John Howard is an icon for the Liberals and a confidant for Scott Morrison. So he was the obvious choice to star at last week’s dinner to mark the 75th anniversary of the party’s founding by Robert Menzies.
Howard joined the celebratory tone of the night, declaring “Morrison, you were magnificent” in a play on Menzies’ mythical message to Liberal MP Jim Killen when victory in Killen’s seat enabled the Coalition to hang on at the 1961 election.
But the former PM also delivered some clear messages to the party. A couple are particularly pertinent.
Looking back on history, Howard said, he not only honoured Menzies, but “I also honour the coalition with the National party, previously the Country party”.
“That association is hugely important and I know the value that Scott Morrison attaches to it.”
Maybe he does. But discontented Nationals feel any such attachment hasn’t stopped Morrison crowding them out so they can’t adequately display their political wares. Drought is the particular policy area where they feel he has failed to give them sufficient “ownership”.
Indeed the drought has suddenly become an all-consuming issue for the government, in policy and politics, and in juggling sensitivities within both the Coalition and the Nationals (where it has been weaponised in a wider bitter internal war).
The more the government does, the greater the demands put on it. Expectations simply can’t be met.
The other notable Howard message went to hubris and the risk of underestimating your opponents.
“The Labor party is not dead. The Labor party will come back fighting again,” Howard said. “Deep down, we should never imagine that we are immune from hubris, that we are never going to lose an election”.
This fits neatly with Morrison’s regular party room lectures against complacency.
But despite his warnings to his troops Morrison, pumped by his victory, exhibits his own form of the hubris disease. He’s inclined to come across as believing he’s the miracle worker rather than the leader who pulled off a miracle.
At the moment, it’s not just over-confident Liberals who’d be writing off Labor. Quite a few within the opposition are very pessimistic about their prospects, although the government has a tiny majority.
Anthony Albanese had that glow of promise when he was positioning as the alternative to Bill Shorten late last term. Now in the job at last, he already finds himself under internal as well as external criticism.
In part he’s victim of today’s unrelenting media cycle, in the age of the instant. Critics are demanding an election-ready opposition leader for an over-the-horizon poll.
This week he had a useful win when militant construction union official John Setka finally quit the ALP, ahead of expulsion. Albanese’s determination to rid the party of Setka was significant because it went to Labor’s values and standards.
But victory on Setka can’t distract attention from Albanese’s tougher hurdles.
The election postmortem prepared by former South Australian premier Jay Weatherill and former federal minister Craig Emerson is set to be released early next month.
Albanese is scheduled to appear at the National Press Club on November 8, where he will have to turn negative findings into positive signals.
It’s clear enough now why Labor failed. An unpopular leader. An over-heavy policy agenda with too many losers and uncertainties. Not enough credibility on economic management. A poor campaign. A very savvy opponent.
While understanding past mistakes is vital, that’s only a first step towards crafting a future pitch. Labor’s policy process shouldn’t be rushed. But taking time leaves a vacuum, requiring holding positions that are by nature unconvincing, especially when the government is good at wedge politics.
Albanese will try to fill the space with a series of “vision statements”. The first will be on Tuesday in Perth, about job creation and the future of work and training. This will be followed by an address on the economy, to be made in Brisbane, and another on issues relating to democracy, media freedom and constitutional change, delivered in Sydney.
The idea of “vision statements” is good in principle (though not new - Howard went down that path in opposition). The challenge, however, is the execution. Unless a leader is on a roll, vision statements risk being attacked as too thin. They need meat, just when “meat” is scarce because policies are still in the making.
In a speech last month Labor frontbencher Mark Butler said the ALP’s “only three victories over Liberal governments since World War II all involved an immensely popular leader [Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Kevin Rudd], a compelling national vision and a superior campaign”.
All three are vital but the most crucial test of Albanese will be whether he is seen as a match for Morrison.
Albanese and Morrison share certain political qualities. They’re both solid and stolid, with the ability to relate to ordinary people. Neither is easily spooked – each is by nature resilient. They are also, in their own ways, a touch old fashioned.
One question mark about Albanese is whether as the election approaches he will be seen as representing Labor’s past rather than its future. The opposition could have opted for a new generation leader in Jim Chalmers. In the end he didn’t run (Albanese always had the numbers) and now serves as shadow treasurer. If Chalmers had taken over he’d probably be having as much of a struggle as Albanese is. Labor could have burned a future leader.
The new rules put in place under Rudd give security to a leader. They do not – as Albanese’s supporters pointed out when he had his eyes on Shorten’s position – provide an absolute guarantee.
If Albanese were looking bad a few months out from the election, it would be possible – albeit admittedly ectremely difficult – to change leaders.
As for now, all that can be said is that Albanese is battling in the rough current of a devastating election defeat, and it is too early to predict whether he can navigate it to put Labor in a competitive position.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra