‘Not like Tony Abbott’: what kind of PM would Anthony Albanese be?

Tony Windsor didn’t have much time for Anthony Albanese when he first arrived in Canberra. los former independent from regional New South Wales felt he had the measure of the current Labor leader. “A smart arse, a student politics type," él dice.

But Windsor’s perception changed during the 43rd parliament, when he was a kingmaker in the House of Representatives, and Albanese wrangled the daily parliamentary business of the minority Gillard government.

“Even though Albanese didn’t support Gillard in the coup [against Kevin Rudd in 2010], no one worked harder for Julia than him,” Windsor says.

They were turbulent times. Tony Abbott maintained a laser-like focus on testing Labor’s command of the chamber, so Albanese’s parliamentary agility was tested. He was flat out keeping the program on the rails. Windsor says some of Albanese’s Labor colleagues “seethed” at the prospect of having to deal with the crossbench to remain in power.

“But Albanese took it in his stride," él dice. “I found him very good to work with. I never felt shafted, and you can’t say that about too many people in politics.”

Australians are now less than 12 months away from a federal election. Given the proximity of the election, and the tightness of opinion polls, it is time to pose the question: what sort of government would Albanese lead if Labor can chart a path to victory in a political environment more favourable to incumbents? What sort of prime minister would Albanese be?

Antes de la pandemia, during the last parliamentary term, Labor attracted more scrutiny than the Coalition because Bill Shorten was expected to win. Labor’s prevailing government-in-waiting dynamic allowed Morrison to present himself to voters as a plucky opposition leader intent on repelling radicals rather than what he was – an incumbent seeking a third term.

But the circumstances are different now. The coronavirus pandemic dominates everything. There’s hardly enough national bandwidth for people to scrutinise all the incumbent leaders in the federation let alone ponder the Labor alternative in Canberra. Rather than feeding the news cycle with a steady stream of policies, Albanese happily asserts underdog status, y has sought to make Morrison the story.

Given Windsor has no reason to gild any lilies, and has been in the room with Albanese during character-forming times, I’m interested in his view about what sort of government he would lead. What sort of prime minister would Albanese be?

Windsor says it’s hard to tell, because when it comes to political leadership, “the moment maketh the man”.

“I think he’d be a hard-working, solid citizen; he’s not ego driven," él dice. “The jury is still out on Albanese obviously, but he does have the capacity to work on things that are not pure politics. I think he’d be a solid pair of hands”.

Windsor chuckles. “He wouldn’t be Australia’s greatest prime minister – but it’s been a long time since we had that.”

When we seek to understand what people might do in the future, the past can be a reliable guide. Albanese has been in government before – as Windsor recounts, he was an important player – cabinet minister, House tactician, counsellor to two leaders, eventually, deputy prime minister – during the time Labor won government federally in 2007, and threw it away during the Rudd/Gillard civil war.

It was a traumatic period. The agenda was hectic, and the struggles, both internal and external – the Murdoch media braying for Abbott, the mining industry ranged against super profits taxes and carbon pricing – were visceral. One image that has stuck in my mind from that time is Albanese on stage at Labor’s miserable 2013 campaign launch, grinding through his pep talk for the base, (“no issue is too big for Tony Abbott to show exactly how small he is”), his grief brimming, as Labor was reduced to a ghost ship, drifting towards defeat.

I asked Albanese this week what he learned from those formative years in government. He says two lessons. The first was governments can move the dial.

“I think we did that, through the National Disability Insurance Scheme, through infrastructure investments that I was responsible for, a través de the apology to the stolen generations, through paid parental leave – it was a reminder of the power government has to change people’s lives for the better.”

The second lesson was durable change requires longevity. A nascent policy legacy can be dismantled by political opponents. Bob Hawke and Paul Keating picked up Australia and put it down in a different place because they were able to govern for 13 años. Hawke and Keating forged the essential characteristics of Australia’s deregulated, open, Asia-facing market economy – with a social safety net working as the shock absorber underpinning that transition. The architecture they built persists three decades later.

Because the Rudd/Gillard partnership fractured, shortening the life span of the government, Labor was powerless after the defeat in 2013 to stop “an undermining of the national broadband network model, a removal of action on climate change". He says the lessons from that period underpin his approach to leadership.

Albanese has been advised by some political pundits to dial up the aggression – to be more like Abbott if he’s to have a hope of beating an opponent as wily as Morrison. Abbott was an uncompromising oppositionist, a human hurricane blowing himself into The Lodge. Critics say there’s no fire in the Albanese show. The strategy is too passive. Where is the will to power, that unseemly yearning, the hunger to be change agents that characterises the great upset political victories?

The persistent critique is Albanese seeks to win by attrition, by hoping that Morrison will disintegrate sufficiently to topple with a light push, rather than pitching himself as the transformative figure for the times – which is the way Labor has won elections at the federal level since the Whitlam era. Some of Albanese’s colleagues think it is time to sharpen up what Labor’s change case is. Is the change case Morrison has comprehensively messed things up, and does not deserve a fourth term? Is it an alternative program, yet to be fully unfurled, with a contest bearing down?

The counterpoint to these critiques is Labor deluded itself during the last parliamentary term that Bill Shorten was Gough Whitlam and the party was bearing down on 1972 – when neither of these things were true. Will voters slogging through a pandemic, coming in and out of lockdowns, be receptive to a bold transformation pitch from an alternative government when they feel anxious and highly leveraged? Or is the zeitgeist pitch the one Windsor identifies: the “solid pair of hands”. The safe change option, with Albanese as Australia’s Joe Biden, the pragmatic progressive who might just build back better if he gets the opportunity?

Albanese also rejects the idea that Abbott presents any sort of role model for how to win government. He tracks back to his longevity point to posit any victory secured by Abbott’s burn the village method would be pyrrhic.

Abbott, él dice, destroyed any chance he had of remaining in power for long because he pitted himself against conventions that sustain leaders. The Abbott prime ministership had shallow roots. “The way you conduct yourself in opposition impacts on how your government functions,” Albanese says. “I’ve been determined to be not like Tony Abbott”.

Bob Carr, who has known Albanese for decades, and served with him in cabinet in the late stages of Rudd/Gillard, describes him as an “institutional loyalist”. If Albanese managed to defeat Morrison, Carr predicts the leadership style would be chairman of a collective rather than presidential. “He recognises the great truth of federal politics for any savvy prime minister: you’ve got a bureaucracy and a political party willing you to succeed and working all hours to make it happen”.

Assuming it’s possible to win by being Albanese and not Abbott, I ask the Labor leader to give me the core objectives of his government in three sentences. The points come quickly.

“A government that is about the creation of wealth, but is also concerned about the distribution of that wealth and addressing growing inequality in our society," él dice. “A government that invests in industry and in people.

“A government that shapes the future, rather than being scared of it”.

In politics, what people do is often a more reliable indicator than what they say. If we want to map the contours of an Albanese government, it makes sense to look at the policies.

At the moment the offering remains sparse. No dollars yet for the Labor signatures: educación, health and aged care. It’s not clear where the dollars will come from, because Albanese is determined that social spending will not be bankrolled by the controversial revenue measures that fuelled the death tax disinformation in 2019. What to do about the government’s stage-three tax cuts has not yet made its way back to the shadow cabinet.

Labor has settled bits of a climate policy, bits that are hard for the Coalition to weaponise, like cheaper electric cars, and community batteries firming renewables – with the tough calls, (or squibs), still to come. With internal combatants like Joel Fitzgibbon always ready to throw grenades, the opposition wobbles gingerly along a line which says Labor will make Australia a renewable energy superpower, but we are not hostile to gas.

So the picture is inchoate. But if you look closely, the current policies tell a story. It’s not entirely clear whether the story the policies tell is transactional, or substantial. By this I mean the policies certainly tell us who Labor is courting in an electoral sense – and that’s two cohorts: the workers in traditional industries who fear progressivism leads to an inexorable evaporation of opportunity; and women. But it’s unclear whether these pre-poll pitches to targeted voters also define the character of an Albanese Labor government.

Given the Coalition, since the Howard era, has sought to build electoral majorities by recruiting aspirational blue-collar workers, there are a number of Labor policies configured around jobs, skills and sovereign capability. There’s a $15bn national reconstruction fund to create “secure jobs for Australian workers, drive regional economic development, boost our sovereign capability and diversify the nation’s economy”.

There’s a national rail manufacturing plan, a defence industry development strategy, and a skills guarantee (a commitment that one in 10 jobs on federally funded infrastructure projects are given to apprentices, trainees and cadets). There’s also a $10bn off-budget Housing Australia Future Fund to build social and affordable housing, “and create thousands of jobs now and in the long term”.

For workers in regional Australia who have voted for the Coalition since the Abbott era because they think the transition to low emissions means an end to secure employment, Labor has promised $100m to support 10,000 apprenticeships in the new energy economy (with the accompanying catchphrase: “the world’s climate emergency should be Australia’s jobs opportunity”). Continuing that narrative of the energy transition being opportunity rather than cost, there’s a $20bn off-budget fund to rewire the power grid to integrate renewables (cue construction jobs in the regions).

Persisting with employment, Albanese has committed to having a jobs summit if he wins, and to doing policy work that defines what full employment means in the labour market of 2021, when insecure work and underemployment is rife.

Then there’s a pitch to women and young families. Labor has a cheaper childcare policy (which was obviously compelling enough for the government to go part-way to matching). There are also commitments on improving women’s safety, and closing the gender pay gap. Women are abandoned Morrison government after parliament’s #MeToo moment. Earlier in 2021, the Guardian Essential poll showed fewer than one in three women intended to give their primary vote to the Coalition – although subsequent polls suggested the prime minister was clawing back support.

Labor is also vocal on integrity issues. Abuses of power and processes is one of the consistent attack lines against Morrison. There’s a commitment to a federal anti-corruption body, and a flirtation with getting rid of slush funds – programs where merit selection of projects is either non-existent, or not observed.

The coming months will flesh out this picture. The data tells us Albanese also needs to put flesh on the bones of his own leadership.

Shorten was better known in the electorate than the current leader, but Shorten’s disapproval rating in the final Guardian Essential poll before Morrison called the 2019 election was 10 points higher than Albanese’s is currently.

Albanese’s problem isn’t disapproval, it’s voters continuing to sit on the fence when changing a government requires an active choice. Change requires engagement, and around a quarter of the Guardian Essential sample can’t say whether they approve or disapprove of Albanese. This is a high number, and it’s been that way for many months.

This fortnight’s Guardian Essential data neatly lays out a story of two leaders: Morrison’s approval has slipped, and his negatives are on the rise. That’s what happens when you stay in politics for a long time. Voters learn to decode your habits, and mark you down when strategy too often substitutes for sincerity. But Albanese hasn’t yet cut through sufficiently to convince voters he’s the change the country needs.

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