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Anthony Albanese’s pandemic response

Apr 27, 2020 • 15m 50s

Labor leader Anthony Albanese is juggling the need to appear constructive while holding the government to account. But what does the public actually want from their opposition during this crisis? Today, Karen Middleton on the Opposition’s tactics in a pandemic.

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Anthony Albanese’s pandemic response

210 • Apr 27, 2020

Anthony Albanese’s pandemic response

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese is attempting a delicate balancing act, between appearing constructive and holding the government to account.

But what does the public actually want from their opposition during this crisis?

Today: The Saturday Paper chief political correspondent Karen Middleton on the Opposition’s tactics in a pandemic.


RUBY:

Karen, you recently spoke to Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese. What sort of a sense did you get from him about the kind of approach that he thinks that Labor as the opposition party should be taking during this crisis?

KAREN:

Well, I think Labor's trying to find its place really. It wants to be holding the government to account because it thinks that it's important for a democracy that happen. But it doesn't want to be seen to be being irrelevant or causing trouble or obstructing anything.

Archival tape -- Karen:

You must think about politics, though, at a time like this. I mean what's the thinking on the politics of obstructing the government. Is that a risk to you and does that play into your thinking?

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

Well of course. You always think about politics when you're a politician. But in this case …

KAREN:

It's also conscious, of course, that the prime minister's approval rating is pretty high at the moment and that people are supportive in large part according to the polls of what he's doing.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

In this case both the principled position – the need to support working people and the politics of the fact that I believe the overwhelming majority of Australians wanted that legislation to be passed.

KAREN:

So that means that the opposition has to tread carefully and make sure that what it's doing is constructive.

RUBY:

Hmm that's a difficult line to walk. How did that strategy manifest in parliament in terms of how Labor's approached the government's economic stimulus measures?

KAREN:

Well, it's interesting because it's approached the two different measures that we've seen from the government in different ways.

We saw first up its job seeker payment. And you remember, it seems like a long time ago now. The government boosted it to almost double its original payment.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

This is about supercharging the safety net. The measures will double income support for those on JobSeeker...

KAREN:

And that required a pared down sitting of parliament to approve it. The opposition was putting pressure on the government to include students and Youth Allowance recipients in the eligibility criteria for that payment.

And at that time, the government was resisting and the Labor Party played hardball. Then they said to the government… listen, you're ultimately going to have to include students. We know you are because they will come back to you and say, we can't survive. We've lost our jobs. So why don't you just do it now?

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

This is about people's lives. And then, of course, consequentially their livelihoods.

KAREN:

And the government blinked and said, yes, okay.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

I had a meeting with Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg today to a range of proposals which subsequently were adopted...

KAREN:

And changed its legislation. So Labor had a win.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

That means an additional 230,000 Australians will receive that financial support.

KAREN:

But when they came back the next time with the job keeper, they approached it a different way.

RUBY:

So with the JobSeeker legislation Labor held the line, and the government caved. What was Labor’s strategy this time around with JobKeeper?

KAREN:

Well, the next time they decided they couldn't afford to play that hardball tactic. They were talking about a $130 billion wage subsidy scheme that almost a million Australians were waiting for to ensure that they had some kind of income and Labor didn't want to be held responsible for delaying that money flowing to those people.

So while it held the view that that package also wasn't perfect and should be extended to include temporary visa holders and the casuals who were excluded because they'd worked for less than 12 months for one employer, it decided not to dig in.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

And you’ve got to think of the counterfactual. What were the consequences of that legislation not being passed last week? Potentially a million Australians would've lost their job in the aftermath of that…

KAREN:

So when it put amendments in the House of Representatives and they weren't passed when it got to the Senate, it didn't insist on those amendments when they failed and it decided not to support the minor parties.

RUBY:

Karen, what's their thinking here? Why did Labor, on the one hand, fight for students to get payments, but then take this softer approach when it comes to temporary visa holders and casuals?

