Getting Down to Business


Tuesday, June 7, 2022

That’s the thing about writing fortnightly political and current affairs commentaries: My friend and long-ago colleague Dennis Atkins, a veteran of the Queensland and national political media field, wrote exactly what I had planned to write for this column, in the May 31 edition of the online newspaper InQueensland. He did it very well, as he always does, so I wasn’t at all miffed about having to junk one idea and come up with another.

Atkins noted the curiosity of the federal Liberal parliamentary party being led by someone not from Victoria or New South Wales. Dutton’s will be only the second such photo on the party room wall. South Australian Alexander Downer’s the other, from his brief gig (23 May 1994 to 30 January 1995). Downer was replaced by John Howard after his excess of Hooray Henry zeal in lampooning the anti-domestic violence program in his Things That Matter manifesto as Things That Batter, though his unsuitability went further than that egregious incident.

There’s another curiosity, and it’s far more serious than Downer’s misplaced schoolboy humour or penchant for fishnet stockings. Peter Dutton is a member of the affiliated but separate Queensland Liberal National Party.  So is the new leader of the federal National Party, David Littleproud. Atkins also pointed out that since federal LNP members sit in the party rooms of their preference – Liberal or National – and Queensland’s LNP parliamentarians prefer by a majority to fly with the crows rather than paddle with the ducks, the Nationals’ party room in Canberra will be larger than the Liberal one. Dutton might usefully ponder on that particularly peculiar fortune of political war.

Dutton named his shadow ministry on Sunday. It includes 10 women among its 24 members. There are six National Party shadow ministers. In the new parliament there will be at least 28 Liberals, 21 Queensland LNP members, and 10 Nationals from NSW, Victoria, and the NT. Even if “true Libs” finally win both Gilmore in NSW and Deakin in Victoria, which were still in doubt at time of writing – and end up with 30 seats, the LNP and Nationals have the numbers in the coalition party room. 

Atkins again, with a line I wish I’d thought of: How that arrangement will rate outside Queensland, in the metro suburbs behind the Great Wall of Quinoa in southern and western states, is a challenging calculation. I recommend reading him on this, here

So anyway, on with the rest of the show. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was in Indonesia at the weekend, meeting President Joko Widodo, a sensible move given Indonesia’s crucial importance to Australia, and an example of good manners which won’t go amiss. Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s tour of the Pacific islands disposed of Australian megaphones and reset several policy buttons. More broadly, including in Timor Lesté, also on Albanese’s visiting list, the Chinese have now reduced their immediate regional aims and objectives. Coincident with the election of the Labor Party to office in Australia, they have discovered the island states are not really in favour of living in a Chinese lake.

While these early moments are encouraging – there’s another, of course: French president Emmanuel Macron wants to make up with Australia now the man he publicly branded a liar over the junked submarine project has lost office – it’s really the machinery of government moves that are interesting.

Albanese’s appointment of Griffith and Melbourne universities vice-chancellor Professor Glyn Davis to head the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is a seminal event. Davis built a stratospheric academic career around assiduous research and forensic examination of the mechanics of public service. He is the mover and shaker’s mover and shaker. Expect some far-reaching changes, but probably fewer fireworks than are usually seen during periods of bureaucratic shuffling. Certainly, focusing the public service on service rather than revenue protection rackets would be a welcome development.

It’s still early in the play. It’s only 17 days since it was the Morrison Government. Now it’s the Albanese Government and the prime minister seems intent on hastening slowly. The disgracefully mistreated Murugappan family is back home in Biloela, the abominable cashless debit card has been ditched, and the government is championing a sensible 5.1 percent rise in the minimum wage. These are all small steps along the discernibly different path that Labor wants to take Australia. The electorate chose a very different mix from the melange of rival pastel shades wheeled out by the coalition and Labor.

That’s the new reality. We’ll probably be able to make a judgment in 17 months. There’s no evidence that Albanese wants to govern by bludgeon. That was the Morrison way. But neither of the so-called natural parties of government came out of the polling booths on May 21 smelling of roses. Both stepped in something far more unpleasantly pungent. 

And both have a lot of work to do. Albanese and Labor can’t afford to frighten the horses. Dutton and the coalition have a more difficult job. They must reinvent themselves.

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