Labor’s national landscape is changing. Daniel Andrews’ abrupt exit from the Victorian premiership this week is the latest development in a wider picture.
Just a few months ago, two of the strongest state Labor leaders in recent history were solidly ensconced in Western Australia and Victoria, and Labor had just taken power in New South Wales. Federally, Anthony Albanese retained most of his glow. The Voice referendum was in positive territory (although declining support presaged what was to come).
Now both WA’s Mark McGowan and Andrews have walked away. Federally, Labor is looking like an ordinary government. “Ordinary”, not as in “bad”, but “ordinary” in the sense of a government facing a host of problems in what are difficult times, most notably a cost-of-living crisis and what seems a cold climate for trying to achieve a significant change to the constitution.
Looking a year ahead, Labor will be struggling against the electoral tide in Queensland, where (on present polling) the Palaszczuk government could lose office.
Palaszczuk has said she is determined to stay at the helm for the election, but her leadership has been under pressure from her colleagues.
COVID enabled Andrews and McGowan to transcend their state stages to become national figures. Of the COVID premiers, only Palaszczuk remains (ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr is also still there).
The COVID era is behind us – except that Bureau of Statistics figures out this week put COVID as third among leading causes of death in 2022, behind heart disease and dementia. (In 2020, it ranked 38th; in 2021, 33rd.) That makes it all the more unfortunate Albanese has excluded, in the formal terms of reference for his COVID inquiry, the unilateral actions of state governments.
The changing of the guard in Victorian and WA Labor, the Queensland government’s troubles and the challenges for the Albanese government are morale boosters for the Liberals.
But the Liberals are a shambles in Victoria and a tiny rump in WA, so there are no early recoveries in those states. Queensland provides their bright spot at state level. Federally, the best the Dutton opposition probably could hope for at the next election would be to push Labor into minority government.
Albanese could never aspire to Bob Hawke’s “messiah” status. But after the 2022 election he soared high, elevated in part by people’s relief the Morrison government was gone; in political terms, the country seemed to have emerged from a black hole into the sunlight.
The Labor government launched into intense activity, including a plethora of reviews, and promised a better style of politics. The pace of activity continues, but inevitably political reality has set in.
Criticisms of the government range from overreach to underreach, achievement failing to reach ambition, corner-cutting. It comes from the right and the left and, on issues like the pursuit of emissions reduction, from both ends of the spectrum simultaneously.
Let’s not bypass the positives. The budget is in better shape than thought possible – partly through fortuitous circumstances, although the government stresses its finding and banking savings. Whatever the mix, there’s a surplus of $22 billion for last financial year and (despite Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ caution) surely a good prospect of a surplus this financial year. But while the budget is currently looking good, the economy is headed to slower growth.
Chalmers is a workhorse and has brought some changes (including the reforms of the Reserve Bank) and foreshadowed others (such as a revamp of the Productivity Commission). This week he released his employment white paper.
The paper is a reminder that it’s one thing to set out aspirations and directions, another to land delivery. A measure of the long-term worth of this paper will be the extent to which it does deliver jobs and extra hours to the up to 3 million people it says are seeking them. That will require effort on multiple fronts to reduce the disadvantages many of these people have.
The housing crisis provides an even sharper test of delivery. The government has various initiatives on the go, but the rate of construction is slow. Meanwhile an immigration rate running above an already large forecast adds to the housing pressures.
Labor boasts it’s implementing its election commitments. More generally, the (nearly completed) first half of the government’s first term has seen many policy announcements – the second half will need to emphasise delivery.
As the cost-of-living crisis grips the country, Chalmers has to fend off the popular calls for extra spending. This week brought unwelcome news on inflation, which has risen from an annual rate of 4.9% in July to 5.2% in August. That puts more attention on the Reserve Bank’s meeting next Tuesday – the first under new governor Michele Bullock – but Chalmers has played down the prospect of a rate rise.
Enough time has elapsed to show which ministers are good performers and who’s struggling. Transport Minister Catherine King is in the latter category. The government has still not been able to put behind it, or adequately explain, its decision to deny Qatar Airways the extra flights it sought.
A Senate inquiry (which the government had unsuccessfully tried to head off) this week probed the entrails of that decision, with senators giving the bosses of Qantas (favoured by the outcome) a hard time, and the government resisting providing documents. King, meanwhile, was on leave, for the school holidays. She has now been invited to appear before the committee but can’t be forced to do so.
The inquiry is emblematic: the Senate is becoming increasingly willing to take on the government. This is both despite and because of its progressive majority (the Greens have been poking the government bear on occasion, notably over housing).
Although the government is anxious to show it is concentrating on more than the Voice, the referendum will dominate the fortnight before the October 14 vote. On present indications, the government expects to lose. Albanese is preparing for defeat (while not conceding it), telling the Guardian’s Katharine Murphy the referendum will have been worthwhile regardless because it has brought the issue of Indigenous disadvantage to the fore.
Later in the month, Albanese will be in Washington on a state visit, feted at the White House. In politics, much is comparative. The Australian prime minister might privately muse that whatever problems he faces, they are way, way easier than those confronting his host.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra