A mosquito in a nudist colony

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We have finally arrived. After an almost daily campaign since the 2019 federal election, we are just a few months short of the next one. Naturally, attention is turning to focus on Anthony Albanese and his opposition.

From one perspective – namely that governments usually lose elections and oppositions don’t win them – many feel Albo should be a shoo-in. He is, after all, running against the Morrison government, which many believe is our worst ever and most incompetent, nudging out Tony Abbott’s for the title.

It has been suggested to me that Albo is sitting like a mosquito in a nudist colony, with so many fleshy issues to bite into, all the failings of Scott Morrison and his government, but where to begin, where to concentrate, with what priority?

Albo had to operate in the context of two sycophantic media empires, namely Murdoch and Nine, that seemed blindly supportive of Morrison and his government.

Others say okay, but what would Albo actually do? Does he have the integrity Morrison clearly lacks? Will he accept the responsibilities Morrison has shirked? Will he accept the accountability Morrison has ducked? Does he have an alternative vision for Australia? Can he realistically be expected to deliver? And what about his team?

Before addressing these and other issues, it is important to recognize just how difficult it is to be leader of the opposition and how tough it has been for Albo to be recognized and heard, especially when we have been coping with a global health and economic crisis for the past couple of years, where people tend to want to support the incumbent. Throughout this, Albo has had to operate in the context of two sycophantic media empires, namely Murdoch and Nine, that seem blindly supportive of Morrison and his government.

It is not as if Albo has been sitting on his hands waiting for Morrison to self-destruct. He has offered sustained criticism and made constructive suggestions as Morrison has lied and misrepresented and boasted his way through. Despite this, Albo’s contributions have been mainly ignored by the mainstream media. Similarly with the several headline speeches and policy announcements he has made.

It might be instructive to share some painful memories of my own experience with the Australian media. When I became opposition leader in 1990, I sought meetings with the key newspaper editors and television executives et cetera, as I felt I was up against it. I was running against Paul Keating, who at the time was a darling of the media. I particularly recalled the meeting with the then managing editor of The Australian. He said to me that I needed to understand a couple of ground rules. To paraphrase as best as I remember it: “First, we have a policy agenda here at The Oz. If you advocate something that is consistent with that agenda we may, and I emphasize may, that is may, give you a run. But if you speak against that agenda, you can be sure we will bucket you.”

As we approached the 1993 election I was asked to meet with the editor of another Murdoch paper, who urged me to make headline speeches to as many groups and constituencies as I could. I excused myself from that meeting and asked my press office to compile a heap of paper copies of all the speeches that I had given extolling the virtues of my Fightback! package along the lines that editor was suggesting. The stack stood about three quarters of a meter high. The speeches had been to various groups: pensioners and the aged; business in general, small and big; the trucking industry; farmers families; welfare agencies and a range of civil society groups; and so on. I took this stack back to the meeting and carefully placed it on the coffee table between the editor and myself, such that he then had to stand to look over the pile to speak to me. I said to him, “This is what I have already done along the lines of what you suggest.” Over the pile, I pointed out that his paper “had covered none of them”. I would be very surprised if Albo found it any better.

Albo has had several imperatives over the past couple of years, beyond trying to hold Morrison to account. He took the rough edges off or abandoned some of the policy proposals Bill Shorten took to the last election, especially on tax. He campaigned in key seats where the ALP’s standing was damaged in 2019, particularly in Queensland, where Clive Palmer’s anti-Shorten advertising had a real impact.

Albanese also started to raise important policy initiatives that, in the end, could define an alternative vision for our country. He has done this in terms of childcare and early childhood education as a basis for broader reform of education, more attention to schools et cetera. He has also focused on vocational training, promising free TAFE. On climate, he has set a 2030 target for emission reductions as a key part of a genuine policy. In addition, he has launched a process for the recognition of First Australians and proposed a restructure of the manufacturing sector.

Significantly, and of import to many voters, Albanese has committed to a truly independent national integrity commission – a clear alternative to the Morrison government’s rorting and wasted spending in pursuit of short-term political objectives, paying off mates and donors et cetera. To be believed on this, however, Albo and his shadow attorney-general need to release their draft legislation, to demonstrate that it would genuinely hold to account ministers and their staff for the rorts we have seen on sports, golf courses, car parks and regional development.

