A few otherwise intelligent people seem to be having difficulty understanding what's happening, so let's repeat the news: Labor won the election.
Forget the way things were done under the previous government. Use any leftover white papers as firelighters, because that's all it's worth. Throw away previous verities and chuck out the old rule-book: the new team are here for at least three, probably six, and maybe even nine years. Labor is setting the agenda and won't let anything - speeches, words or even hints - that predates 10.54pm on May 21 get in the way of that.
This has two significant ramifications. Firstly, we exist in a new reality. This leads to rule one; which is that Anthony Albanese is creating his own reality. Forget anything Labor said about policy continuity. This government has already shown its determination to shift the goalposts as necessary. Anyone who thought things would stay the same needs to get a grip. That world has already disappeared.
The view from inside The Lodge is, however, very different from the pavement outside of a Marrickville coffee shop and supporters who wanted the new government to reshape the outside world are already savouring a slightly bitter taste on their tongue. It's not the macchiato, it's the acerbic tingle of disappointment as ambitious election promises make contact with reality. This government is interacting circumspectly with reality; not challenging it. Anthony Albanese wants to be re-elected and is taking a long-term view. Instead of coming to office with a program to alter the country within 40 days like Gough Whitlam, he's taking his time and treading carefully.
It's become clear this election drew a sharp line between the routines of the past and how things will occur in future.
Bill Shorten's recent media appearances provide a masterclass on exactly this expectation management.
The minute he was appointed Minister for the NDIS he spoke to Labor's supporters insisting he'd blitz the waiting list and represent people who should be participating in the scheme. "We're fighting [people with disability] for amounts which are less than we're spending in the fight. How did we end up in that parallel universe?"
Labor voters finally knew the person in charge was on their side. Then NDIA boss Martin Hoffman resigned his $720,000 a year job, confirming Shorten was in charge. He didn't personally wield the knife, but he didn't have to. After clashing with the agency head it was obvious one would have to go. The departure was almost universally welcomed by disability advocates.
And then, last week, Shorten did more media; this time with a different objective. His message was always consistent, but this time he was putting a very firm cap on any wild expectations. In particular he emphatically shot down the idea this (unfunded) scheme could continue ballooning exponentially. He told the ABC the NDIS "would not subsidise everyone in Australia". He restated concerns fraudulent claims were 'stealing' as much as $1.5 billion dollars, 5 per cent of the scheme, from those who needed it most.
There was some push back to his remarks on social media from disability advocates but nothing hit the mainstream. Shorten had effectively triangulated the community. He placed himself firmly in the centre - exactly where Labor needs to be to govern effectively. The new minister redefined his mission using the rules outlined above - forget about the past and get used to me being in charge. This government will be the arbiter of what can and can't be done; no one else.
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A couple of commentators (and journalists) still don't appear to have realised this yet: they still seem to inhabit a world where the ancient regime established where the boundaries of possibility lay. You could hear this in their remarks about what Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Defence Minister Richard Marles "should do" about China. Dross and cobwebs! You can safely ignore anyone who isn't with the new program because their old trench-lines are already outflanked.
There will be no war with China on Albanese's watch, just as there will be no kowtowing to Beijing, either. And if anyone doesn't like this or thinks they could do it better, well, forget it. Nobody cares.
This doesn't mean there won't be mistakes: it's just the perspective from which the government's actions are criticised needs to be informed by the new reality.
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Take the so-called 'Pacific family' we've been hearing so much about. All very well and good and a nice change in style. But families share their house, whereas Australia's commitment to the islands is more akin to offering to help with neighbourhood watch. Don't expect the Solomons to break its deals with Beijing until Canberra is genuinely engaged in building a much deeper community with the Islands than at present. People there don't want to rely on tips from tourists any more than they want their country stripped of timber and fish: they want a future. Turning such dreams into genuine prospects is possible, but it will require much more than just participating in a couple of sing-sings. It requires something far more difficult than aid. It needs a new mindset.
The government has a chance to establish this new way of thinking about the world between now and Christmas. After that it will be too late. By then we will be embroiled in the middle of a new financial crisis that will make Kevin Rudd's GFC challenge look like a piece of cake. The opposition might even have got its act together, although I certainly wouldn't bet on it. But by then Albanese's hand will be being forced as he reacts to events, both here and overseas.
This period represents the government's best chance to establish itself as both grown-up and competent. It won't manage this without a willingness to slip off the constricting bonds of past expectations, escaping doctrinal responses as it finds a new way forward. The test from now on will be its ability to turn rhetoric into delivery; words into action.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
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