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There is no doubting Anthony Albanese’s heart is in the right place. But he needs to get his head straight too.
With the Liberals banking on twin calamities to destroy him – the Voice referendum crashing in October and the economy crashing soon after – Albanese needs to swing into permanent election mode.
Peter Dutton is aping Tony Abbott, but Anthony Albanese is not Kevin Rudd.Credit: Illustration: John Shakespeare
The strategy Liberals have adopted in a bid to save what remains of their party and to ensure Peter Dutton’s survival as leader, is brutal, ugly and cold-bloodedly negative. It not only seeks to capitalise on the misery of Australians, it risks inflaming community tensions on race and immigration.
The objective is to sour the public mood to the point where, at the very least, the next election plunges Labor into minority government.
The goal is to make parliament unworkable, the government unstable and ignite Labor leadership tensions so that, voila, voters turn to the Liberals to clean up the mess. The latest Resolve poll for this masthead, showing support has declined for the Voice, for Albanese personally and for the government, is a well-timed wake-up call.
Dutton is aping Tony Abbott, who became prime minister in 2013, albeit one of the shortest lived ever, by destroying Kevin Rudd, then Julia Gillard, then Rudd again.
Albanese has flaws, but he is not Rudd. Postponing the referendum would be his Rudd moment. He would wreck his leadership as surely as Rudd wrecked his after abandoning action on climate change. Having promised the Voice, he has no choice but to stand and fight harder and smarter to deliver it. Delay will not make it any easier.
Right now, there is no whiff of tension around Albanese’s leadership as there was with Rudd. Obviously, he will be wounded if the referendum is defeated but, unless he crumbles after a massive loss, there will be no move against him.
Senior Labor figures from the Rudd days remind one another not to repeat the other mistake of the Rudd years and to underestimate Dutton, as they did Abbott, by thinking he was unelectable.
They can all see what Dutton is doing. They know it has the potential to bring them undone if they let it, so they are working on Plan B, win or lose the referendum. After a brief, decent period of celebration or mourning, more likely the latter, they will pivot to a substantial domestic initiative.
Albanese’s official visit to the US, scheduled from October 23, will not cut it, especially if the economy shows signs of softening.
Government insiders are determined not to allow the issue to continue to dominate the political debate. As Albanese says, if the referendum is defeated, there is no mandate to legislate a Voice. Another senior Labor figure was blunter, saying they cannot afford to allow themselves to be “held hostage by the fate of the Voice”.
Until then, Albanese needs a full-throttled campaign, focused on the economy and the Voice and deploying his best communicators, which unfortunately excludes Linda Burney, who struggles to counter the No’s.
Peter Dutton appears to be drawing from Tony Abbott’s playbook.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
The most effective campaigner, agree with her or not, is the opposition Indigenous affairs spokesperson Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. Price’s elevation of black-on-black disagreements gives uncertain voters a licence to vote No. So does Lidia Thorpe.
To have any chance of winning, Albanese must sharpen up, just as he did after faltering on the first day of the campaign. He needs to do what he did then, including prepping with his team at every available opportunity. No more wandering around like one of Mr Brown’s prize heifers increasing emissions by threatening early elections or floating public holidays. He needs clear, convincing messages on the Voice, housing and inflation, which need to be embedded in his brain.
No more angry ant PM either. He needs to keep his cool, no matter how irritating he finds journalists asking legitimate questions, then steer discussion to the positives of the Voice and the economy.
Another key difference between now and 2013 which could mitigate the impact on Albanese of a narrow referendum loss, and which makes Dutton’s job harder than Abbott’s, is the state of the Liberal Party. Unlike 2007, the 2022 federal election result was no ordinary defeat, not just part of a normal cycle of wins and losses. It delivered last rites to the broad church party which Robert Menzies created.
John Howard – in an interview with author Troy Bramston for a new edition of his Menzies book, released by Scribe – is right to say the Liberal Party should not go further right. He is wrong to downplay the significance of 2022 by dismissing suggestions it is an existential threat.
The Coalition was left with its lowest proportion of seats in the House of Representatives since the Liberal Party first ran in a federal election in 1946. That was before losing Aston to Labor in a landslide April 2023 byelection.
Consider this: the only demographic class where the Liberal Party and National Party have a stronghold is in rural electorates. No party seeking to form government has a pathway to a majority solely through rural and regional electorates.
And this: of particular concern in the results is that in seats with high numbers of female professional voters, the Liberal Party only holds three of the top 30 seats where previously it held 15.
They are not my observations. They were made by former federal director of the Liberal Party, Brian Loughnane, and Liberal frontbencher, Senator Jane Hume, neither of them raging lefties, in their post-election review released last December.
Asked for his solution to housing, Dutton complained about high immigration levels, perhaps not noticing or caring that without migrants, medical facilities, service stations, convenience stores and nursing homes across the country would close their doors.
Dutton also needs a decent Plan B if Australians say Yes to the Voice and the economy begins to hum along by the next election. OK, the first requires a miracle, however the second, which will decide the result in 2025, is entirely possible.
Niki Savva is a regular columnist.
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