Anthony Albanese might be further down the road to power were he not dragging the weight of the doubts among Labor-oriented voters about whether he is up to the job. For a man leading a party which is well ahead in supposedly reformed opinion polls, a good many people still wonder whether he can win. Some also worry whether Labor deserves to win under his leadership, or whether a victory by him would be worth the effort, given the ruthlessness with which he has dumped treasured Labor shibboleths to get to the finishing post.
The electorate generally appears to have a rather more benign view. Albanese is never going to win a popularity competition among Coalition supporters, but years of professional sniping and attempted attacks on his character have not succeeded in dragging him down. They have failed to paint him as an ideologue, or as a person temperamentally unsuited to having his hand on the government chequebook. He was an experienced minister in the Rudd and Gillard governments, but not much of the mud that is routinely thrown at the opposing party has been about him or things he did. Or didn't do. Mud has not stuck; indeed he has excited some affection as both a knockabout character of humble beginnings and a sense of humour - characteristics Bill Shorten could not mimic. Even the Daily Telegraph - a propaganda sheet against Labor - campaigned to save him from the wrath of Green voters in his inner Sydney electorate.
His critics can complain that voters know too little about the man. But they have not, so far, been able to point to some scandal, mismanagement or blindness that has been missed from the public relations glitz - something suggesting that this man is not who he pretends to be. The wider problem may be that he is boring, not exciting, that he cannot enthuse, or be the reason or the personality inspiring people to work hard to throw the incumbent out. Indeed, once he was not so boring, and could lead a minority faction with roots in branch warfare, but he has deliberately played this down, and often been ominously quiet as the Coalition has made its own mistakes.
An attractive character with some gift for seeming authentic has shrunk into a ball, become inward rather than outwardly focused, become himself something of an automaton with the slogans, and willed himself to avoid making public commitments. He has disappointed by the way that he has restrained his criticisms of his opposite number, often being vaguely supportive of government intentions if mildly critical of its execution. A man playing, and moving about, as a small target. A person playing the long game who is still very parsimonious in handing out fresh policy, too restrained to launch an all-out attack on Morrison, more focused on creating little flesh wounds to fester, from little darts and shafts, rather than artillery. I am not saying that he is necessarily pursuing the wrong strategy. But it is a risky strategy, one that might not increase his chances.
Albanese could be leaving it too late to make the strong impression that is still needed at the final push. He needs the electorate to do more than throw out a tired and very corrupted party that is no longer competent or focused on good policy and outcomes. He needs that, but he also needs to be positively selected as the alternative. He needs to convey a firm impression about how routine government by his team will involve a reversion to accountability, transparency and integrity - qualities we are not presently getting.
Albanese needs the electorate's mandate as much as the party's because the party is by no means united about what it wants to do in government. At least it is focused on the journey, rather than on what it will do when it arrives - one of the mistakes Shorten made. But when Albanese wins, if Albanese wins, he will have no special authority within his caucus based on the fact that he is a winner. Nor from the fact that his risky strategies worked. He will not be like Morrison at the last election, winning his "miracle" against the odds, with virtually no assistance from people on his own side. Nor will he be allowed the self-indulgence of being allowed to think that victory was a direct mandate of God, after he could rely on his own instincts and anointed head rather than take into account the wishes or the interests of the electorate.
Potential Labor critics and white-anters will be revising the story from the moment of victory, if there is a victory. They will say that a drover's dog could have won this election. They will say Morrison defeated himself. They will deny that Albanese got electoral endorsement for any particular policy. They will point to the junked headline policies and the general caution and timidity of the campaign. They will say that all Albanese did was to try to head off allegations of some inbuilt Labor tendency to profligacy, big programs, and waste. A negative neutralised is not a mandate.
