Thursday, May 19 2022

Years ago, Kevin Rudd sold himself as a version of Howard-lite, as he sought to reassure voters that he wouldn’t be scared. This week, Anthony Albanese invoked a Labor icon to allay fears of change.

The Leader of the Opposition said he would govern like Bob Hawke. It would bring Australians together, seek consensus, work with business.

It wasn’t a bad pitch, as pitches go. Among many people, Hawke’s name remains premier gold.

Albanese must respond to voter hesitation about change and himself. Returning to Hawke, he builds on what many consider not only the best days of modern Labour, but good times for Australia (although it ended in a recession).

But the opposition leader’s assertion that he would govern like Hawke has its limits. Hawke’s strengths as a leader stemmed in part from his charisma and his forging (long before he was Prime Minister) a strong bond with the Australian people.

Albanese as prime minister might have a more inclusive style than Scott Morrison, but he would come to the post with considerably less political capital than Hawke due to his force of personality and connection to the electorate.

In terms of substance, Hawke, in partnership with Paul Keating, led a reform-minded government that transformed Australia. In economic terms, they executed a revolution.

Albanese presented this week its economic objectives: to increase productivity, to relaunch economic and employment growth, to transform the economy using renewable energies. But he stressed: “I am not proposing a revolution”.

When elected, Hawke was also not proposing a revolution. His theme for the 1983 election was reconciliation, recovery and reconstruction, but the detail of his platform was very different from the important things his government actually did in subsequent years.

Events – international pressure to open up the Australian economy – shaped the trajectory of Hawke’s premiership.

Prime minister candidates can prepare for these questions, and competent leaders will learn on the job.

However carefully opposition leaders seek to define themselves, it is almost impossible to know for certain how they will handle the circumstances of power.

We value politicians who keep their promises. But it can also be important that, on occasion, they are willing to give up or violate previous commitments.

Hawke was willing to do so when circumstances demanded; Gough Whitlam was not.

The government claims Albanese would be the most left-leaning prime minister since Whitlam. The problem with Whitlam as prime minister wasn’t that he was on the left (a misnomer, anyway) – it was that he was inflexible. He was unwilling to scale back his vast reform “program” when international circumstances changed dramatically.

It would be interesting to hear Albanese’s take on when it’s okay to break promises. Naturally, that’s not something he would want to dwell on right now.

An important quality of a good prime minister is the ability to respond effectively to the unexpected. Wartime Labor prime minister John Curtin – also mentioned by Albanese this week – had that ability.

We can’t be sure until they’ve been tested whether a leader will fare well or poorly in a crisis. Nevertheless, such assessments are important when we consider how quickly and radically circumstances can change.

Who would have thought that the Rudd government would face a global financial crisis? Who could have expected that the coalition government, which signed a free trade agreement with China, would be subject to trade reprisals within a few years?

And that’s not to mention the pandemic.

As Albanese seeks to define himself reassuringly, Morrison and his ministers are working overtime to paint him a dark, opaque, risky image.

They are sloppy with the brush. For example, they point out that he never held an economic or national security portfolio. This is a specious argument. Albanese had major responsibilities (infrastructure, transport) and served in the cabinet throughout the 2007-13 government, including briefly as Deputy Prime Minister.

Prime minister candidates can prepare for these questions, and competent leaders will learn on the job.

As they bolster national security for the election, Morrison and Defense Secretary Peter Dutton are like two traders with scissors, desperately trying to cut corners on Albanese claims of bipartisanship.

Albanese said Thursday: “For Labour, national security is above politics.” What he is really saying is that the Labor Party needs it.

For its part, the government sees national security as a potential lifeline in its bid to retain office. But mobilizing it as an electoral tool is not proving as easy as one might have hoped.

The recent attempt to paint the Labor Party as soft on China politics has not been successful.

The government is backtracking on the Labor government’s low spending on defence, but the Opposition says it agrees with current spending and suggests it may need to increase.

Labor remains close to government on major strategic issues while criticizing multiple supply stumbles

The government is rolling out big defense announcements as it drapes the election in khaki. He hopes Labor will be stuck on something, somewhere.

This week Morrison announced a proposed submarine base on the east coast and plans for a major defense workforce expansion by 2040. Labor derided the timing of the announcements as election-driven.

Notably, given his mini-me tactics, Albanese left some difference on the underwater base. Labor did not approve of the government’s approach, which is to make a decision from three sites – Port Kembla, Newcastle and Brisbane – pre-selected by the Defence.

Instead, an Albanian government would undertake an Australian Defense Force Posture Review, which would provide advice on the location of the submarine base.

Predicting how Albanese would shape up on the international stage is another crystal ball exercise. No one would have anticipated, when he came to power, the extent of Scott Morrison’s international activism.

Beyond climate policy, we are currently hearing more about how the Labor Party would not differ from the government on international issues than heading down the positive path that Albanese would try to chart. That’s the nature of this election.

  • Michelle Grattan is a journalist with the Press Gallery and former editor of Canberra time. She is professor at the University of Canberra and writes for The conversationwhere its columns also appear.
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