Opinion: 'It's the zeitgeist': Should Albo fall on his sword?

Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash
Saturday 23 January 2021

By Mark Kenny

This article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

If Labor's MPs were dreaming of a magically brighter 2021, it hasn't taken long to come back to reality.

At extended Christmas lunches and Boxing Day barbecues, talk would inevitably touch on COVID-19 and Trump, but Labor's woes were never far behind.

"Will they stick with Anthony Albanese?" someone might ask - with the kicker, "Should they?"

Implicit in such questions is an assumption about impending defeat.

With governments dominating the political and economic spheres, these are not times for oppositions.

The pandemic rages globally, and despite the development of several vaccine options, international borders will remain firmly closed - possibly into 2022, according to health authorities.

And with conditions in the big employment sectors of education, tourism and hospitality still mired in uncertainty, additional targeted government largesse beyond the scheduled JobKeeper end date of March 28 seems certain.

That's the power of incumbency. In the months before an expected spring poll, such spending will do the Coalition no harm.

Way back in 1986, then-opposition leader John Howard confidently predicted that the times would suit him.

But, in a sign of how passive oppositions ultimately are, Howard would first lose the leadership then wait another decade for his time to come.

For Albanese, affairs are no more propitious.

The penny is dropping within his caucus that the only thing standing between their current third term in opposition and a failure-cementing fourth is several long months of insisting otherwise.

Albanese is well liked and respected for his unwavering service to both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, which made him almost unique.

But few beyond the leader's office and his closest lieutenants think the NSW stalwart will eat into Scott Morrison's crisis-hardened majority.

Not with a primary vote share stuck in the mid-30 per cent range.

Many fear a backwards slide despite the Coalition's tin-eared climate denialism, embarrassing toadying towards Trump, ham-fisted management of the China relationship, and long list of ministerial scandals.

Even the government's failure to bring stranded Australians home during the corona-crisis has brought little opprobrium.

It was the same story last year with Morrison's ill-judged calls for people to head out to the football even while announcing the first tentative crowd bans.

Ditto his sustained opposition to school closures and business shutdowns, state border controls, mask-wearing, local movement limits, and his late-March closure of incoming flights - particularly from the US - then the major overseas source of infection.

In fact, outside the JobKeeper and JobSeeker spends, for which the Coalition received immediate opposition support, Morrison was either a handbrake or a late convert to measures since credited with driving Australia's infection rate towards zero. Even that goal was pilloried.

So, the spin and the substance are some distance apart? That hardly makes Morrison unique.

Simply deriding him as "Scotty from marketing" obscures an important political truth: marketing matters.

This unfashionable PM has proved to be better at the theatre of politics, as the scholar Dr Chris Wallace puts it, having successfully packaged up effective policy under his "national cabinet" brand.

As Wallace observed in her 2020 book How to win an Election, "a leader who can do the substance and theatre of politics will beat a competitor who can only do the substance or theatre of politics every time".

As an effective piece of political theatre, the national cabinet is pitch-perfect.

States have gone along with it because it has served them well too. All three state and territory elections held since COVID-19 have seen incumbent governments returned. WA is next and will surely follow suit.

The consensual body's allure is that it replaces politics with problem-solving - tailor-made for Morrison's carefully calibrated presentation as the reassuring non-ideologue, the "can-do" PM.

And it has also been useful for facilitating the PM's strategic shimmy out of key federal responsibilities like aged care and the quarantine power, section 51 (IX) of the constitution.

I don't run the hotel quarantine, mate.

Of course, such cleverness is of limited comfort to the 39,000 Australians desperate to come home (overwhelmingly at their own expense, by the way) but who are barred by their national government's refusal to stand up an adequate quarantine facility.

How good is Australian citizenship?!

None of this, though, has boosted Labor, prompting discussion of dramatic action such as a switch to a Tanya Plibersek/Jim Chalmers ticket, as leader and deputy respectively.

The configuration pairs Left and Right, female and male, NSW and Queensland, and finally, experience and youth.

But it also offers the possibility - or is it just hope? - that the personable Plibersek could change the political dynamics, thus wrong-footing the blokey Morrison persona.

"It's the zeitgeist," enthused one MP, arguing "there's a bit of [Jacinda] Ardern and a bit of Annastacia [Palaszczuk] about Tanya, and people will listen".

"That's where we're failing at the moment; it's no reflection on Anthony, it's just that up against another grey-haired older bloke, people aren't excited enough to change sides".

But is it practical?

Rule changes forced through by Kevin Rudd certainly made it harder to topple a leader. But a simple caucus majority can rescind that rule - the same majority needed to install a new leader if the intent is there.

Other considerations include the transaction costs measurable in voter distaste and internal enmities. Yet proponents say this is overstated, because opposition leaders, unlike PMs, have not enjoyed the perceived imprimatur of voters.

The current situation is not unprecedented.

In the chapter of her book focusing on the importance of match-ups, Wallace asks the question: "Is the strategy to win the election or hold onto the leadership?"

As the 1983 election approached, senior Labor frontbencher John Button presented opposition leader Bill Hayden with a confronting choice.

With Bob Hawke circling, Button assured Hayden of his vote in any ballot, but added his view that Hayden might want to consider resigning.

Hayden did, and five weeks later Labor began a 13-year stint in power with Hawke at the helm.

Could Albanese, perhaps the caucus's pre-eminent loyalist, be similarly persuaded?

Not likely, but not unheard of either.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the Australian Studies Institute, ANU, and hosts the politics podcast Democracy Sausage.

Updated:  25 January 2021/Responsible Officer:  Institute Manager/Page Contact:  Institute Manager