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The Coalition will argue, as ever, that Labor has a secret agenda to raise taxes, to spend and borrow the nation into recession, and to dump treasured policies against asylum seekers, terrorists and the supposed yellow peril. The pity is that modern Labor hasn't the guts to change such policies and instead intends to continue with them. Labor should be campaigning about restoring good government, and remaking the federation - a task that involves flexibility and policy courage, some capacity to take risks, and willingness to experiment. The last thing the country needs is for Labor to have ruled out options for fear that the Coalition -- during the election campaign - might raise a scare campaign.
Overwhelmingly, those with doubts about Albanese are from within Labor. Coalition attacks on his character haven't worked, and most of the people in the middle rather like "Albo", albeit without much depth of passion.
If Labor was doing its job of opposition with the confidence that a party which deserves power should have, Morrison government ministers would be so busy defending their own actions, that they would not have the time nor the credibility to be raising a spectre of what Labor might do.
Morrison and company have so long lost their credentials as prudent, cautious and careful managers - always apt to tax and spend less than Labor. They lost that reputation by their own ineptness rather than skilled Labor attack. If Labor was campaigning effectively Morrison, or Josh Frydenberg, or Barnaby Joyce would scarcely have the time to be arguing that Labor would govern by debt, deficit, unrestrained spending, higher taxes and an ever-burgeoning public service.
The party responsible for the national security surveillance state and ultra-coercive and un-Australian bossiness in welfare policy would not be allowed to get away with any claim that it was the party of "freedom", as against a party addicted to collectivism, centralism and political control. That's if Labor had the guts to mount a critique, an argument. By default Labor stands right alongside a Coalition dominated by a former policeman and the son of a policeman-politician, each with a taste for coercion, each having strong punishment instincts and no impulse for compassion or human rights. We would not be moving towards Mike Pezzullo's police state if a mainstream party, apart from The Greens, would call it out. A government whose officials so frequently overreach and abuse power in areas such as border entry controls, leaking, Robodebt and dealing with systemic and widespread dishonesty in the banking system, would simply not be allowed to claim that it is the party of the rule of law, the protector of the citizen against the overweening state, the guardian of the innocent-until-proven-guilty principle.
Some inclined to excuse poor campaign performance or strategy will say that Labor's difficulty and caution is magnified by the absolute hostility of News.com newspapers in every state, and by increasing hostility from within the old Fairfax press.
Yet the truth is that thanks to public electoral funding - a fraud on the public that Labor supports as strongly as the Coalition - Labor has about $50 million to spend at a federal election without much in the way of serious fund-raising. That may not be as much as the big spending from Clive Palmer, but it is about twice as much money as it cost struggling battlers in the mining industry, such as Gina Rinehart and Twiggy Forrest to destroy mining taxes. Then Labor was complaining that nothing decent could survive such an onslaught - the power of so much money. So why is Labor making only limited headway with twice the money?
Labor has another systemic policy. After the Tampa affair of 2001, much of the party's left went over to the Greens and have not returned. The so-called Labor left is a pathetic remnant, and the faction is no longer an engine-room for ideas. The question is not so much one of asking whether Labor has any bottom at all, and "what does Labor/Albanese/Shorten/Rudd really stand for?" - though these are issues in themselves. It is rather one of satisfying potential voters with answers to their need to know where the instincts of Albanese - and Labor under him - will go in some future crisis. Finding the answer to such a question is not a matter of delving into the press releases, or reading old speeches. It is about personality, predisposition and philosophy. Albanese may have put more of this on display than most modern politicians - but the ordinary voter has no idea whatever of Albanese's moral or mental rulebook - even less after Albanese has, in leadership, shown such a tendency to junk unpopular policy.
Morrison, and his pollsters appear to perceive this and are drawing up some campaign themes that mirror John Howard's successful attack on the reliability and trustworthiness of Mark Latham in 2004.
People thought it audacious that John Howard - who had cemented his reputation as a chronic deceiver of the population between 2001 and 2004 - decided that the issue of the 2004 election was "who do you trust?" The public had come to learn that they could hardly believe a thing Howard said.
