Having closely observed nine Australian Prime Ministers over the past three decades, there are patterns of behaviour that recur from time to time. Many of them are obvious in the current Prime Minister as he flounders in the wake of his disastrous Voice campaign. The latest polls, showing a decline in support for the government, compound the view in the community of an administration that has lost its way, and has no real idea of how to reverse the nation’s fortunes.
The prime minister still seems shellshocked by the result of the Voice campaign. Psychologically, he appears unable to move ahead while trapped in a paralysis of indecision. Instead of driving the government’s agenda, he has been caught up in the superficial adulation of state visits and global meetings. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s description of him as a ‘handsome boy’ captures the impression of a person out of his depth, wanting to please foreign leaders.
The prime ministership is an unrelenting job. There are constant pressures, not just from the normal program of government, but also the unexpected events that arise each day. It requires enormous discipline and self-will, neither of which currently seem evident in Mr Albanese. He seems to be enjoying the spoils of office rather than the hard work entailed in governing well.
A consequence of having lost his mojo and the continual travelling is a prime minister unable to step up to lead when things go wrong. Take the current immigration challenges occasioned by the High Court decision about detainees. Having been caught flat-footed about the decision, the relevant ministers scrambled to blame others and excuse themselves. Information about what they knew has trickled out, suggesting incompetence and an absence of preparedness for the Court’s decision.
The Minister for Home Affairs’ brash responses are hollow when she has withheld key information and didn’t obtain either legal advice or a planned response until too late. Ms O’Neil, a careerist politician, has been deliberately aggressive, as if being blatantly bombastic will cover for incompetent administration and obfuscation. There are times when contrition is a much better political response than brash endeavours to shift blame. State premiers like Peter Beattie perfected the apology, acknowledging problems and deficiencies, and then moving on.
The prime minister’s distractions and absence are compounding the situation. When he does respond, it is too little, too late. Sounding sincere is no substitute for actually leading the nation. Worse, when the prime minister did intervene this week, he declined to defend the approach his ministers had taken. While understandable that he didn’t support the outrageous claims by Clare O’Neil, Anika Wells and others about the opposition leader, the action further undermined confidence within the government.
Given the use of almost identical attacks by various ministers, there were clearly ‘talking points’ — agreed to, if not drafted — in the prime minister’s office. In the end, the prime minister neither defended his ministers, nor required them to withdraw. His excuse that the prime minister is only responsible for what he or she actually says is a novel interpretation of the office. It ranks with his refusal to answer questions about domestic issues while overseas as a dereliction of duty. The prime minister selects each minister and allocates portfolios to them. The Prime Minister is ultimately responsible for each minister and possesses the authority to withdraw their commission.
Instead of stepping in with the authority and gravitas of his office, Mr Albanese was missing from the debate, leaving hapless ministers floundering in the media.
Divided and Ineffective
Governmental drift is being compounded by internal division over other issues, such as the conflict in the Middle East, where internal party discipline has fractured.
While these events are occurring, the government has no response to the issues that increasingly worry Australians, such as the cost of living, housing shortages and immigration numbers. It doesn’t wish to engage in the discussions. Even in defence, where the Labor government won support for its commitment to AUKUS, few real decisions are being made, exposing the nation to a very significant security challenge.
There is no sense of urgency in the government about addressing the myriad of national challenges. Even the Treasurer sounds like an economics commentator than the person charged with shepherding the nation’s finances. His strategy to save a pre-election honeypot while families and individuals are currently suffering financially is a risky approach. It is compounded by the absence of a plan when in opposition, a deficiency that is becoming more obvious each day.
There has also been the mistaken belief that Labor as a first-term government would be returned to office and that Peter Dutton is unelectable. The latter attitude has been shattered while the Labor has few surplus seats to spare. Mr Albanese should recall that he won office because he was not Scott Morrison, just as Morrison won because he was not Bill Shorten. With no plan, diminishing political capital, and an unpreparedness to tackle the challenges facing the nation, his situation is precarious.
Ever since Julia Gillard rolled Kevin Rudd, the political rules of engagement have changed in Australia. Political parties have dispensed with the idea that once elected prime minister, a person should serve their term and face the people. Instead, overwhelming ambition, usually dressed up as responding to the polls, has been used to bring down prime ministers. The major parties have tightened their rules, but they retain ways to change leaders.
All governments suffer slumps while in office. It can take months to turn them around. What is different about the current situation is that it is occurring so early in the life of a new government and that the slump is driven by a leadership vacuum. As the weeks float by, the prime minister increasingly looks unable to fulfil the tasks his office requires. This is bad news for Australia.
Originally published in The Spectator Australia. Photo: Wikimedia Commons