Many years ago, I attended a community meeting to listen to a political newcomer many considered to be a rising star within the Labor movement.
In a dank community hall in the back streets of Redfern, a young Anthony Albanese, dressed in smart and striking casuals, spoke clearly and calmly about the relevance of the recent demise of the Soviet Union for Australian politics; future economic systems enabling the best conditions for the workforce; harnessing the world of capitalism to create a fairer and more equitable community; and discussing the environmental issues from a recently-released Club of Rome publication – The First Global Revolution – years before climate change issues became mainstream.
On that night, Albanese offered a solution to every perceivable problem, and proclaimed if Labor followed his advice, the already eight-year period of a Labor government could be extended for a far longer period into the future.
Albanese spoke for about 45 minutes, without notes, and the audience latched onto every single word. Energised after this immaculate presentation of political thought and ideas, the confident consensus among our group as we ventured off to the South Sydney Leagues Club for post-meeting drinks and discussions was: one day, Albanese would lead the Labor Party.
That community meeting in 1992 was a lifetime ago. Albanese was still years away from entering Parliament; Paul Keating had just become Prime Minister after challenging Bob Hawke for the Labor Party leadership; the Leader of the Opposition, John Hewson seemed certain to lead the Liberal Party to victory at the upcoming election, despite his radical economic reform agenda.
Over the next few years, the electoral nirvana Albanese hoped for seemed to be a distinct possibility – Labor’s surprise election victory in 1993 gave the impression the NSW Labor Right had established an invincible election-winning machine and, after a fifth consecutive election victory, Labor had achieved the position of ‘the natural party of government’.
But the 1993 election result proved to be a very false dawn. Labor went on to lose the 1996 election and, of the 24 years since that election, the party has been in office for only six. Of the past nine federal elections, Labor has recorded only one outright election victory (2007), a performance not dissimilar to the 1949–69 period, when Labor lost nine consecutive elections.
Albanese navigated a pathway through the internecine maze of factional alliances in the Labor Party and became the Member for Grayndler in 1996 – during a crushing general election defeat for the Labor Party, reduced to 49 seats in the House of Representatives, its worst loss since 1975.
The next time I saw Albanese speak publicly was at the historic Petersham Town Hall in 2001, for the launch of Marrickville Backyards, a publication produced by the Marrickville Community History Group. It was a warm day, and the crowded hall ticked all of the attributes of Albanese’s ‘people’ – Sydney inner-west, migrant families, and a collection of creative misfits, musicians and oddballs.
Albanese proceeded to launch the book, but something had changed. Dressed in suit and tie, ‘Albanese-the-thinker’ had morphed into ‘Albanese-the-politician’. Gone were the interesting anecdotes and worldly perspectives, replaced with inane everyone-has-a-backyard-to-grow-vegetables and there-needs-to-be-a-place-for-everyone platitudes and, after a minute or two, the crescendo of chatter and clinking of wine glasses gradually increased. Towards the end of his ten-minute speech, Albanese could barely be heard.
Albanese, in a hall filled with more-than-likely supporters and a receptive audience, wanted to appeal to everyone – and it seemed, to imaginary people who weren’t even there. But it was a forlorn exercise: in the attempt to appeal to everyone, few people were interested and, ultimately, the crowd was lost.
Nineteen years later, it’s de ja vu, but this time, it’s not a small and insignificant event at Petersham Town Hall: it’s all taking place on the national stage. As we predicted back in 1992 at the South Sydney Leagues Club, Albanese did become the federal leader of the Labor Party, but just not in the way we anticipated, arriving to the leadership after Labor’s demoralising defeat at the 2019 election, in the position as the Leader of the Opposition, and not as the Prime Minister.
At a recent launch of Per Capita’s publication, What Happens Next – an event held during this time of pandemic through the obligatory Zoom webinar – Albanese spoke, again, to a receptive audience, one naturally considered to be friends of Labor.
Like most people, I’ve overloaded on Zoom meetings but the one fascinating factor is the ease of gauging the feeling of the ‘room’. Attendees appear in Zoom galleries at the same distance from the viewer and at virtually the same headroom on the computer screen.
Albanese provided a disjointed speech that went on for 18 minutes and scanning through the faces on the Zoom gallery, I could see eye-rolls, a few nose scratches and, progressively, empty chairs. Compared to the subsequent speakers in this launch, Albanese seemed tired, lacklustre, laborious and low in energy.
