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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Peter Lewis

To change Australia, Albanese will need to be prepared to tip the scales

Anthony Albanese in focus amid blurred hues around him
PM Anthony Albanese. ‘The once firebrand activist has been … wary of the consequences of venturing too far from the centre ground and, instead, committing himself to the long game of maintaining power.’ Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Last week’s balanced budget is an emphatic punctuation point for the first year of the Albanese Labor government. The issue is whether it’s an exclamation mark or a question mark.

This government’s dogged pursuit of balance is not just in the top-line budget numbers, but in managing the global forces buffeting the economy while dealing with the immediate needs of the economically vulnerable and the intense pressures on mortgage holders.

It has delivered a budget that sits within the tight lanes imposed by a post-pandemic global inflation challenge that turns the massive resources windfall flowing from the war in Ukraine into its own form of radioactive material.

With what is left of the Coalition carping about the government’s profligacy and the Greens bemoaning its parsimony, the conclusion the government will be keen to seed is: if you are being attacked from both sides, then surely you have got the balance about right.

According to this week’s Essential Report, this argument has merit, with voters responding to the government’s core message that it was prioritising support for the most vulnerable.

Judging the budget against the last two Morrison-Frydenberg efforts and Labor’s own mini-budget last year, perceptions on benefit indicators have improved, although the low numbers of perceived winners across the board show a deterioration from the pandemic cash splashes.

Buttressed by polling numbers that show Labor has extended its lead over the opposition in all key indicators (primary vote, two-party preferred plus and leadership), it’s hard not to portray this as – on balance – a solid first year in difficult circumstances.

From the moment he assumed power, Albanese has had to confront a geo-political realignment amplified by the pandemic lockdowns, committing to a defence alliance with ailing colonial powers while seeking to renew economic engagement with an increasingly muscular China.

He has attempted to make good on his promise to get wages moving, particularly in the lower-end caring industries, where government is a primary funder, while recognising that meeting these obligations risks placing further pressure on interest rates.

And he has had to deal with the compromises he made to secure power, not least the decision to leave tax concession to the wealthy untouched while waving through a flattening of the progressive tax base that will disproportionately favour the very rich.

The once firebrand activist has been comfortable operating within these contradictions, wary of the consequences of venturing too far from the centre ground and, instead, committing himself to the long game of maintaining power.

But there is a separate finding in this week’s poll that might serve as a caution to a government that has sought to make a virtue of moderation in its first 12 months in office.

For all the careful calibration of messages about fiscal responsibility, people would have liked to see the government do more to relieve the pressures they are feeling now.

While the partisan ties of Labor and Coalition voters might distort this judgment somewhat, it serves as a timely reminder to the government that fiscal virtue will not be its own reward.

Further tempering any first-year triumphalism is a question looking at the past 12 months, where the majority of voters seem less than excited with how their lives have been under the new government.

What’s striking in these numbers is that – for the majority on the majority of issues – people feel life is pretty much the same under the new Labor government as it was under the retrospectively execrable Morrison regime.

There has been recognition of some action on the treatment of Indigenous Australians and addressing climate change, but in material – and emotional – terms there is a smouldering negativity underneath this sense of stasis.

On one level, these are totally predictable findings for a nation that is experiencing an economic slowdown, in particular an end to the artificially low interest rates that characterised the pandemic years.

But it does provide a context for opposition leader Peter Dutton’s immigration dog whistle, calculated to tap this vein of brooding discontent based on the declining living standards that many Australians are feeling.

The critical question for the PM will be whether balance and sobriety will be the best approach to responding to these cynical attacks that, as post-Covid immigration intensifies, have the potential to drown out the sober business of governing over the coming months.

While the political orthodoxy is that successful governments secure the centre and hold it, there is an alternative view articulated in Anand Giridharadas’s excellent book The Persuaders. Giridharadas holds that the challenge for politics is not to seek the centre by diluting down policy and moderating messages to make them more acceptable to the uncommitted, disengaged voters who swing elections, but rather to bring the centre to you.

Success lies not in convincing your progressive supporter base to moderate their ambitions in order to win the centre, but to activate them to build the consensus for real and lasting change.

Giridharadas’s thesis is an argument for sharpening the political contest to enable the Albanese government to answer the questions that will define its first term – and its longer-term fortunes – by actually taking sides in difficult debates.

Can this government build the political capital necessary to ditch the regressive stage-three tax cuts that will flatten our progressive system to disproportionately deliver windfalls to the most privileged and rob the budget of its ballast?

Will it accelerate the shift to renewable energy that does not just compensate workers in carbon industries for the costs of transition but drives jobs and investment through a national electrification agenda or just do enough to try to keep everyone satisfied?

Will it build on its modest housing fund to find a way of really addressing the perverse operation of a market that is delivering another layer of inter-generational inequity rather than fiddling around the edges?

And will the PM’s determination to bring on the voice referendum prove the first steps in a nation-building through voice, republic and ultimately treaty and truth that is a catalyst for an Australian culture that is confident of its place in a fracturing world?

Occupying the centre ground may be a legitimate launch pad for realising these ambitions, but the warning signs are already there that voters will expect more than just balance in the longer term.

To truly change Australia, the Albanese government will need to be prepared to tip the scales.

• Peter Lewis is an executive director of Essential, a progressive strategic communications and research company

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