How Anthony Albanese delivers on the expectations his gesture politics have built up over the past 100 days will be critical to the success of his two-term strategy of government.
The Prime Minister says he doesn’t want to waste a day in government and is looking to leave a nation-building legacy.
All laudable, though he has no illusions it will be easy.
He speaks of fostering “the culture of co-operation when it comes to the future”, and that means a departure from the politics of conflict in search of the politics of consensus.
Albanese has effectively leveraged his status at the helm of the country to stimulate an important conversation.
Labor’s key ministers and MPs have already conducted more than 100 pre-summit consultations that have led to important rethinking on a wide range of issues on how Australian men and women are trained, paid, hired and fired.
At the National Press Club Albanese acknowledged that when his two-day summit ends on Friday “there will still be a trillion dollars of debt, Australian families will still be struggling with cost-of-living pressures” and businesses big and small will still need help with staff and skills.
“But”, he said, “for the first time in a long time, I believe we will be moving to agreement on how to solve these problems – rather than arguing who is to blame for them”.
However, he made a shock admission – Australia’s public service has been so undermined, its ability to facilitate reforms has been hamstrung by severe cuts and a downgrading of its roles.
Albanese says he’s been “surprised” now that he is in government to see the extent of the undermining and the loss of “good people”.
Cabinet processes that traditionally depend on fearless and frank advice from the public service “have been trashed” and will “take some time to repair”.
Former High Court judge Virginia Bell is sure to throw more light on this with her inquiry into how Scott Morrison’s secret ministries got past experienced public servants.
An explanation might be found in Morrison’s address to public servants after his 2019 election win.
In short, he told them, their job was to shut up and do what the government told them.
Another stark manifestation of the malaise in the public service is the logjam in processing visa applications for skilled migrant workers caused by drastic staff shortages.
The Prime Minister says, “we’ve had to take people from other areas”.
“It’s absurd for Australia’s reputation that someone who has wanted to be here, the business wants them to be here, has waited 12 to 18 months.”
The politicisation and downgrading of the federal public service goes back to the Howard government and was followed by subsequent Labor and Liberal governments.
It has seen an explosion of political staffers in ministers’ offices – creating accommodation headaches at Parliament House, but more seriously an elevation of short-term politics over decent policy development.
The other major problem confronting Albanese’s reform agenda is the sheer expense of it, which he himself admits is a “real challenge”.
He says the government is doing its best to deal with this, but this giant budgetary headache does not include breaking an election commitment to ditch the more than $20 billion-a-year Stage 3 tax cuts that go to the wealthiest 10 per cent of incomes.
Pressure is mounting on the government to accept the situation has changed dramatically since Scott Morrison’s tax changes were rammed through the Parliament with Labor’s reluctant support in 2019.
The Greens and independents have been leading the charge for these unfair cuts to be dropped before they are due to start in 2024.
The chorus has now been joined by veteran Liberal backbencher Russell Broadbent.
Broadbent says that unlike his leader Peter Dutton he would have welcomed an invitation to the summit, where he would have argued for the tax cuts to be diverted to pay for things like social housing, defence and a long list “that goes on and on”.
Broadbent says “the tax cuts were legislated in different circumstances and should be thrown out”.
Dutton is showing no inclination to make life easier for Albanese by agreeing with his backbencher.
Albanese may have given himself some wriggle room at the Press Club by merely “standing by” his comments on the third tranche of tax cuts rather than giving a “rolled gold guarantee” he would not repeal them.
But whatever he does, he knows he will be marked down if he doesn’t deliver on what matters to the Australian people, however he pays for it.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics