Substance, Conservative Virtue Signalling and the Growing Army of Non-believers

The first day of the 2022 campaign may well be seen as a god send for Anthony Albanese. He choked on basic numbers. Not a good look, but from the very first minute it etchs something into his mind, something that he already knows: Labor invariably has a fight on its hands to win a Federal Election in Australia. This may bring out Albo’s best qualities, but there is also another factor in this election: the growing unaligned independent voter. Who is s/he? The major political parties and even the major polling companies do not have a clue. Chances are Albo will beat Scot Morrison but these new non-aligned voters will not preference Labor creating a night-marish scenario for the next four years.

" .. he will be a very great leader of the Labor Party"
Tom Uren on the young Anthony Albanese

2022 like 1972 is potentially an epoch defining year. It harks back to the era of Albo’s great mentor Tom Uren. Uren’s faith in Albo has always meant a great deal within the Labor Movement, Albo was far more popular than Bill Shorten and this ultimately is the reason he is currently now leader. But politics in the social media era is a whole new ball game and unlike 1972 when it was a case of two clear sides vying for power there are arguably now three bodies of voters. 35-45 per cent of the electorate locked onto the major parties and up to 30 per cent unaligned. Within all this there are probably a dozen different issues and working out what will win a majority of the electorate is a new art. In my view the new non-aligned army will favour the conservative side of politics in their preferences and their future outlook.

The battle between the two mainstream parties: Labor and the Liberal National Party is relatively well defined. On May 21 Australians get to vote for the same government that could have been voted in in 2019 minus the opaque Bill Shorten as leader. After the last four years most mainstream voters think a change is needed. Even many in the Liberal National Party think that time is up for Morrison. With big issues like climate change and Australia’s changing geo-political role there is a mood that something new is needed. The good thing about losing in 2019, when everyone thought that Labor would win, is that Labor is hungry. From climate change to defence there is a new energy with Labor even if the plans are not being aired in the election campaign. Most of all 2019 taught Labor there must be a focus on substance, competency and technical excellence.

Forget about Albo’s lack of mainstream free market economic credentials. Albo, above all, is not opaque. He has done a decades long apprenticeship in managing power and people and thinking about the most important investments to make in the nation. Albo is not just from Labor’s marketing department. He has lived Labor values, he has come through the ranks, he has been mentored by some of the greats and he has a focused experience in parliament and government. If the Labor rank and file had had their way in 2019 he would have been leader. Much is being made about the fact that Albo has not had Treasury or Finance experience but his focus on infrastructure gives him an insight beyond just twiddling budget numbers. This is not a bad thing. Albo was against privatisation and deregulation in its most extreme forms. Again this does not indicate a lack of economic experience, Albo came out of political economy at University of Sydney and the fact is that wide debate within the party about the merits of free market economics is something which is now broadly accepted as essential for managing budgets in times of pandemic, climate change and economic growth. It cannot be just a matter of spending money as in old style Keynesian economics. Nor can government just be about supply side monetarism. The most important issue is to invest in infrastructure that will make a multifaceted return on investment... not just roads and bridges and schools for their own sake but “future building” economic infrastructure and it cannot be a matter of just making global payments from Treasury.. there must be sophisticated decisions about areas of environment friendly, economic and social infrastructure.

Albo has been working in a disciplined way on investments such as fast rail for a decade and he is well aware of the nature of the debate and the difficult issues and terrain that he must master. In so many ways his fumble on mainstream economic figures is symbolic because in a way they are no longer the main game in town. Governments have to truly make the future in new and sophisticated ways and this should be Albo’s forte.

Beneath Scott Morrison’s public relations veneer at the heart of the choice between the mainstream parties is one word: competence.

When Australians voted against Bill Shorten and for Scot Morrison they were voting for a government that had trashed two leaders. Few Cabinet Ministers had ten or more years experience and an insidious rot had set in following the Howard and Abbott years. It became possible to run the Federal government as a public relations exercise. The heart of the Morrison government was spin and gotcha moments.

This arguably began with John Howard, “the Tampa affair” and then Abbott with “stop the boats” and the man who had seen how one-time media events could sway a Federal election was Scott Morrison. He was the backstop for Abbott in 2013 as Minister for Immigration and Border Security. Morrison from marketing would become the leader of the government. His mates in News Limited and Sky were his conduits trading on conservative virtue signalling but little substance.

Howard and Abbott got the mood of Australia right in those years. Goaded by Keating, Howard made some courageous decisions. Abbott also had a backbone. But it is hard to think of anything that Scott Morrison has done which has any substance and is not a kind of backfilling apology.

The preoccupation of the Morrison government is a very unhealthy focus on public relations and it goes to the heart of government. Don Russell, the veteran Labor advisor, diplomat and now head of Australia Super, argued that in the Hawke/Keating years there was a small, central controlling media group in the Prime Ministers office; by the time of the Morrison government, every Ministerial office had its own spin team. Not only that, Ministers and their spin team started to shut out the Departmental Heads of the Public Service that had, from the war years on, been the backbone of government in Australia. In other words, advice given without fear or favour was ignored and Ministers and their staffs favoured public relations messages that would hold curry in the media. It got even worse, public relations political staff learned how to use public spending to favour Liberal electorates.

Ministers have to keep their own counsel and are the final decision makers on behalf of the people but there is a balance and that has been lost in Canberra.

Federal government in Australia is highly centralised in Canberra. It is structurally problematic and naturally aloof from real people’s experiences. If there is any sign of a lack of hubris then Australians are generally on to it. The fatal combination of centralism and favouring public relations over impartial public service advice showed itself frequently under Morrison. Bush fires, aged care, floods, coronavirus vaccines, infrastructure spending, the behaviour of parliamentarians and staffers have all demonstrated lack of practicality and precision and there is much talk in Canberra about many more cases where spin was preferred over substance. For all Morrison’s Christian ethics it has been an idolatrous government.

Morrison’s word itself is now questioned by his own party members, world leaders and his own colleagues.

Albo never had anything handed to him on a plate. He is in the wrong faction to be leader. He has had to remake himself several times and to manage the most complex personalities to be where he is. He generally passes the pub test, the beauty parlour test and he is kind of cool to young people.The best thing Albo has going for him is he is not Bill Shorten or Scott Morrison. The other thing he has got going for him is his team. It is formidable.

A lot of talent is in the outer ministry so it is not obvious to the media or the public. The up and coming Clare O’Neill is an exemplar. She has formidable academic and industry credentials and I have no doubt she is the brains behind Labor’s Aged Care policy. There are few women or men in parliament that have her bredth of experience and she is hungry to make her mark. In Morrison’s government she would be in Cabinet. There are several Clare O’Neill’s in the Albanese team. There is a former secretary of the ACTU in the team. There is a former Premier of NSW. Only three members of the Shadow Ministry have had no experience as Ministers.

In Indigenous Affairs Linda Burney and Patrick Dodson are a kind of dream team. There is now probably a decade long catch up to bring Aboriginal policy back to the place it was before Tony Abbott abolished the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Burney and Dodson will take Indigenous Affairs from the middle ages to the 21st century in one term of government. They will move Indigenous affairs to the centre of what it is to be a proud Australian.

One thing both sides do is underestimate the importance of getting Aboriginal communities out to vote. In Gilmore, for example, the Aboriginal community could decide whether Fiona Phillips holds her seat or Andrew Constance goes to Canberra. Labor stalwarts like Gerry Moore and Nicole Moore have a vital role to play here. Labor sometimes just does not understand that although Aboriginal people only make a minority of the population, in key electorates, if they turn out to vote, they can mean the difference between winning and losing.

Of course Labor has its factional time servers. But it is increasingly competitive to come from the traditional union ranks to a Ministerial or junior Ministerial position. Albo is someone who appreciates his rank and file party members and parliamentary colleagues. He knows that they are just as important in government as his high flyers. He has spent time with all of them. He understands to his core Tom Uren’s saying ‘If you have deep roots, you can sway with the breeze”. As a result there is an increasingly productive culture brewing in the Labor Party. There are also now experienced teams at State level across the country and we are coming back to a Hawke Keating era in which there was a very dynamic interplay between State and Federal leaders, their teams, the traditional union movement and the party. It is an exciting time to be a young person in the Labor ranks. There is much to learn, many opportunities and the little lessons of politics are thankfully becoming appreciated and rewarded as they should be. If you letter box in the Albanese Labor Party you are as much a king as the most ambitious policy advisor out of university.

But the greatest thing Labor has going for it now is the quality of its non-political advice. The core of Labor at its best was the way it worked with the best technical advice available. Earth was connected to sky and good policy and practical innovations defined the Hawke-Keating years. In those years many Labor thinking people valued and became part of the technical advisory group or found themselves working between the public service and government. It was a testy relationship at times. But this is arguably what government is about. Hawkes Economic Summit held within one month of coming to office comes to mind. “Ignorance is the enemy of good policy” was Hawke’s credo. Let us hope this philosophy, once more, comes back into vogue in Canberra.

I worked with Albo’s mentor Tom Uren for several years. We had some great debates including over my advocacy of a GST to replace hidden, unequal indirect taxation at State and Federal levels. There were several other arenas including the privatisation of telecommunications and electricity where I think Hawke and Keating made profound mistakes as did State labor Premiers. The point is we debated these in the most rigorous ways possible. The right way forward was to include all levels of input from the labour movement as well as the best of academia and public service and the rank and fine of the labour movement and people in general . Tom described himself as a pick and shovel man. He was naturally suspicious of academics like me and he was famous for his stoushes with departmental heads in his time as a Minister. On so many issues he was right to insist that to be a good economist you had to understand much more than just free market economics. 

 Uren firmly believed, when none would see, that Albo would one day be Prime Minister. Tom believed Albo was the right combination of earth and sky. Uren saw the sky rocketing Whitlam and his mate Cairns fall to earth and took part in the solid Hawke-Keating government. He saw the best and worst of both these Labor governmental eras and he saw something special in Albo and believed he was the next to become in his words “a great Labor leader”. Tom was one of our longest serving parliamentarians 31 years, two months and 25 days and was, as they say, ‘a good judge of horse flesh’. I can see that big self satisfied smile of his when and if Albo becomes Prime Minister in May.

But it is still a big if?

Confounding all this is the new non-aligned voter. Who is s/he? At her/his core is a social media alternative knowledge base that combines Mother Jones hippiedom with radical right libertarianism. At any one time the Bill Gates pharma vaccination conspiracy that will weed out the world of its excess population may complement a radical libertarian ethos led by a figure like Jordan Peterson.

Scott Morrison is more in tune with this group than Anthony Albanese thus his wolf whistles via Katherine Deves, his laissez faire position on vaccination mandates “We do not have a mandatory vaccination policy in this country”.

The lesson for Labor is not to follow Hillary Clinton down the path of dismissing independent thinking maverick voters because they do not share the values of elite political groups. Albo started to get onto the pulse in the debate with Scott Morrison when he talked about the disenchantment of many with the democratic process. While the conspiracy theories that abound in the social media world are hard to take seriously, some concerns that voters have are not adequately addressed by the mainstream parties and particularly Labor. Dan Andrews, Annastacia Palaszczuk and Mark McGowan are popular in their respective States for taking hard line positions during the pandemic, but it is important to remind the general electorate that Labor is also the party of civil liberties that resisted conservative pushes for identity cards and which can be trusted not to turn “My Gov” into some kind of “Big Brother” intelligence gathering bureau.

Most importantly political and cultural elites need to be careful when they dismiss the views that individuals form when they do their own research and form their own opinions. There is a fine balance between recognising the work of experts in the field, understanding how corporate interests sway the truth, making collective decisions for the good of all and empathising with individuals finding their own way in this ever-complex world.

Tom Uren’s mentorship of the young Anthony Albanese may well become more valuable than any of the economic ideologues could ever understand. I admired Tom and spent enough time with him to know that he was much more than just an ideologue. He had the ability to talk to ordinary Australians on buses and trains wherever he went. I saw him do it time and time again. I also saw him reach out to his political adversaries and pay them common courtesies. One of them was John Howard, who much to my surprise I think, Tom regarded as a mate. I noticed in all the comments on Albo's day one mis-step Howard's comment was "so what". That says something to me. Howard will not allow Albo or Labor to win over his dead body, but he did respect Tom enough not to endorse dirty tricks and shallow tactics. This is the sort of ethic that is needed now more than ever. Albo showed a bit of this side of himself in the debate with Scot Morrison.


Tom Uren, Straight Left, Random House, 1994

Don Russell, Leadership, Monash University Publishing, 2021

Working Papers, 2022, 2.