Grattan on Friday: Albanese governs on softly-softly catchee monkey formula. Would Plibersek or Chalmers have been bolder?

Reading Margaret Simons’ recently released biography of Tanya Plibersek brought to mind an interesting question. What sort of Labor government would we have if Plibersek, rather than Anthony Albanese, had become Labor leader in 2019, and then won the 2022 election?

Or, indeed, what if Jim Chalmers – who like Plibersek (and Chris Bowen) flirted with a run in 2019 – had contested and secured the leadership and the election?

Plibersek and Albanese, both from the left and both holding inner-Sydney electorates, have been long-term rivals; Albanese looked over his shoulder at her when he was opposition leader. Then after the election the new prime minister surprised Plibersek by moving her out of education into the environment portfolio.

He also stripped her of the women’s portfolio, giving it to the incoming finance minister, Katy Gallagher, a decision hard to understand considering Plibersek’s background in the area and how demanding the finance job is.

Like Albanese, Plibersek is pragmatic, but probably hasn’t moved quite so far to the centre as he has. If she were running things, would this Labor government have a more radical tinge?

As it is, Plibersek finds herself in the unenviable position of being the minister deciding the fate of coal and gas projects, defending decisions from criticism from the Greens, who have been loudly demanding a ban on new fossil fuel projects and have their eye on Plibersek’s seat when she eventually leaves it.

A hypothetical Chalmers government raises the question of whether we’d have seen a bolder economic reform agenda early on. We can say, with a fair bit of certainty, that those controversial stage 3 tax cuts would have been refashioned in the October budget, because Chalmers wanted to do that but was overruled by Albanese.

Albanese will celebrate Sunday’s anniversary of his election victory in Japan, at the G7 meeting, to which Australia has been invited. That’s rather fitting, given that one – perhaps unexpected – feature of the PM’s first year in office is how enthusiastically he’s taken to the international stage, despite that not being his bailiwick when he was part of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government.

His recent trip to London for the coronation wasn’t rushed, as he made the most of the chance for talks. He said at the time that “we don’t share land borders with anyone else so you have to take every opportunity at events such as this to develop relationships”.

Hosting the Quad meeting in Sydney next week was to culminate Albanese’s busy and successful foreign policy year, before President Joe Biden pulled out because of the US gridlock over the debt ceiling. While some commentators saw this as a snub to Australia, that seems a huge stretch, given Biden’s circumstances and the fact the Quad leaders will all be at the G7 meeting and can caucus together there. Albanese, however, was anxious to point out he has a state visit to the US coming up later this year.

In foreign affairs (and leaving aside AUKUS), the most notable feature of Labor’s first year has been the thaw in the relationship with China. It is starting to bring economic dividends with the loosening of the trade restrictions that country imposed - this week saw a breakthrough on timber exports - though it has a way to go. The better relationship has been driven partly by the change of government, and partly by a change in China’s wider foreign policy stance.

As foreign minister, Penny Wong has won wide praise over the past year, but she has also attracted the sharpest attack of any senior minister from within the wider Labor family. Who can forget Paul Keating’s very personal excoriation of her after a major address: “I never expected more than platitudes from Penny Wong’s Press Club speech and, as it turned out, I was not disappointed.”

Within foreign policy circles, people are divided over Wong’s depth as a policy thinker. Within the caucus she is seen as a star.

Chalmers’ first year in government has been especially closely watched not just because of his pivotal treasury role but because he is regarded as a potential successor to Albanese.

It’s been clear, from how he conducts himself, that he sees himself that way. He is a hyperactive (and effective) communicator. He interprets his economic brief widely and he lays down markers for the future, as with his Monthly essay on “values-based” capitalism.

Chalmers fights his battles within the tent and doesn’t let whatever frustrations he might have come out in his public demeanour. He’s there for the long haul, but economic factors beyond his control will be crucial in how that works out for him.

A feature of this initial year of the government has been the discipline in its senior ranks. There have been no ministerial scandals, let alone resignations, and any cabinet-level policy struggles been have been contained. (Significantly, however, we are starting to see some backbench stirring on issues – on welfare assistance before the budget, and negative gearing subsequently.)

Mostly, ministerial lips have been zipped. Leaks have been few. Plibersek must have been unhappy about how she was treated but you would never have known. The Albanese camp used to be suspicious of Bill Shorten and may still be. But Shorten, whatever his private political griefs, has been publicly a team player. And probably no other minister but Shorten, father of the NDIS, could get away with slashing the rate of growth of the scheme, to make it sustainable, as he has undertaken to do.

Labor’s review of the 2022 election laid down a prescription for the future. “By governing well, placing a high value on internal unity and stability, and drawing together voting constituencies around well-designed policies that attend to people’s needs, concerns and Australia’s national interest, the opportunity to establish a long-term Labor Government can be realised.”

This describes the Albanese softly-softy catchee monkey formula. Keep promises, build trust, don’t frighten the horses in the first term. Have the credibility to then take a more ambitious agenda to the election ahead of a second term.

It’s looking an effective way to operate. It is low risk. Except it does carry the risk that events might blow it off course so that by the time of the next election the government has to offer, not a bolder agenda, but another cautious one in order to survive.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra.

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Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.