Albanese cooks up tasty recipe for revival

The Morrison government ran Australia on a de facto policy of managed decline. Just about every major national asset was allowed to run down.

After its impressive initial success in responding to the pandemic, it sank into a stupor. Exhausted and directionless, it largely gave up on serious reform. It survived on talking points and token efforts. Natural, historical and human-made advantages were being depleted and not renewed. Australia was an extinction superpower and climate laggard. The hospitals were groaning and Medicare staggering.

Illustration by John Shakespeare

Living standards and real wages were running down as federal debt was running up. A country that occupies an entire continent couldn’t decently house a population no bigger than that of a single megacity. If grotesque pork-barrelling with public money was the key to re-election, the government would have won; but partly because it failed to implement its promise of an anti-corruption commission, it lost.

Morrison gets credit for engineering the AUKUS deal, yet fumbled foreign policy so spectacularly that a nearby microstate decided to sign a security agreement to advance the ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party.

True, it left office with a burst of post-pandemic economic growth and low unemployment. But so it should have after spending $300 billion in stimulus outlays, equivalent to a whopping 14 per cent of GDP.

The Albanese government is attempting a managed revival. It may yet fail. But, in less than a year, it has worked through delivering most of its major election promises and is now on to a second phase of problem-solving.

Anthony Albanese doesn’t use soaring rhetoric or extravagant promises. It’d look fake on an everyman like him. Positioning as a commonsense centrist, he keeps it workmanlike.

Crucially, although he has a lot of renovating to do, he’s deliberately keeping it on a very tight budget. He’s trying to avoid the Joe Biden mistake of spending so much that he overinflates the economy. This just invites a crackdown by the central bank with higher interest rates.

The complaints from Peter Dutton on his right and Adam Bandt on his left reassure Albanese that he’s getting his positioning roughly right. Dutton complains that Albanese is going too far on just about everything; Bandt gets angry that Albanese is not going far enough on just about everything.

This week alone the government produced serious progress in six different areas.

With Peter Dutton on his right and Adam Bandt on his left, Albanese believes he’s getting it roughly right.

Staff photographers

On Monday, it released its Defence Strategic Review which declared the Australian Defence Force “not fully fit for purpose”. Which means that, if forced to fight, it would lose.

Defence Minister Richard Marles published a blueprint for a thorough overhaul of national security more broadly, including the military. Some vested interests, including the Army and some defence contractors, are unhappy. The government is proceeding regardless.

On Wednesday, the government announced that it would reform the pharmaceuticals’ system so that people can buy twice as much of a prescribed medicine at any one time, but at no extra cost. Cutting the price in half, in other words.

For the six million people who take about 300 types of common medicines, they’ll save about $180 a year on each type, according to the government. This eases a cost pressure on consumers without adding to inflationary government spending.

Health Minister Mark Butler pointed out that patients typically will need “only one visit to the GP per year instead of two, and only six visits to the pharmacist instead of 12”. That should ease pressure on doctors and pharmacists.

The government’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee had been recommending this commonsense measure for six years, but the Coalition ignored the advice.

Of course, a big vested interest group is upset. Fewer visits to the chemist will also mean fewer fees to pharmacists. Pharmacy Guild president Trent Twomey outdid himself in response. He claimed there would be disastrous shortfalls of supply, a concern shrugged off by the manufacturers. And took himself to the brink of tears of self-pity at a press conference. The government is proceeding regardless.

Also on Wednesday, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek announced that the May 9 budget would allocate $262 million over the next four years for national parks. Kakadu Nature Conservation board member Professor Michael Douglas told my colleague Laura Chung he’d been seeking money from successive ministers for years: “We [have not] had the money to control feral animals and their numbers keep increasing and weeds continue to spread. This [funding] is a turning point.”

On the same day, the government released its plan to avoid a catastrophic failure in the gas market. The draft code of conduct for the gas industry sets out binding rules to keep gas flowing to Australian homes and businesses at a reasonable price – as distinct from going to offshore customers.

It keeps in place a price cap of $12 per gigajoule, a point at which the producers have made fat profits in the past. But it also offers exemptions to encourage gas companies to commit to supplying the local market with reassuringly large and legally enforceable supply contracts. A fair-minded, independent expert, the Grattan Institute’s Tony Wood, says the plan is about as good as it could be in the circumstances.

After a decade without any policy certainty, the energy sector is still in a precarious condition. But the crisis is now under active management rather than intermittent intervention.

On Thursday, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil revealed a thorough reform of the immigration system. The system was “broken”, she said, and few could disagree. She said that high-value migrants faced bureaucratic delays that often drove them to bypass Australia.

US President Joe Biden over-read his mandate, something Albanese has avoided.


She offered the example of Professor Brian Schmidt, Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist and Vice Chancellor of ANU: “He came to Australia in the 1990s and was granted a visa in four days. Today’s world-leading young astrophysicist would wait many months just to get look-in in our current visa system. And that’s if she or he were lucky, and could find their occupation on the right list. We can probably assume that today’s Brian Schmidt would simply take their Nobel Prize, and move to Canada instead.”

Instead, the system made it easier for low-skilled, temporary workers. While skilled permanent migration to Australia had levelled out at some 30,000 a year in the past two decades, the number of people here on a temporary basis has grown to a cumulative 1.9 million migrants. This was a precondition for the exploitation of these workers, also undermining conditions for everyone else at the same time: “We have the system pretty much exactly backwards.” She proposed a sweeping program of change to “get this powerful engine working again in the national interest”.

The net effect of the changes would be to slightly cut the total size of the immigrant intake, she said.

On Friday, Albanese emerged from a national cabinet meeting with the premiers and chief ministers of every jurisdiction across the country to announce reforms to the health system and the NDIS scheme, as well as some progress towards a national approach to home renters’ rights.

This is just a sampling of the reforms announced this week, and from this week alone. Much more will be unveiled in the budget. Yet, despite all of the government’s reformist energy, many vast, long-term problems remain and many urgent demands go unfunded.

The government’s own economic inclusion committee has called for the rate of JobSeeker payments to be raised to equal 90 per cent of the aged care pension. This would help a million people at a cost to the budget of $24 billion over four years. Other recommendations would cost another $10 billion.

And while the government will make some modest improvements to welfare payments, it is tempering its urge to spend on worthy causes. As it must. The president of the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, Will Marshall – an advocate for a “radically pragmatic” Democratic Party – visiting Australia last week, explained what happened to the Biden administration when it did not: “Biden over-read his mandate and was convinced by his staff that this was a New Deal moment, which was very strange because we had a 50:50 Senate, no political margin, and he hadn’t run on a big spending splurge.

“He went beyond COVID spending and went into Democratic spending. He really ceded to a lot of the left’s priorities. The upshot is that he spent more than people expected him to do. He didn’t run as a state expander, he ran as somebody who’d rise above tribal politics and be bigger than his party, and here he was giving the left the reins.

“And so I think that’s one of the reasons he’s stuck down at 43 per cent” approval rating. “The public links the heavy spending on everything with inflation and I think they’re right. The San Francisco Fed has a famous study that shows that, yes, it was a major contributor to it.”

To consolidate as a centrist reformer, Albanese needs to consolidate as a responsible manager of the treasury. The budget is his opportunity to do so. Managed revival is a lot harder than managed decline.

( Information from was used in this report. Also if you have any problem of this article or if you need to remove this articles, please email here and we will delete this immediately. [email protected] )

Leave a Comment

Share to...