KAREN:

Well, it's a mixture of being completely pragmatic and not wanting to obstruct what the government is trying to do and also calculating political risk. So there is politics at play here. Anybody who suggests there's not is kidding themselves, really.

And in terms of Anthony Albanese, he's a long term player and he made a calculation that it was better for Labor to support that wage subsidy package in the form that it was in and get the money flowing and then continue to argue that it wasn't perfect and the government should do better. And if it doesn't do better, it's on the government's head.

RUBY:

So, Karen, has there been much criticism of Labor's approach here?

KAREN:

There's been criticism from some on the crossbench, the likes of Rex Patrick from Center Alliance thinks Labor gave away too much and that it caved in too soon and that it should have held out for more and joined forces with the minor parties and he's frustrated that they don't do this as often as he says they should.

Archival tape -- Rex Patrick:

We had plenty of time to play poker properly to get and squeeze more out of the government. But the opposition just gave up at the very start and signal at the very start that in actual fact the government didn't have to do any negotiations at all.

RUBY:

And what does Anthony Albanese say in response to that?

KAREN:

Well, he calls that gesture politics, the sort of argument that Rex Patrick is making.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

You can't afford to engage in gesture politics without being cognizant of what the consequence of making those gestures would be. In this case, it would be cataclysmic for working people and for our economy.

KAREN:

But Rex Patrick makes the point that he wants a strong opposition, he says he is the center alliance is not a party of government, and he understands that that's different to the position that Labor is in, that it has considerations that are related to being a party of government. But he also says that he thinks that they should be a strong opposition now, and that wasn't what they were being when they were in parliament.

Archival tape -- Karen:

So you think in a staring competition with the government, Labor blinked?

Archival tape -- Rex Patrick:

They didn't just blink. They shut their eyes and they shut their eyes right at the very start of the staring competition.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Karen, the last time Australia was facing an economic downturn like this was the GFC back in 2008. Labor was in power then. Do you see any lessons for them from that time, as they navigate the current crisis in Opposition?

KAREN:

Yes. Interestingly, I spoke to Rebecca Huntley, who's a really well respected social researcher with Vox Populi. And she said that during the global financial crisis there was a lesson that would be instructive for both Labor and the Coalition. She had detected before the global financial crisis that there was some creeping criticism of Kevin Rudd as prime minister as he was then.

Archival tape -- Rebecca Huntley:

It was interesting, leading up to that moment while it wasn’t registering in the polling numbers I was getting a murmuring, an undercurrent of questioning about Kevin Rudd’s focus, about what his government would be about…

KAREN:

But when the crisis struck, that criticism was set aside and people wanted unity. They wanted the political parties to work together to find a solution and to keep them out of recession.

Archival tape -- Rebecca Huntley:

And in a sense the GFC gave him a strong central focus of action that really highlighted some of his strengths...

KAREN:

Afterward, though, once that was achieved, there was a sense that maybe things weren't as bad as people thought because we didn't go into recession and they reverted back to the old criticism of the government and the prime minister that they had had before.

Archival tape -- Rebecca Huntley:

The electorate snapped back very quickly to almost like the same kind of questions and critiques of the government as if the GFC had not been that much of a big deal...

KAREN:

Now, Anthony Albanese says it's hard to know whether they could have refuted that more effectively if they hadn't replaced Kevin Rudd as prime minister. But he does acknowledge that there was a reverting back and he said that that's a lesson for him and for the opposition as a current opposition, that there may well be a resumption of any criticism of government that existed before after this crisis is over. But there may also be the expectation that opposition will resume its usual role and position in challenging the government and holding it to account.

And in fact, Rebecca Huntley says she detects that that sentiment is starting to rise now, as we see the flattening of the curve that we've all been talking about with the number of infections from coronavirus in Australia starting to ease off, that people may well then start to push for a resumption of normal life and that that could lead to a resumption of normal politics or at least public expectations of normal political behavior from both government and opposition.

Archival tape -- Rebecca Huntley:

You can go from people’s real full panic about a crisis and a desire for a consensus to very quickly asking some questions and...

KAREN:

So it'll be interesting to see how much of the bipartisan sentiment lasts and how much they do revert to their ordinary positions, because that's certainly what happened last time.

RUBY:

So are we starting to see labor resume some of that normal politics?

KAREN:

Yes, I think we are. I think we are starting to hear them push back more, certainly on the issue of who missed out on the wage subsidy. And we're already hearing them point the finger at the coalition and say you could make changes that would improve this and you haven't done it. So I think Labor is trying to step up its criticism. The shadow treasurer is already foreshadowing the responsibility that the government will bear.

Archival tape -- Josh Frydenberg:

Deputy speaker, we also need to recognise that this legislation gives the Treasurer extraordinary and broad powers to include those who aren’t currently included in the scheme…

KAREN:

And he is saying, you know, once unemployment spikes in this country in the next few months, everyone should remember that it was the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, who had the power to prevent a lot of those job losses.

Archival tape -- Josh Frydenberg:

The only thing standing between a Job Seeker payment for more than a million Australians is the treasurer's signature.

KAREN:

That they could have fixed this by, including more people in the wage subsidy and allowing people to be just stood down temporarily and not sacked and they didn't do it. So that's the argument you're already hearing from Labor.

RUBY:

So Karen, do you have a sense after speaking to the opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, about how he thinks this strategy is going? Is he happy with the current approach or do you think we'll see it continue to morph?

KAREN:

I think it will it will change as public sentiment changes and they're trying to detect when public sentiment shifts and goes back into more of the normal course of things. But he seems not unhappy with the way things are politically. He is determined to be co-operative. I don't think that's that's pretend or fake.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

So the idea that we would be self-indulgent, play politics and hold up the legislation is quite frankly something we wouldn’t contemplate, we didn’t contemplate. And we were very explicit that we wouldn’t hold up the legislation.

KAREN:

And I think a lot of Australians are pleased to see cooperation in a crisis.

And they'd probably like a little bit more cooperation in normal political life as well. But they equally believe that there should be contestability and that ideas should be tested and challenged and that we do need to have a rigorous opposition.

So in some respects, while we want more cooperation, we also do expect there to be a degree of taking up of normal roles so that our democracy functions in the most effective way that it can, where ideas are put forward and challenged and rigorously tested and at the best possible ideas are then made into law.

RUBY:

Karen, thank you so much for your time today.

KAREN:

Thanks, Ruby.

RUBY:

Also in the news…

The federal government yesterday released its Covid-19 tracing app, and encouraged the public to download and use it to speed up the contact tracing process.

COVIDSafe, as the app is known, requires users to supply their name, their age range, a mobile number and postcode.

The app uses Bluetooth to log information when two users come within 1.5m of each other.

If an individual tests positive for Covid-19 they are then able to make their app data available to state health officials for the purposes of contract-tracing.

**

Queensland and WA have eased a number of restrictions on public gatherings and non-essential activities as the number of new Covid-19 cases continues to decline.

In Queensland national parks will be opened up and residents will be able to drive up to 50km away from their place of residence.

Members of the same household will be able go on picnics together, and shopping for non-essential items like clothes and shoes will also be permitted.

In WA, indoor and outdoor non-work gatherings of up to 10 people will now be allowed.

**

And a new study by the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance has found that there is no evidence that children have infected teachers with Covid-19 in NSW schools.

The report will feed into the ongoing debate about school closures, and the potential re-opening of schools.

**

I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese is attempting to pull off a delicate balancing act: between appearing constructive, and holding the government to account. But what does the public actually want from their opposition during this crisis? Today, The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent Karen Middleton on the Opposition’s tactics in a pandemic.

Guest: Chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Karen Middleton.

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The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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210: Anthony Albanese’s pandemic response