement of the words proposed by the referendum working group, including reference to “executive government”. They were constitutionally sound and would not lead to a “clogging” of government in Australia.

The committee will report to the parliament by May 15, with a dissenting report expected from Liberal deputy chair Keith Wolahan and other Coalition members, including “Yes” supporter Senator Andrew Bragg. While Albanese may have been prepared to accept the proposed watering down to achieve bipartisan consensus, Dutton’s outright rejection of the Voice renders this futile. At least it saves the prime minister from disappointing Pearson and other Uluru statement authors.

At the Sorrento Writers Festival last weekend, Barry Jones, who was deputy chair of the 1998 Constitutional Convention ahead of the republic referendum, saw the success of the Voice referendum as a precursor to Albanese’s ambitions for another republican attempt.

Jones said: “Aboriginal reconciliation and the republic are inextricably linked. The monarchist cause is essentially the last expression of White Australia, its rhetoric, culture, ceremonials, politics and the habit of deference. It is a static, essentially nostalgic, position in society that, although dynamic in some ways, is uncertain how to express itself. It is political amnesia.”

Jones’s analysis helps explain why it is no coincidence that those opposed to the Australian republic, such as John Howard, Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton, also trenchantly reject the sort of constitutional recognition that gives First Nations people a say that cannot be extinguished on a whim – the essence of the Voice.

These issues were raised with Albanese in his first TV interview after arriving in Britain. He raised eyebrows by giving it to the controversial Murdoch favourite Piers Morgan.

Morgan asked Albanese if he would be saying the oath of allegiance at the Westminster Abbey service. He said he would as a representative of Australia and he makes a similar oath every time he is sworn in after an election. He said Australia made a choice in 1999 and he accepts the democratic outcome.

The prime minister was coy about his intentions to hold another such referendum, saying his “absolute priority” was constitutional recognition and he couldn’t imagine going forward on the republic before that occurs.

The Morgan interview is another example of Albanese’s shameless pragmatism when it comes to his dealings with the media. Earlier in the week he stunned many of his colleagues and drew widespread criticism by attending the wedding of Sydney’s No. 1 shock jock, Kyle Sandilands. A million listeners a day are hard to ignore.

The guest list read like a mob meeting, with underworld figure John Ibrahim and convicted drug dealer Simon Main as members of the bridal party. Columnist Andrew Bolt said Albanese was there “to kiss the backside of power”.

It’s a tad harsh but it does help frame Bandt’s question: Is that the kind of country that we want to be? 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2023 as "A game of coronation chicken".

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