When questioned if he has been too sluggish to act during his first year in power, Anthony Albanese responds quickly. After Labor won the federal election in May, critics who want speedier progress on all fronts won’t get the prime minister to budge.
“After a decade of inaction, you can’t simply wish things to happen. You have to have an orderly way in which you’re certain they will happen,” he says.
Now that he is in charge of the administration, Albanese is all about maintaining order, which means quelling the expectations of true believers who want the world to change in an instant. In an interview to commemorate Labor’s first year in office, he repeatedly refers to a “mature and orderly” attitude to his work.
By pledging “safe change” and abandoning hazardous tax ideas, the former left-wing firebrand won the May 21 election. As a result, he wanted to make sure there were no surprises during his first year in power.
However, the purposeful caution goes beyond simply explaining the past to include planning for the future.
Having already set his sights on the 2025 election, Albanese is aware that he will not be able to accomplish all of his goals during his current term in office. He has a basic outline of an electoral platform in mind, with employment and education as two of the most important issues, and he is driven by the desire to win over a large number of former Liberal supporters.
What does he then say to individuals who supported him in the past but had high hopes for more ambitious climate change goals, a generous increase in unemployment benefits, or a more robust support system for single mothers?
“What isn’t the right thing to do is to put forward positions that can’t be delivered,” he says. “That leads to disillusionment and undermines the integrity of what you’re putting forward.”
He cites climate policy as an effective illustration. As pledged throughout the election campaign, Labor passed a 43% target into law. In fact, it ended a more than 10-year-old parliamentary impasse on climate change. Labor chose to set the goal because they thought it was realistically attainable.
“The difference between Labor and people who don’t seek to be a party of government is that they can promise whatever they like because it never has to be delivered,” he says.
“I believe that Labor should be the natural party of government – that our values sit with a majority of Australians, the values of a fair go and not leaving people behind, but also of not holding people back. Those are values of aspiration for a better life. And in order to do that, you have to have a program that takes people with you on the journey of change.
“And I’m a firm believer in under-promising and over-delivering.”
Although Albanese does not specifically mention the Greens, his comments are clearly directed at them. Adam Bandt, the head of the Green Party, wants to take much greater action against climate change, including ending thermal coal mining, burning, and exportation by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2035. However, the Labor Party’s goal remains net-zero by 2050. In order to avoid disappointing his supporters, Albanese wants to set reasonable goals.
This is obviously effective. Labor narrowly secured the majority in parliament with a few seats to spare after winning the election with a primary vote of 32.6%, but its primary vote rose to 42% in the Resolve Political Monitor in this masthead in August and has remained there ever since.
It is a remarkable elevation. Labor now controls from a higher plateau than it did throughout the election campaign. And when respondents are asked which of the two candidates they choose to be prime minister, Albanese easily defeats Opposition Leader Peter Dutton by a margin of 53% to 20%.
“Politicians, of course, always look at polling, but you can’t be distracted by it,” says Albanese. (In fact, on the day of our interview, he had not seen the polling because he was deep in work on the cancelled Quad summit.) He says the polling numbers are about a point in time.
“Our task is to entrench that. And I think a year – which has been a busy year – is enough time for people to have had a look at us and formed a view. And they might not agree with everything that the government has done, but I think that any fair analysis would say that we have done what we said we would do.
“Our task is to consolidate that, to make sure that the commitments and policies that have been put in place are delivered. And I think that’s another characteristic of the government – ministers are able to do their job because of the way that cabinet government is operating.”
These ministers have a significant role in Labor’s excellent poll performance. Nearly all of the 17 policy questions posed by the Resolve Political Monitor have the government in the lead, including questions concerning economic management, employment and wages, cost of living, education, health care, and the environment. National security is the one subject where Labor and the Coalition are tied, however Labor has taken the lead recently. Meanwhile, the Coalition is in a rut that might last longer than one term if it is unable to reclaim the prestigious Liberal seats that the “teal” independents stole from it.
Albanese may cite instances of decisions where Labor outperformed its promises. He mentions the rise in JobSeeker by $40 per fortnight, the continuation of the single parents’ stipend until children age 14, and the increase in paid parental leave from 18 to 20 weeks. These weren’t any election policies.
A Labor government will always be criticized for moving too slowly, so he anticipates inquiries about whether he might have accomplished more in his first year in office. So he thoughtfully responds, not with a tirade but with a list.