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The New Daily
Paul Bongiorno

Paul Bongiorno: Prepared for extra time, the Albanese government looks for a big finish to 2022

The Albanese government came to office with a reform agenda and quickly set about implementing it. Photo: AAP

Katy Gallagher is relishing the challenge of the next two weeks in Parliament.

The manager of government business in the Senate hasn’t got the numbers but she has got momentum and is confident there is enough goodwill to see the six-month-old government deliver major promised reforms.

Senator Gallagher told ABC TV there’s “a packed fortnight of legislation to get through, it’s going to be a pretty wild ride in the red chamber” and she is asking the crossbench to support extra sitting days to get through the workload.

The Albanese government hasn’t wasted a moment since assuming office in May, and in many ways can be compared to the reforming Whitlam government of 50 years ago, according to Australian National University historian Professor Frank Bongiorno.

At the weekend launch of his monumental tome Dreamers and Schemers – A political history of Australia, Professor Bongiorno saw parallels with Mr Albanese’s controversial predecessor in terms of coming to office with a reform agenda and quickly setting about implementing it.

Certainly, it’s not as extensive as Mr Whitlam’s “program” but every bit as in tune with the contemporary mood of the nation.

It is a tribute to the political skill of Anthony Albanese that he is doing it without scaring the horses, though in this he has been mightily assisted by the unprecedented election result that saw Australia’s primary vote split three ways, diminishing support for the two major party blocks and delivering record numbers to the crossbench parties and independents.

A majority of that crossbench in both houses is progressive, indeed you could argue on climate and integrity the numbers are to the left of the Labor party – Mr Whitlam, by contrast, faced a hostile Coalition in the Senate that did everything to thwart him.

Only a joint sitting of both houses after the 1974 double dissolution election saw Whitlam’s big reforms like universal health insurance become law.

Divide remains unchanged

What hasn’t changed in 50 years is the divide between labour and capital.

The business establishment with the enthusiastic support of the Coalition opposition is throwing the kitchen sink at the government’s “extreme” industrial relations reforms.

Mr Albanese rejects the description and lampoons the dire projections.
He told the International Trade Union Conference being held in Melbourne that “there are always those who say that any improvement in workers’ pay, any improvement in the status quo will see the sky fall in”.

“They say it every time and they are wrong every time.”

“And we will push ahead like we do every time.”

With the Greens on side it is down to the Australian Capital Territory independent senator David Pocock.

Senator Pocock supports the thrust of the legislation, including multi-employer bargaining, and the government is willing to give him the amendments he’s pushing for.

An ICAC with teeth

On the National Anti-Corruption Commission nobody in the parliament is prepared to stand in the way.

Mark Dreyfus is commited to implementing an anti-corruption commission without delay. Photo: AAP

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus told Parliament the Australian people gave politicians the task of implementing an anti-corruption commission with teeth and without delay.

The government has signalled it will accept the six amendments proposed unanimously by the all-party legislation committee, but will rely on support from the Coalition to keep the stipulation of “exceptional circumstances” for public hearings.

It is a reputational safeguard that many in the Labor Caucus wholeheartedly support anyway.

Victorian independent Helen Haines says even if it remains in the bill “it is still very, very good legislation” that will deliver “a powerful independent National Anti-Corruption Commission”.

Mr Dreyfus is keen for the whole Parliament to endorse his bill and debate will dominate the house this week to be passed this fortnight for its implementation in seven months’ time.

Undaunted on recognition

The historian Professor Bongiorno – no relation to this journalist – sees Mr Albanese’s willingness to get out in front on constitutional recognition of the nation’s Indigenous people in line with Mr Whitlam’s recognition of traditional land rights.

Indigenous peoples across the country see a brighter future when the Voice becomes law. Photo: AAP

The Prime Minister’s commitment to a referendum where recognition is given expression through the permanent standing of an advisory Voice to the Parliament is probably a bigger ask.

A referendum needs a majority of Australians in a majority of states to pass and history suggests bi-partisan support is needed for success.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is hostage to a bitterly divided Coalition party room on the issue and the most likely outcome is a free vote for his MPs when the referendum enabling legislation comes to the Parliament.

Undaunted, Mr Albanese is pushing on and Cabinet on Monday night ticked off on reforms to the machinery of conducting the referendum.

Legislation updating voting procedures and promotion of the referendum will be introduced early next year and is highly unlikely to provide for public funding of the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ cases – something that could put the ‘no’ case at a disadvantage.

According to one Labor insider, the government is unwilling to fund basically racist arguments.

That is an argument for another day, but by Christmas the Albanese government will have delivered almost all of his big-ticket promises, including accepting territory rights on voluntary assisted dying.

Still to come before the seasonal festivities is the government’s answer to spiralling energy costs.

You would have to think a firm foundation has been laid ahead of the challenges in 2023, but unforeseen events have a habit of spoiling every party.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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