Albanese concluded this session by saying: “I’ve made a very conscious decision to not be Tony Abbott. One of the reasons why this government has no agenda is because of the way they got there. In being negative and knowing what they were opposed to, and not knowing what they were for.”
And in a prelude to his forthcoming Budget Reply speech: “I see this as ‘flick-the-switch’ time. We have been constructive during the pandemic, that’s what the times have demanded. We’ll continue to be constructive but we’ll also be much more aggressive in putting forward the alternative to this hapless announcement and marketing-based government, and present an alternative that’s about substance and delivery.”
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The Per Capita launch was held at the end of September. Two months later, the electorate is still waiting for the “much more aggressive” outline of Labor’s alternative. Admittedly, a Per Capita launch for an academic niche audience is small. But these are Albanese’s people: if he can’t invigorate and enthuse what essentially is the base of the Labor Party, how can he be expected to invigorate and enthuse the wider electorate?
At this stage, the electorate can only imagine what the substance of the Labor agenda leading into the next federal election is, because so little has been revealed – aside from an early education and childcare policy announced during Albanese’s Budget Reply on 8 October.
The substance of Labor – almost two years into this electoral cycle – is missing, as is the theatrics of presentation. And in this context, an indifferent, stumbling and seemingly incoherent leader will find it difficult to inspire their own caucus, let alone the electorate.
The theatre of politics
In her recent publication, How To Win An Election, Chris Wallace argues the case that a successful leader needs to do the ‘substance’ and the ‘theatre’ of politics, and the theatre of politics – among many other factors – is an issue Labor failed to address correctly in their 2019 election loss. Increasingly, as Scott Morrison has shown throughout his prime ministership, the theatre of politics is becoming more important than matters of substance.
Media management and public relations have replaced policy management and good government – this development is a terrible outcome for Australian democracy, encouraging poor government and corruptive practices within government and the public service. This, coupled with a compliant media ready to overlook the many failings of the Liberal–National Coalition, has the electorate enamoured with the theatrics of politics, rather than policy and substance.
Political theatre is an area Albanese has attempted to correct but where can the leader manoeuvre to if their theatre of politics has no substance to it and, ultimately, no relevance? In a reminder of the Petersham Town Hall speech from 2001, Albanese has become a pastiche of nothingness that appeals to nobody. Sometimes, trying to look average, just ends up looking too average.
Let’s compare two recent photographs, posted on Instagram.
The first shows Albanese at the Vesbar Espresso café in Marrickville, holding an unhappy dog on his lap. The composition of the photograph is uninspiring, the car in the background appears to be careering into Albanese’s head, it’s poorly lit. Albanese is blandly dressed and, aside from two people far away in the background, there is no one else in the photograph. It’s an incredibly poor piece of political communication, with little attention to detail.
The second photograph is of the Prime Minister at the Malvern Hotel in Melbourne. Here we have Morrison pouring a beer at a colourfully-lit bar, with federal MP, Katie Higgins. There’s engagement, there’s energy, there’s a sense of action and anticipation.
Which leader would the electorate prefer, especially those swinging voters who decide election outcomes?
Of course, Morrison’s actions are choreographed in conjunction with the mainstream media and the showreel of images and video all arrive onto his carefully curated social media accounts.
Media massaging and political stunts shouldn’t need to be the primary function within politics but in the modern age of social media, the speed of politics, and an electorate distracted with so many other matters in the world, they are essential.
Adeptness in the performative aspects of politics creates the first few rungs for a political party to at least engage with the electorate and have a chance of being listened to. And it’s difficult for any Opposition to win elections if only a few people are listening.
The midway point of current parliamentary term has passed and although the next federal election can be held as late as 3 September 2022, there are strong suggestions there will be an election much earlier. The earliest available date for a standard half-Senate is 7 August 2021 – less than eight months away. What will Labor do to engage the electorate with the issues it wants to highlight during the next election campaign?
The high-water mark for Albanese was his Budget Reply but, in relation to all other matters, this should have been the stepping-stone for the next stages of the political cycle. Supporters of Albanese have been quick to point out that the Budget Reply was a sign the ‘Albo of old’ had returned; the game of ‘fighting Tories, that’s what I do’ had started up again. But another period of hibernation commenced: since Albanese’s Budget Reply, there’s been little of note.
It’s easy to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic or the biased persuasions of the mainstream media for the reasons why the Labor Party can’t get its messaging out. Defenders of Labor’s current strategy suggest despite Morrison’s overwhelming approval rating, the current polling shows Labor close to a winning position at 49–51% of the two-party preferred vote.
It’s obvious but being close to a winning position is not a winning position, and reminiscent of the ‘near-enough-is-good-enough’ leadership of Simon Crean and Kim Beazley. What will the strategy be if the effects of COVID-19 continue up until the next election?
And the mainstream media won’t be in a hurry to change its traditional negativity towards Labor, especially if there’s a leader they’ve shown very little interest in. Realistically, which external factors will change before the next election?
A government sitting on a knife-edge
With mismanagement that goes all the way back to 2013, and clear cases of corruption and poor governance, the Liberal–National Coalition is a government waiting to be removed from office. But governments – even those riddled with corruption and mismanagement – are never toppled easily. And, judging from his performances so far, Albanese is not the leader sufficiently engaged with a strategy or a process to defeat this government.
Labor’s current political performance and behaviour seems to be that of a party reacting badly to a landslide election loss, but the reality is that it only lost one seat when compared to the 2016 election, and the Liberal–National Coalition currently holds onto government by a wafer-thin majority of one.
After the devastating Labor loss in 1996, Kim Beazley’s main achievement was stabilisation – and making Labor competitive again, to the point where they almost won the 1998 election. When Crean become leader after the 2001 election loss, he reformed the Labor Platform and the internal workings of the party.
Under Albanese, Labor is meandering. For sure, the COVID-19 pandemic has made life for Opposition political parties difficult, although it can be argued that for all the difficulties and lack of opportunities available to Labor, they won the Eden–Monaro by-election campaign in July, and achieved a greater-than-usual swing in the recent by-election in the seat of Groom.
These are small victories, and their relevance should not be overlooked. However, there are many issues to take into account: Labor’s media management is ineffective; the lessons received from the 2019 election loss haven’t been fully appreciated; there is a growing belief among some MPs the next election is unwinnable for Labor; better to focus their attention on the 2025 election and beyond.
And this final issue is the one that will consume Labor over the coming months, if not weeks.
Of the 94 members of the Labor caucus, 53 have never served in government. How restless is the younger generation of Labor MPs? Are they willing to add another three years to an almost-decade long wait before they can finally become a part of government?
And will the longer-term members be satisfied on the Opposition benches for yet another term? Will Penny Wong decide to extend her 18-year political career by another three years, if she feels it’s likely to be in Opposition? Or will Tanya Plibersek feel that after only six years of government in a career spanning 22 years, it’s also not worth the wait? Many of these have been tireless campaigners and advocates for Labor, but surely another three years of the thankless task of Opposition is asking for too much.
The media is disinterested with Albanese, and whenever announcements are made, there’s not much for the media to engage with. And in these circumstances, the media deflects to the trivial – as was the case when a toddler inadvertently knocked over a microphone during Albanese’s policy announcement on early education and childcare – which then became the main news item, rather than the announcement.
The wrong answers
The government has $380 billion at its disposal for stimulus support and reframing the economy, and while most of the stimulus support applied so far has been effective, there is also much that has gone to waste – $21 million to Bunnings, at a time when their profits have increased by 19 per cent.
Businessman Solomon Lew received a dividend of $24 million after his retail group, Premier Investments, received $70 million in stimulus support from the government.
Albanese’s response? He focused his criticism elsewhere and onto the 875,000 workers receiving a higher income through JobKeeper, compared to pre-COVID conditions, adding billions to national debt – even though the figure is relatively small, and national debt is not playing out as a political issue during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Why would a national Labor leader even think about saying this?
‘Project Albanese’ hasn’t reached expectations and has largely been ineffective – and, perhaps, Albanese’s role has been to stabilise the Labor Party while it makes a transition to a future generation of leadership. Afterall, no incoming Leader of the Opposition immediately after an election loss has led their party into government since Robert Menzies in 1949.
Morrison will be a difficult opponent to defeat at the next election – whenever it is called – but his authority is built on a thin and weak façade. Cracking this façade will be critical for Labor, but the current leadership is barely making a chink.
The ‘everyman’ shtick by Albanese has been fruitless. Midway through this election cycle, other methods and a different leader are required to defeat Morrison: tear down Morrison, and Labor will win the next election.
It’s a basic equation that needs to be resolved urgently, because which Labor MP wants to sit in Opposition for another three years?