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For the past four years, the Australian Labor Party at the national level has acted more like a corporate brand than a political party, with Anthony Albanese holding down the CEO role. No talking back, no second-guessing. His way was the way. The product line of policies was stripped back to be, in the words of frontbencher Mark Butler, “more focused and less ambitious”.
Labor won the 2022 election, everyone stayed in line and the business was going well. Then the Voice referendum happened – called and overseen by the CEO, a profound defeat for the government.
For the past four years, the Australian Labor Party at the national level has acted more like a corporate brand than a political party, with Anthony Albanese holding down the CEO role.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
Labor now gets to choose: will it assume more of the characteristics of a true political party, with the dynamism, internal questioning and occasional untidiness that would flow from that, or will it keep meandering along the cliff’s edge in the cause of loyalty to the boss?
It’s a difficult call. Every prime minister who has led their side of politics from opposition into government deserves special consideration from colleagues and supporters because it’s a massive attainment. How far and for how long this consideration should be extended is the issue.
The referendum has been and gone, and these days events recede into the distance quicker than ever. People want to move on. But the result is there, with the Yes case championed by the prime minister failing to reach the 40 per cent mark.
Conventional wisdom holds that the referendum loss on its own won’t damage the government’s standing. That might be so, but it was the manner of the defeat that should be giving Labor MPs pause.
There is no getting around it: the referendum was a test of Albanese’s political judgement and campaigning abilities, and he was found wanting. Having witnessed him at the helm of last year’s election campaign and then in the many months leading up to the referendum, it doesn’t appear that agility and preparation are his greatest strengths.
He messed up the first two days of the election campaign and was lucky that a bout of COVID helped him reset and gain back lost ground. He knew the historic failure rate of referendums, too, and knew how much Labor’s primary vote had contracted at the past two elections. But he pressed ahead with the referendum anyway.
Polling adds to political pain facing Anthony Albanese in the wake of the Voice.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
Albanese had more than 20 years to observe Peter Dutton in the parliament. He had to know that Dutton would never support the Yes case, even though Dutton claimed to be open to persuasion. Because even if Dutton had wanted to be swayed, the Liberal party room and its rank-and-file would never have copped it. Dutton would have always known this, yet Albanese, not plagued by self-doubt when it comes to his political judgement, seemingly did not.
As the months leading up to October 14 rolled by, the polling numbers for Yes followed a steady downward trajectory. Albanese kept saying the same things with the same limited level of energy. There was little heat or passion in his argument. Nothing changed.
Surely now, the penny is starting to drop. He is not some new incarnation of Bob Hawke, with a deep, instinctive understanding of the Australian mindset. Hawke was a one-off. Albanese is the leader of a party that just got over the line last year.
Given the government is in its first term and the Coalition is weakened with the Liberals having all but extinguished their moderate wing, it might not look like Labor is fighting for its life, but it is. Its lower house majority of three is thin. Victoria and New South Wales, where it performed the best last year, are both losing a seat in electoral redistributions. The possibility of falling short of a majority at the next election is substantial. A repeat of the leaden referendum effort would likely spell doom and could risk the return of a minority government.
On policy, Albanese is scoring some wins. He is good at getting his agenda through the senate, using skills of brinkmanship he developed as a young factional and party operative. And this week’s visit to Beijing, one more step in the repair of a vital relationship, shows the value of his patient diplomacy.
There are hints that some at or near the top of the government are coming to understand the size of the challenge. A weekend report that Albanese has strengthened an opposition research outfit in his office, better known as a “dirt unit” designed to dig up negative information about the Coalition, and Dutton in particular, will please the ALP national secretariat, which has pushed for more aggressive campaigning techniques. Tony Burke’s refusal last week to toe the line on mandated speech on Israel’s war on Hamas had a material impact on Labor’s developing response to the conflict.
But beyond that, are there members of the caucus and Cabinet willing to go further, to take some risks, raise a few concerns about the government’s political direction and speak some truth to power? That was once the way of things in the Labor Party, where points of difference and robust debate were accepted, even during periods of office. After the failure on October 14, none can say that they aren’t aware of the flaws in Labor’s new corporate model.
Shaun Carney is a regular columnist.
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