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HomeAustraliaGrattan on Friday: Albanese runs a highly controlled government using gossamer threads

Grattan on Friday: Albanese runs a highly controlled government using gossamer threads


Anthony Albanese’s first year as prime minister will be marked by meetings of the Quad – the meeting of the leaders of the United States, Japan, India and Australia.

After the 2022 election, Albanians rushed to get himself sworn in so he could immediately fly to the Quad for what was a dream initiation into top diplomacy. The timing couldn’t have been more coincidental.

The upcoming Quad on May 24 (three days after the election anniversary) has also fallen in favor of Albanians as Australia hosts for the first time.

This week Albanese announced that the meeting will take place at the Sydney Opera House.

The choice of location is politically a masterstroke. What better setting to welcome US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – to show off Australia in the region? And with more symbolism, for Australians, than a more mundane background.

As a leader, Albanian presents with a certain domestic quality, which makes him popular with common people. Behind it, he shows a savvy in wielding power, in communicating, and in presenting both his government and the country.

These skills can be observed ranging from how he directs his ministers (with a light rein but kept in line) to his reporting (he is personally constantly engaged with the media, but rarely stumbles upon it). The attention paid to the physical framing of the Quad meeting – which comes at a critical time with the uncertain strategic outlook and the refocusing of Australian defense policy – is just another example.

The Albanian government operates according to the principle of maximum visibility, but this is accompanied by a great deal of secrecy. A bevy of ministers are sent out daily to blitz the news and talk cycles. But what we don’t know is just as important as what we see and hear.

For example, going back to the Hawke government, the cabinet process was much more transparent and the policy arguments between ministers were more visible. Some of this was due to leaks, but there was also a greater willingness to talk about the internal debates.

Mostly – if not entirely – Albanian has managed to keep the divisions behind closed doors. This is true despite exposure to some struggles around treasurer Jim Chalmers and budgeting.

Press conferences can be competitions between a prime minister and journalists. Albanians have an interesting tactic to avoid being thrown on the back foot.

“You get one question” is his mantra. That prevents a journalist from following up on an answer in which the prime minister has evaded. While fellow reporters sometimes come home, the “one question” approach often gets them out.

Scott Morrison was a control freak and the clumsiness of his style often got out of hand. Albanians lead a highly controlled government, but use gossamer threads so that control becomes almost invisible.

After nearly a year, a debate is beginning to emerge as to whether this is a small government or an engine for change.

Journalist Tim Colebatch has written in Inside Story that “the Albanian government has refined many small things, but has not made any really major changes, and none have been foreshadowed”.

The government gives the impression of hyperactivity, but does that impression reflect reality?

We have to insert the disclaimer that it is still in its infancy. Furthermore, it is a matter of whether you want to see the glass as half empty or half full.

Three assessments have been released in about a week, covering the Reserve Bank, defense policy and migration system.

The bank’s proposed reforms, embraced by the government, include having a specialized council set interest rates. These and other recommendations are in line with foreign practice. And worth doing. Whether they will make a material difference to Australia’s future monetary policy performance cannot be foreseen.

The defense strategic review, which boosts naval capabilities and missiles and puts a lot of faith in nuclear-powered submarines, contains an element of smoke and mirrors. One critic says it talks big but delivers small, at least in the short term.

The evaluation rightly finds that there is an urgent need to increase our defense preparedness. But it doesn’t increase spending during the forward estimates, finding savings within the defense budget (particularly by reducing the military’s capacity) for new initiatives. Pushing the increase in spending to the medium term seems to run counter to the review’s warnings.

The migration assessment has concluded that the system is broken more or less everywhere. Home Secretary Clare O’Neil says she wants to fix it as soon as possible and has announced early measures, particularly to reduce dependence on large numbers of “permanently temporary” migrants.

The government is avoiding dangerous ‘great Australia’ territory: O’Neil says its reforms would in fact reduce inflows. It’s all about attracting the best people in a competitive international migrant market. Judgment on the results will have to wait for the government’s second anniversary.

In a short time we will know whether Albanian’s great social initiative, his referendum for the Voice to Parliament, will become a political triumph of his first term in office. (It will take much longer to find out whether the Voice, if it comes about, turns out to be a policy triumph.)

But the centrality Albanians place on the vote has served to draw attention to the indigenous issue his administration has failed to adequately address: the crisis in indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.

In addition to his intervention to secure the reintroduction of alcohol bans and provide some additional funding, Albanese has shied away from taking on the NT government. Still, more action is desperately needed. A victory in the referendum will be diminished if the NT problems are not addressed now.

Climate change is a case study of how government actions can be viewed in both directions. It has lifted national efforts to reduce emissions and transition to cleaner energy, while resisting pressure from the Greens and others on the left to ban new fossil fuel projects.

Albanian’s presentation skills show in the way he invokes his government’s climate policy when selling Australia abroad. This was a hallmark of his first appearance on the Quad and in his international meetings since then.

There are multiple reasons, including the predicament of the opposition, why Australians have maintained their strong support for the government despite deteriorating personal circumstances in recent months.

Important among them is the ability of Albanians (so far) to maintain public trust in an era of mistrust. That will be on his mind as he makes some of the very last decisions for a budget to deliver in tough times.

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