Anthony Albanese now has a chance to cement Labor as the party of middle Australia, destroy the Liberal party and marginalise the Coalition, but it's a fleeting opportunity. Most critically, Albanese won't achieve this by using the rhetoric of the past. If the new PM persists in portraying himself exclusively as someone who "fights Tories"; if he acts as if the world is still against him, and remains bound within a paradigm of conflict where nothing can be accomplished except by struggle, he will fail.
To succeed, Albanese will need to work cooperatively with those he once would have regarded as his traditional enemies. People like 'Teal' Allegra Spender, the daughter and granddaughter of Liberal politicians, those not from his background (like Independent Dai Le, a former Liberal deputy mayor), and former ideological enemies, like those Greens he fought for years in inner-city Sydney.
The world in which Albanese achieves this is not the world of his past. How he acts over the next month will be critical in establishing the frame through which he will be perceived. Can he become a constructive builder finding a new way forward or is he condemned by his personality, like Scott Morrison, to act as bulldozer brushing aside objections and demolishing anything or anyone in his way?
We will soon find out because the new PM has two immediate problems. The way he tackles these will indicate which path forward he will choose. The first is to demonstrate that he wants to work positively with the Teals. He needs to give them the opportunity to notch up some wins and demonstrate to the (former Liberal) voters who elected them that their voices are being heard, and that they're on the inside driving change. By offering them jobs and giving them responsibilities (like developing anti-corruption legislation) he can bring them on-side and incorporate them into his grand project. If Albanese disrespects them, dismissing their capacity and ignoring them or treating them like enemies, he will push them back into the arms of conservatives.
Labor has (although only just) cobbled together its majority on the back of Scott Morrison's unpopularity.
Albanese's second challenge is far more difficult. Labor has (although only just) cobbled together its majority on the back of Scott Morrison's unpopularity. If the party had faced a leader who was even vaguely popular it would still be in opposition. Never once during the election campaign did Albanese electrify the voters: there's a huge question-mark hanging where there should be policies. This leaves him with a remarkable opportunity, the chance to fill out that empty space with new ideas, policy and programs - a new agenda for the country. An 'Accord' perhaps - no, wait, that's been done before. Maybe a 'Compact', a way of taking us forward as a country, embracing economic reform and establishing strong foundations for the financial and environmental reforms that are so urgently needed. An agenda for change.
Any idea that implementing Labor's agenda should wait until the second term vanished on election night. There is just too much to be done. The critical skill Albanese will need to demonstrate will be, just like Bob Hawke, the ability to delegate and manufacture consensus. He needs to let others - most particularly Treasurer Jim Chalmers - get on with their jobs and bring real reforms to the cabinet table.
The new government needs to begin by returning to fundamental principles. It needs to work out what it's attempting to achieve and examining different ways of accomplishing this result. The big challenges revolve around money. It's the old story (there's never enough) but with a twist. Things can't keep going the way they are. There's an urgent need for not just tinkering at the margin but deep structural reform.
Defence and the NDIS offer two concrete examples of how patch-up jobs of the past offer no solutions for the present. Until recently the assumption was that there was no defence problem that couldn't be solved with more spending. Despite increasing evidence of China's economic and strategic might the previous government sought to bolster the force structures of the past. And the military answer was always remained the same. The solution to our security was three army brigades (bolstered by special forces), three (or four) squadrons of cutting-edge US aircraft, and a couple of aircraft carriers/landing helicopter docks and about a dozen destroyers and frigates. The order of battle remained the same, no matter the threat. Whether fighting Viet Cong in the jungle or Taliban in the rugged hills of Afghanistan; no matter if the potential enemy was a Soviet mechanised army or North Korea poised to strike north of the parallel, a way was always found to cling to a strategy that justified keeping everything just the way it is.
That's just not possible any longer - the world has changed too much. We can no longer economically afford the sort of military and technological superiority we took for granted in the past. The current cost of adding eight US-built Nuclear submarines to the fleet would require a levy of something like $2000 to everybody's tax bill, every year. It's not a sensible spend when there are other, better alternatives. Land-based hypersonic missiles, for example, could generate similar deterrent effects for considerably less money. The key requirement is intellectual flexibility.
It's a similar situation with the NDIS. As initially envisaged the scheme promised each participant would receive appropriate and individualised supports, regardless of cost. Unsurprisingly the scheme blew out and a series of reviews have commenced which, to participants, appear driven by the need to cut expenditure. The NDIA continues to insist this is not the case but, in the meantime, the cost per person continues to balloon. The previous government seemed to believe the problem would, eventually, go away.
We need to find answers. Anthony Albanese has six months to do it before things begin to come crashing down around him.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
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