The national Labor landscape is changing. The abrupt departure of Daniel Andrews as Victorian premier this week is the latest development in a wider context.
Just a few months ago, two of the most powerful Labor leaders in recent history were firmly entrenched in Western Australia and Victoria, and Labor had just taken power in New South Wales. At the federal level, Anthony Albanese has retained most of his luster. The Voice referendum was in positive territory (although the decline in support foreshadowed what was to come).
Now WA’s Mark McGowan and Andrews have moved away. At the federal level, Labor looks like an ordinary government. “Ordinary”, not as in “bad”, but “ordinary” in the sense of a government facing a multitude of problems in difficult times, including a cost of living crisis and what seems a cold climate to attempt to achieve significant change to the Constitution.
Tough times ahead for Labor
In a year’s time, Labor will struggle to counter the electoral surge in Queensland, where (according to current polls) the Palaszczuk government could lose office.
Palaszczuk said she was determined to remain at the helm of the country through the election, but her leadership came under pressure from colleagues.
COVID allowed Andrews and McGowan to transcend their state milestones to become national figures. Of the COVID premiers, only Palaszczuk remains (ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr is also still there).
The era of COVID is behind us – except Bureau of Statistics figures released this week place COVID as the third leading cause of death in 2022, behind heart disease and dementia. (In 2020, it ranked 38th; in 2021, 33rd.) This makes it all the more regrettable that Albanese excluded, in the formal terms of reference for his COVID survey, unilateral actions by state governments.
The changing of the guard within the Labor Party in Victoria and Washington, the troubles of the Queensland government and the challenges of the Albanian government are lifting Liberal morale.
But the Liberals are in shambles in Victoria and a small rump in WA, so there is no quick recovery in those states. Queensland offers its bright spot at the state level. Federally, the best Dutton’s opposition can probably hope for in the next election would be to push Labor into a minority government.
Albanese could never aspire to Bob Hawke’s “messiah” status. But after the 2022 election it soared, partly thanks to people’s relief that the Morrison government was gone; politically, the country seemed to have emerged from a black hole into the sun.
The Labor government embarked on intense activity, including a plethora of reviews, and promised a better policy style. The pace of activity continues but, inevitably, political reality sets in.
Criticism of the government ranges from over-reaching to under-reaching, achievements that fail to meet ambitions, and avoidance measures. This opinion comes from the right and the left and, on issues such as continuing to reduce emissions, from both ends of the spectrum simultaneously.
Let’s not ignore the positives. The budget is in better shape than anyone thought possible – partly thanks to fortuitous circumstances, although the government stresses that it is finding and banking savings. Whatever the combination, there is a surplus of $22 billion for the past financial year and (despite the caution of Treasurer Jim Chalmers) there is surely a good prospect of a surplus this financial year. But even though the budget currently looks good, the economy is heading toward slower growth.
Chalmers is a workaholic and has brought about some changes (including the Reserve Bank reforms) and foreshadowed others (like an overhaul of the Productivity Commission). This week he published his white paper on jobs.
The document recalls that the definition of aspirations and orientations is one thing, the delivery of land is another. The long-term value of this document will be measured by how well it provides jobs and overtime for the 3 million people he says are looking for them. This will require efforts on several fronts to reduce the disadvantages that many of these people suffer.
The housing crisis further challenges the results achieved. The government has various initiatives underway, but the pace of construction is slow. Meanwhile, a higher-than-already-high immigration rate is adding to housing pressures.
Labor boasts of implementing its election commitments. More generally, the first half (almost completed) of the government’s first term was marked by numerous political announcements – the second half will have to focus on results.
As the cost of living crisis grips the country, Chalmers must fend off popular calls for additional spending. This week brought bad news on inflation, which rose from an annual rate of 4.9 percent in July to 5.2 percent in August. It draws more attention to next Tuesday’s Reserve Bank meeting – the first under new governor Michele Bullock – but Chalmers played down the prospect of a rate rise.
Enough time has passed to show which ministers are performing well and which are struggling. Transport Minister Catherine King falls into the latter category. The government has still not been able to adequately justify or explain its decision to deny Qatar Airways the additional flights it wanted.
A Senate inquiry (which the government had tried in vain to block) this week probed the depths of this decision, with senators giving Qantas bosses (favored by the result) a hard time and the government refusing to provide documents. . King, meanwhile, was off for the school holidays. She has now been invited to appear before the committee, but she cannot be forced to do so.
The investigation is emblematic: the Senate is increasingly willing to attack the government. This both despite and because of its progressive majority (the Greens have sometimes pushed the government to the limit, particularly on housing).
Although the government is keen to show it is not just focused on Voice, the referendum will dominate the fortnight leading up to the October 14 vote. Based on current indications, the government expects to lose. Albanese is bracing for defeat (but not admitting it), telling the Guardian’s Katharine Murphy that the referendum would have been worth it because it brought the issue of indigenous disadvantage to the forefront.
Later this month, Albanese will travel to Washington for a state visit, celebrated at the White House. In politics, many things are comparative. The Australian Prime Minister might privately think that whatever problems he faces, they are far easier than those his host faces.
Michelle Grattan is a professor at the University of Canberra and chief political correspondent for The conversationwhere this article first appeared.