In a recent tweet, Albo provided a broad framework for his vision for Australia, starting to pull together the various threads he has launched over the past couple of years. The statement offered a framework to contemplate seriously. “Australia will be a healthier country if we learn the lessons of the pandemic,” he wrote. “Invest in public health. Make more things in Australia. Create secure jobs.”

Clearly Albo has been very cautious. There is a view within the Labor Party that Shorten provided too much policy detail, leaving himself exposed to scare campaigns. There is an echo here that goes back to the scare campaigns run against my very detailed – some would argue too detailed – Fightback! policy in 1993. It produced a view and a practice that preceded Shorten and said oppositions should only adopt “a small target strategy”.

Given Morrison and his ministers have a refined capacity to lie, exaggerate and misrepresent, the risk of an unfounded scare campaign cannot be ignored. Indeed, it has already begun with scare claims against Albo, claiming he would do a deal with the Greens in office and that they would insist on a much higher target for emissions reductions by 2030, thereby destroying jobs. Clearly Albo will be under pressure to provide more detail of his vision and he will need to be backed up in this by the stronger members of his team.

To sum up, it will be an uphill battle for Morrison to win again. He certainly won’t govern in his own right: the many female independent candidates will see to that. Albo is also unlikely to govern in his own right. The most likely outcome is a minority government.

The challenge for Albo is to have more seats than the LNP, so as to be in a position to negotiate with the crossbenchers to control the government. Today the LNP has 76 seats and the ALP 68. The crossbench of minor parties and independents has seven. Morrison will lose seats to more independents and the ALP hopes to win a few from the LNP, but probably not enough.

Albo will be counting on winning seats in Queensland and Western Australia. He has been quietly campaigning in the former, but Covid-19 has kept him out of the latter where he is effectively relying on the electoral support for Mark McGowan’s handling of the pandemic. He could win up to four seats in WA.

A significant polling weakness for Albo is his net negative personal satisfaction rating, which is larger than Morrison’s. I believe Shorten himself was a major reason why Shorten didn’t win. He never had a net positive personal rating. It is most difficult to identify why personal ratings are negative. It could be basic trust and integrity. Relative to Morrison, these are not issues for Albo. Some in the media have gone more directly personal on Albo, suggesting that his hat is at least one size too big for him, making him look foolish as it drops to the back of his head, and that people don’t like his slight lisp . Personally, I can well identify with that.

I am somewhat surprised as to how soon so many seem to have forgotten the very substantive role he played as a senior minister in the Gillard government and just how well he acquitted himself. This is, again, little noted by the major media outlets.

Morrison should be taking nothing for granted. In large measure he has become an important election issue himself. His incompetence in handling Covid-19 and its variants continues as a defining issue and may come to a conspicuous head with the return to school and the failing rollout of rapid testing. He is also well behind on the overarching issues of integrity, responsibility and accountability, and his attempt to “normalize” these only serves to further compound his problems.

Morrison’s babbling at the beginning of his press conferences has become seriously counterproductive in sustaining confidence. He is also under pressure to detail a deliverable vision for our national future, but he will be consistently on the back foot on the economy, which he tends to take for granted as an issue he will win. The headline economic numbers are not matched by the lived experience of both business and households, where confidence has collapsed and there are real struggles with disrupted supply chains and the runaway cost of living. With rising inflation and continuing supply chain disruption, the prospect of an earlier increase in interest rates will gain momentum through a likely May election. The global economic and political environment is also likely to be more challenging than Morrison has yet been prepared to admit.

An effective, competitive opposition is fundamental to the functioning of our democracy. The role to lead that has fallen to Anthony Albanese, to both hold the Morrison government to account and to provide an alternative and deliverable vision of the future for our nation. To do this he needs a fair and balanced media to ensure the detail of the positions of both sides are objectively conveyed to the people of Australia.

Albo has been struggling with this but he deserves a fair go. He has some strong views and good ideas. He needs to be heard, recognized and analyzed for these. This is much more important than his hat size or his manner of speaking.

It is now more important than ever in my living memory to get good leadership. People deserve the right to make their own assessment based on fairly presented facts. Their health, their economic wellbeing, job security and the education and safety of their families are in the balance. The stakes are very high.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 29, 2022 as “A mosquito in a nudist colony”.

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