Monday Dec 11, 2023

One unexpected date on upended Albanese’s government plans

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Somewhere between a Prime Minister’s election-night victory speech and the inevitable walking back of the promises to change the conduct of politics, lies a weird, post-election nothingness.

Staff are scarce, many are let go automatically once their employer  switches from opposition to government; they can be difficult to spot against the backdrop of so many empty desks.

The minority who remain already look like they need the sleep of the dead before they take on even more work besides.

In perhaps the cruellest twist for a team that had spent months taking every precaution to stop coronavirus, the Canterbury-Hurlstone Park RSL appears to have been a weak link in otherwise flawless pandemic policy.

State Labor types and now some Canberra staffers appear to have been felled in the wake of reports of localised outbreaks.

Unlike some of his brilliant young advisers in private moments, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is giving off the air of a man who is relishing every moment.

“You shouldn’t waste a day in government,” he told the first meeting of the ALP caucus this week, smilingly.

“We don’t intend to.”

The new PM seems to have been building on the momentum of his unusually quick move to take power, with a swearing-in two days after the election.

On the eve of the front bench swearing-in Mr Albanese was calling the tune when he spoke about this cracking pace.

“We had briefings yesterday with Treasury and Finance,” he told reporters.

“We haven’t yet had a ministry sworn in. Normally at this time a government wouldn’t be sworn in at all.”

The new Labor cabinet
The new Labor cabinet was sworn in on Wednesday. Photo: AAP

Not entirely unprecedented

In two separate pieces on the front bench reporters noted that Mr Albanese “certainly hit the ground running” or that the government is “certainly running at quite a clip”.

But Mr Albanese was perhaps overreaching or just as plausibly forgotten what day of the week it was when he said previous governments had been so tardy.

Wednesday’s ministerial swearings-in were pretty well bang on schedule: 12 days after the election, by which time Scott Morrison, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd and John Howard had their first ministers sworn in.

And Mr Albanese’s pace early in the job was not by his design but Scott Morrison’s decision to schedule the election two days before the Tokyo summit for Quad, one of Australia’s most important diplomatic appointments.

During the long lead-up to the campaign proper, Mr Albanese responded to speculation often by saying only May 14 could be the election date because no prime minister would risk having the country unrepresented at such an important meeting.

But Mr Morrison did. Like so much else, it is unclear why.

Mr Albanese is a more than a 25-year veteran of Canberra. He came to the top job with plenty of plans including the ousting of top mandarin Phil Gaetjens; plans for a visit to Indonesia (he leaves on the weekend); and a summit bringing together unions and business (further details released this week).

But an expedited transition was not one of them, nor is it clear anyone thinks that early speed is indicative of good government.

Professor of politics at Monash University Paul Strangio is an expert in Australian prime ministers and says Mr Albanese is not moving at any unprecedented speed. Not when the bar is so high.

“The greatest example was Gough Whitlam and the swearing-in of the duumvirate, himself and Lance Barnard, his deputy,” he said.

The two split all portfolios between them and set about erasing as much of 23 years of Liberal Party legacy as they could in a fortnight without needing to pass legislation.

“It was everything from any conscription, ending the sales tax, the contraceptive pill, recognition of China, diplomatic recognition of China, and just a vast array of measures.

“It was said that after seven days Gough rested.”

Government busyness

But Professor Strangio notes that even a Labor history buff like Mr Albanese would not want to be seen as approaching the business of government with the same zeal that saw conservative voters regard Mr Whitlam suspiciously from the start.

Anthony Albanese in Japan for the Quad meeting last week. Photo: AP

“I think it’s something of a mantra of new governments to say that they’re going to get down to business straight away,” he said.

“Everything’s been about not scaring the horses, not being seen as threatening – it’s going to be a challenge for him to modulate his pace and the temper of his government.

“It’s going to need a balancing act because he may be the architect of safe change, but he also has to be taking action.”

But until a wave of applications for the nearly 400 additional staff set to be hired for ministers are dealt with, only so much can be done.

And that process, like much of good government, cannot be judged against a lap time.

Those who know say ministerial staff must be found using a strict process involving the painstaking search for a chief of staff who, once hired, leads a painstaking search for a media adviser … and so on.

For now, there are whirlwinds of business walking through corridors but they are phenomena localised to either hardcore staffers or ministers, especially those on the expenditure review committee.

And unfortunately for their colleagues, they are not busy working on positive plans.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Finance Minister Katy Gallagher have already been looking to wring all they can out of a budget they expect to deteriorate and which needs major repair work to ever hope to address structural deficit.

News on Wednesday that inflation has hit 6.7 per cent may signal an urgent need for action on cost of living, something the government came to power promising to do something about.

And what to do about an NDIS that already costs more than Medicare and is ballooning? Or Defence?

They had already been intending to tell their newly sworn-in colleagues on the front bench to scale back their ambitions for their portfolios – and their budgets.

It’s a good thing they had not yet had a chance to start brainstorming.


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