Very little about Australian politicking – distinguishing that from affairs of state – interests me these days. In my adolescence I became a politics tragic. That probably had something to do with the aggressively delineated sides that existed in the later days of the Bjelke-Petersen government. As just one example: when the militant Electrical Trades Union went on strike in 1985 over the Premier’s move to privatise some of the work customarily done by the old, Brezhnevian SEQEB, schoolyard debates were common. Boys took sides, much as they did about Ford versus Holden after the Bathurst 1000 (and with as much expertise). They argued the case they’d heard their fathers make at the kitchen table. Joh was either a god or the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler.
Fast forward many years to the ouster of Tony Abbott. After that, the old zeal for daily political battles, for red meat brawls in Question Time, for adherence to a side … that all died. It should have died earlier; one of my regrets is that I ever backed John Howard’s war in Afghanistan or his cynical, socialist use of the treasury to buy middle class voters. Howard was cut too much slack for too long by either immovable loyalists or proponents of that most hackneyed of saws: Labor would be worse. Anyway, Malcolm Turnbull’s rise signified to many on the right that Australian politics was no longer Brock versus Moffat. The drivers were all on the same team and the contest had become a noisy, meaningless race staged only for the credulous dummies still watching.
Which brings me to Anthony Albanese – or will do after one more detour. There is no better analysis of the strange takeover of the National Party by rainbow leftists – by wokels, if you will – than Paul Collits’ at Quadrant last week. Former leader John Anderson is quoted noting his old party is now well to the left of the Liberals on ‘social’ issues – to the extent that his wife and long-time fellow member Julia would be highly unlikely to join its ranks today. The Andersons’ dismay about the Nationals’ pseudo-urbane conversion to virtue-signaling is identical to that of lifelong Liberals who lost the fire when Abbott was axed.
And so to Albo. The arc wasn’t for arc’s sake. Because the only thing that does interest me about contemporary politics is why Anthony Albanese has failed to become dominant against Scott Morrison. That’s because he seemed unbeatable as a potential Leader of the Opposition if only he could have taken the job from Bill Shorten – which, per new party rules, he couldn’t. He was the man most likely if only he could become the man most likely. Albanese is likeable enough, persistent, self-deprecating and possesses the stolid-but-humane savvy of a poor Sydney boy made good that cannot be faked. Years ago, blogger Mark Bahnisch observed that Albanese looked and sounded like a Labor pol from the 1940s – in a good way. It was true.
Most people thought the Labor caucus and party members made a mistake giving Shorten a narrow 52 percent win against Albanese in the October 2013 leadership ballot. The scepticism was spectacularly vindicated when Shorten was given a Hewson-esque heave-ho in May. I don’t believe for a minute that ill-considered policies on negative gearing, franking credits and renewable energy were responsible for the loss. They didn’t help, certainly. No, I think Scott Morrison is simply a gifted retail politician whose happy-go-lucky persona – combined with an almost Hawke-like self-confidence and believability on the hustings – completely blindsided Shorten who, by comparison, came across to voters as a flustered roo-in-the-headlights. Another plus for Morrison is that he is the first party chief since Bill Hayden and the first prime minister since John Gorton who seems like he could be entirely happy, and entirely himself, if he had to leave office. Voters like that. Homely and sane in The Lodge is a big cultural change after nearly 40 years of sociopathic entitlement wars.
Several important questions arise out of Morrison’s ascendancy and Albanese’s stasis. First, does the prime minister’s win (and Gladys Berejiklian’s) mean that the left-ward tilt of the LNP has finally worked as a generational, Labor-busting triangulation? Were the now dominant Wets right to retreat from the old “battlelines” and the last warrior standing at them? Are the Nationals onto something, electorally, by pairing Tim Fischer’s Akubra with Don Dunstan’s pink shorts? Is it, in fact, the LNP’s home-brand of boof-headed dad-woke – spiced with occasional Stalinist excess by Berejiklian – that has left Albanese flummoxed? I would answer (in the voice of Dibley’s Jim Trott): no, no, no, yes.
The trouble for triangulators is that they can eventually be be triangulated and a simple, unexpected shift in personality politics can be enough to start the process. Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd – like Scott Morrison – are examples. Who they were and how they came across changed everything immediately. Hawke’s masterful colonisation of economics discourse and Rudd’s ability to create a market for his trifecta of fake – fake expiation, fake consultation and fake catastrophe – bamboozled the Coalition for years. Principles can be drudgery but insisting on them and standing by them serve the interests of a political party (and the nation) far better in the long run. The Wets and the wokels shouldn’t get too cocky. At this moment, however, Labor’s parliamentary leader is no longer able to pick easy fruit off the old Tory sideboard. The hitherto reliable “social issue” differentiators have been largely neutralised by the LNP’s capitulations. That only leaves the class war blunderbuss in Labor’s gun safe; it still has Bill Shorten’s bloody hand-print smudged on the stock.
To break free of triangulated no man’s land, Albanese has only one option: policy. There is no return possible to the consensus governance of Hawke and Kelty, nor to the phony GFC emergency of Rudd and Swan, nor to the Emily’s List culture trolling of Julia Gillard. Those days are gone. Albanese faces textbook full employment, a budget in surplus, record low interest rates, popular consensus on sovereign borders and a dwindling appetite for ultraism on renewable energy even in Labor’s ranks. Those are not rich pickings. Wage growth, tax cuts, the immigration Ponzi, housing affordability, the crisis in Australian education, tax cuts and supply-side economic reform – these are the policy start-ups Albanese has to invest in. A hard and possibly lonely slog, it will mean standing over the Kim Carr-led neanderthals of the left, the climate fanatics, the teachers’ unions and the zombie Keynesians predicting imminent meldown and demanding deficits to forestall it. Can Albanese do anything like this? I hope so. It would be good for the country to have the LNP’s expediency exposed and a revival of Labor sanity inaugurated. But does he even want to do anything like this? That I don’t know. Nobody else does either – which, at this stage, is the essence of his problem.