We are still, quite rightly, in the middle of Anthony Albanese's honeymoon and thank goodness we have a new government to head us in a new direction. This doesn't mean critical thought should be abandoned, because there are already a few signs that, right at the very top, this government is not quite as quick and certain as it should be.
Those concerns revolve around one person - the prime minister.
Full credit to him for winning the election (even if he did so with fewer votes than Bill Shorten lost it the time before) and yes, he's in the Lodge (well, Kirribilli House anyway). What's missing, however, is the feeling that the country's heading, confidently and securely, in a new direction.
Prime ministers have one massive advantage over their opponents, the ability to set the political agenda and define where the battles will be fought. Albanese isn't using the tools that come with the job.
How, for example, did Albanese ever find himself defending the previous government's decision to slash pandemic relief for casual workers? It was bizarre. Arrayed against him were all the premiers, the unions, the medica association, and basic good sense, yet he still needed reassurance before making the obvious decision to reinstate payments to workers who had nothing. Where was the lad who grew up in a council house then, hey? The amazing thing is not that the PM caved in but rather that it took him as long as it did to re-institute proper policy. What was he thinking? Was he really going to keep to a timetable fixed by Scott Morrison, and hold back money from some of the most vulnerable in the community?
At the root of the problem is personality. Albanese still isn't comfortable wielding power. He doesn't yet inhabit the mind of a prime minister. If you doubt this just look at the words he used while announcing the support payments would be reinstated.
"We didn't make the decision [to cut relief]", Albanese said, "the former government did. We've responded collectively - the Commonwealth with states and territories - and that is appropriate."
See who's missing in those sentences - he, himself. There's no "I was persuaded" or "I acted because something needed to be done". It's as if everything that happened occurred because of other people.
Those aren't the words of a decisive leader who knows what needs to be done. This doesn't mean he's floundering but it does reveal the mark of someone moving tentatively on basic policy issues where there is an obvious answer. Why did it take Albanese so long, together with a meeting with so many heads in the room, before he could simply blame the previous government and move on?
Slow responses aren't a problem in themselves. After all, the PM has done the right thing and would undoubtedly have acted sooner if he hadn't been overseas. Perhaps this shaky start has more to do with his deputy, Richard Marles, or the relationship between the two. Properly briefed, Albanese should have acted sooner. Perhaps it's a sign he isn't comfortable relying on advice and can't delegate. If so, this is going to be a long, slow government, as we lethargically wait for the prime minister to catch up, take advice, and personally consider everything before he finally agrees to act.
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Perhaps this will all work out. There is, however, another issue where Albanese is making tactical choices that reveal he still hasn't quite understood what it means to lead the country, and that's climate. The election showed decisively that the war is over and the good guys have won. People understand the link between floods and fires and the need to reduce carbon emissions. This is a simple issue of good policy, just like providing COVID support.
Why the PM's choosing to fight his first major political battle on this issue with his erstwhile allies, the Greens and teals and independents isn't clear - particularly as Albanese knows he doesn't have the numbers to win.
A government that's sure of itself doesn't need to introduce legislation to implement things that are already happening. Setting a target of reducing emissions by 43 per cent shows Albanese is still dancing to Morrison's tune. It's way less ambitious than Labor's earlier targets. Instead of using the recent climate events to establish his own direction, he's still pandering to the very people who were campaigning against him.
His decision to bring forward this battle is utterly bizarre for three reasons. Firstly his opponents. Instead of battling the "Tories" he insists he hates, Albanese is choosing to pick his first fight with those genuinely concerned about the environment. The second surprise is this is, effectively, a fight over nothing: about a target to reduce emissions at a vague point in the future rather than something that will produce concrete results today. But it's the third factor that's really puzzling to those who understand politics. Labor are now preparing for battle against the only politicians who actually managed to achieve big swings towards them at the last election.
The only conclusion is that Albanese is, sadly, colour blind: he can't see teal or green. He reduces every colour to a binary black or white. Even shades of grey vanish. You're either for him or against him.
He's not alone in seeing politics in this way. At last weeks Press Club speech the executive director of Climate 200 Byron Fay revealed how so many independents had achieved their success. It wasn't by picking numbers and targets. They're interested in results. Also present was former chief scientist Ian Chubb, the person just appointed to the crucial job of reviewing Australia's carbon credit scheme. What's clear is that the fight has now moved well beyond the old contest of tallying up which party has "won" the weekly contest for headlines. Instead the electorate is now focused on the reality of our changing environment.
Albanese needs to catch up. He's already risking being left behind.
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