In fact, the idea had genius. Howard was not pitching himself as a man of his word, nor as anyone particularly reliable in giving his account of contentious events. He couldn't. But he could, and he did, pitch himself as a known quantity. People had seen him in public life for more than 30 years, and they knew where he came from, and more or less what he thought about anything of much significance. They understood when he would dig in, and when he was prepared, if necessary, to drop policies proving to be unpopular. By contrast, he argued, we knew very little about Mark Latham, and what we did showed him to be pretty erratic, sometimes even a bit menacing. We could not "trust" his instincts, the frame of mind with which he approached policy and other issues, not even his appetite for debate.
Albanese has been long enough in public life (longer than Morrison) that a good many people have some idea of his character and general stock of ideas. But none of that tells us much about how he would be as prime minister. Most of that job involves reacting to unexpected events, rather than implementing established policies. Like John Faulkner, a predecessor in Sydney city left politics, Albanese has often seemed the better for an obvious decency, a tendency (until he stapled his lips together) to think aloud, and a life story that seemed to compare and contrast with the background and life experience of the modern Labor suit, who had never had dirt under his fingernails. (In fact, of course, Albanese comes from the modern suit system - though clothes are a bit less formal on the left - and has worked one way or another inside the Labor tree system all of his adult life.)
But Albanese has not had, nor used, professional photographers at public expense, not been fawned on, or had his wife fawned on in the Australian Women's Weekly. He has not had a lot of time, particularly recent time, in conversation with the Australian people. The glory of being in a minority faction in his own party has been that he has had less responsibility for his ideas than people with more power to put their ideas into action.
Albanese doesn't get many puff pieces in the media. Against Morrison he has a gift for sincerity, but not much gift, if gift it is, for marketing. Least of all for dressing up humdrum ideas with fake glamour, announcing the same non-policies day after day as if they were new. He's awkward repeating a meaningless slogan all day long.
The Morrison we see may be a construct. Like the pretend "real Morrison", a creature far far different from the image of the fond but daggy Dad, and the Christian, that millions in public money have imprinted on the public mind. But willy nilly, impressions, even ones created by pure fakery, can move voters.
The somewhat more genuine and authentic Albanese has yet to make a deep impression on the public pillow. Our knowledge of him, such as it is, does not extend to a feel for what he is thinking, what bees are in his bonnet, what ferrets and eccentricities furnish his brain. To get to be leader, he erased a good deal of his former style and is super-disciplined. It may have blunted both his judgment and public perceptions of how he would respond in any sort of crisis.
That's why his low key, low profile, and don't-scare-the horses approach is dangerous for him and dangerous for Labor. The public is quite ready to pitch Morrison. Morrison's biggest chance involves undermining the character of Albanese. Morrison might think there is no limit to the public money he can apply to this task, and hardly a public servant who could be expected to object.
Addressing such problems is not merely a matter of Labor's opening the windows and bringing real people back into the party. It is equally about exposing the professional party - the ministers and backbenchers, and the suits - to real people in the community, rather than pre-arranged "crowds" of party loyalists, fake events, focus groups, lobbyists and Labor tree people.
In this sense, the biggest problem with the small target policy is in its implicit assertion that apart from the few well-researched points of criticism, the present government is doing a splendid job, with Labor's whole-hearted support. Such an approach rarely wins votes as such - indeed it often loses them from once committed supporters now in open disgust at the abuse of traditional party values, and among people who ask themselves whether a party that won't stand for values will stand for anything. On the other hand, the very clever tacticians argue, a policy of pre-emptive surrender means that an issue can be "neutralised" and ergo falls off the political agenda. If this were so, one might wonder at $800 million stunts by the Coalition such as the pretend re-opening of Christmas Island as a concentration camp in whipped-up hysteria about medivacs. For Morrison, that was money well spent, and it was a confection, using public money for purely partisan purposes, that is what modern incumbency is all about.
For all of the tricks and short cuts, it comes to an election - one likely to be honestly conducted, to the disappointment of some Trump admirers. It's the people, not the party, that can make Albanese king. He ought to be appealing to them, being frank with them, and trying to win their confidence by showing his whole self, rather than the least he can get away with.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
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