A ‘small target’ government in a big moment

On the May 2018 Barrie Cassidy iteration of ABC’s ‘Insiders’, a clip resurfaced of Anthony Albanese speaking about killings in Gaza. With fuller cheeks and a fuller heart, he spoke with conviction: “Those people who have guns on one side, and on the other side have rocks – the people with guns have the responsibility to act in a way that is proportionate”. Albanese is now Prime Minister, he calls Israel a “friend”, and the “people with guns” have killed more than 30,000 Palestinians since October 2023.

The Prime Minister, quite literally the man who founded the Parliamentary Friends of Palestine in his younger days, now instructs his government to abstain from UN votes calling for a ceasefire in Gaza – a conflict being called a “plausible genocide” by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The same Prime Minister, who once spoke with fire for the Palestinian cause, now supplies Israel with materiel with which to wage that “plausible genicode”, assistance he refuses to withhold despite growing global condemnation.

This is shifting the essence of who we are as a nation. And this is why Albanese is a major disappointment to many who voted for his party, and many who didn’t. 

When the Albanese Government won the 2022 election, it did so in a shifting electoral landscape. After a painful decade reached its nadir in Scott Morrison, Australians repudiated the Coalition in previously unthinkable fashion. A teal wave crashed on the leafy green ‘blue ribbon’ seats of Sydney and Melbourne; the seat of Robert Menzies was lost to an independent. The Coalition was broadsided and lost nineteen seats. And Labor took office with the lowest primary vote (32.58%) in party history.

After a lost decade of conservative rorting, battered by the biggest bushfires in living memory, an economic crisis, a major war involving nuclear powers, and a world changing pandemic, Labor was handed power by a beleaguered and distressed populace. But this blessing from the people wasn’t for being bold and brave (which it clearly wasn’t), nor for unquestionably supporting AUKUS, nor for rolling over on Morrison’s tax cuts when it mattered most, or even for voting alongside the Coalition on many issues. No, small-target Labor was voted in because it was not a Scott Morrison government.

And yet it had spent a large amount of its election campaign pretending to be a version of that – its platform almost fitting entirely into the small shadow cast by Morrison’s rear end.  

While Labor strategists may have hung their milquetoast ‘small target strategy’ axiom in the pool room after snatching a few seats to a narrow victory, the electorate, now awash in an unprecedented sea of independents, was hoping for governance for the times with the support of the people. 

But as one major party government ceded to another, the coal and gas licences continued to roll out willy nilly. The new government seemed more hellbent on surrendering our sovereignty through its AUKUS zealotry than the last. And interest rates, wages and cost of living got further away from Australians.

Albanese might have dodged a few punches in the narrow lanes provided in the Faustian pact made with the Murdoch led corporate press, he could have made some friends with his business as usual approach towards the profit laden business community, he may have earned some brownie points in Tel Aviv and Washington for his government’s abominably weak stance on the catastrophe in Gaza, but he does so on the tattered remains of a greater Labor legacy that seems so far away right now. 

As his government remains a “friend” and military supporter of Israel, Albanese gets up in parliament and speaks of the need to “make more things in Australia”, but does so through the lens of militarism, as the burgeoning Australian military-industrial complex is the only “make more things” industry currently seeing any dynamism. When his senior colleagues saunter out of the Canberra bubble talking about how a polished-turd version of Scomo’s Tax Cuts are the panacea to ‘cost of living’ issues, they do so in an economic omnicrisis that is felt directly in the hearts and bellies of so many.

Under this government, Labor now represents appeasement and disappointment: appeasing the US on security; appeasing the foreign owned press with vapid and incrementally inadequate policy; appeasing the business class by preserving the economic status quo and entrenching record profits; appeasing the polluting mining giants by granting unmitigated access to new coal and gas; and disappointing millions of voters that feel trapped in a major party nightmare with nowhere to go.

Albanese feels more at home with Fitzy, Kate and Whippa than he does with Laura Tingle; he responds better to disingenuous questioning from Ben Fordham than he does from policy with Raf Epstein. He currently presents as a neoliberal Fox-FM PM that spent more time at Taylor Swift and Katy Perry concerts in a week than he did responding to his government’s decision to pull vital humanitarian aid from a war-torn Gaza.  

In the shadow of fading giants, the ALP talks about childcare reform from the angle of the productivity commission, makes no meaningful tax reform while paying lip service to the housing crisis, and has the spunk to chastise the Greens while claiming to be paragons of climate action – all without a trace of a broad sweeping reform in the public interest, or a hint of the courage needed to do so.

And forget even about the hard stuff, like reforming the economy or developing an independent strategic policy in the national interest. Or the moral stuff, like plainly opposing the rolling genocide in Gaza. Lets even put away the existential stuff like fighting climate change or corporate profiteering. This government can’t even make urgent changes to religious discrimination without the approval of the Coalition, or enact a New Vehicle Efficiency Standard without flaking and softening rules for 5.7L HEMI V8 Dodge Rams and other assorted petrol guzzlers, clutching at apparitions of Michaelia Cash over the spectre of the “ute tax”. The days get shorter in an uncertain world, and we see another Australian major party government before us, a Labor one at that, frozen in stasis. Many will say never again. 

Anthony Albanese entered government at a crossroads for the country. And instead of being aware of the challenges awaiting after a decade in opposition, and being in touch with the people they pertain to represent, he took his ‘small target’ opposition act into the big government arena.

Still kicking around in the rumpus room of their collective imagination, the ALP is content to sit like an eclipse over the uninspiring centre-right blob of small ideas hanging around like a miasma since Howard. Like their major party predecessors, neglecting the same urgent problems, Labor no longer serves in a people-facing capacity, callously ignorant to the public interest, arrogantly self-entitled to the power they covet on the two-party see-saw. And that simply won’t cut it anymore. The electoral reality, with minor parties and independents growing from the grassroots, tells a different story. The events of the 2022 election won’t be an isolated case. Australians now have options to help take their democracy back from the ground up.

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