Anthony Albanese's team is padding up. They think they're ready for their innings and perhaps some are. They'll certainly have little difficulty dealing with anything the opposition bowls up.
Peter Dutton will be too busy learning that you need to be polite to the umpires and can't be needlessly rude answering reasonable questions - as he was to a journalist at the Press Club just before the election. But there's no need to waste more time discussing him, anyway. It's more than a hundred years since anybody led their party from defeat straight back to government and Dutton won't prove the exception. The smart money is backing other bowlers, like Angus Taylor. But the Coalition will need to spend time in the nets, practising and getting its selection processes right before it bothers re-taking the field. There will be a lot of time standing bored and lonely in the outfield, ignored by the commentators, listening to the monotonous chirping of the crickets as the world changes around them.
This doesn't mean that the new team won't have problems - quite the reverse. Not from their opposition but from the external environment. It's as if the rules of the game have suddenly been changed and every minister is now concurrently facing a stream of balls being fired at them from machines. It's not like the old days, where the team could simply rely on the Treasurer to notch up runs while they played defensive shots.
After spending the past three years watching the previous government destroy itself, this week the new ministry begins dealing with the practical challenges of administering a country. It's far too early to make any judgement of Albanese, nonetheless his early steps have demonstrated sure footwork. The party's (basically) on side: getting the factions to select their own choices for ministries was a good way to focus the grudges of those who felt left out back on their colleagues. Similarly with the PM's restraint on getting rid of Departmental Secretaries. He will do this in time, but better to begin with getting his ministers behind the desk and making such important changes as needed and choosing the right people to step up, rather than a wholesale purge. Some individuals may surprise; others almost certainly will not.
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What's required at the moment, however, is continuity, rather than dramatic change and that theme is again being stressed by retaining the current departmental structure. Albanese's had extensive experience of the way government's organised and the machinery it uses to get things done. While it can certainly be improved, by-and-large it works. By reserving any decision to re-draw the tables of organisation, the PM leaves himself options. He'll see how his politicians perform: who's capable of hitting balls to the boundary and who's likely to be caught behind. This gives Albanese a chance to identify the duds early, before they create debacles. And - perhaps most crucially - it gives him a chance to practice being a leader.
Between 2007 and 2013 Albanese saw close up both a PM who tried to do too much (Kevin Rudd) and another who failed to communicate effectively with voters (Julia Gillard). This scarring experience appears to have indelibly marked the way he's beginning his stewardship of the country.
He's gained political space from the natural hiatus that follows such a prolonged, drawn-out election. People are exhausted and simply want their lives back. Their focus is the economy and the cost of living. Albanese's challenge is to reassure voters that he's doing what he can and the best way to do this is to delegate the task to Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen. Both are more than capable of sending messages to the electorate that they're pulling the right levers.
Travelling internationally isn't a waste of time, either. It's far more effective as a means of re-positioning Albanese as a leader than standing in front of a bank of TV cameras back at home. Because this is his task, now, to act the way Bob Hawke did, as a consensus leader. Captaining the team doesn't mean you need to be the best batter, it requires standing back and encouraging others to do their best. There is so much to get done. Defence demonstrates the quantum of challenge.
Since World War II, Australia's strategic circumstances have remained essentially static. Sure there have been threats but, with the exception of possible nuclear war, the country hasn't faced any genuinely existential threat. This is no longer the case. The increasing reach and accuracy of weapons means the conventional responses will no longer work.
If there was an easy answer to questions like which replacement submarine we should buy, Dutton would have announced it while he was defence minister. There isn't. The traditional moulds we used to shape our choices in the past have been smashed by developments in basic physics. Dutton's predecessor (and Army Reserve Brigadier) Linda Reynolds understood the way weapons' changing technical characteristics were radically altering the way wars would be fought in future; that's why she set in train the purchase of new missiles. Unfortunately her replacement was caught in the past; that's why he bought tanks.
Like so many other ministers, Labor's Richard Marles can take two paths. Continuing to drive down the current route will get nowhere. There will be the comforting effect of familiar scenery floating past the windows, for a while, but it won't be long before it's obvious the road has led to a swamp. Only radical revision, owning change, will allow the government to escape longer-term budget crisis.
The submarine can be cancelled because the capability such vessels represent is no longer value for money. Missiles can destroy frigates; drones can neutralise tanks. The external environment has altered so much that the safest course is now the most radical - to scrap continuity and embrace change. Let's hope Albanese will have enough courage to do what's right, not what's easy.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
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