OPINION

Can Albanese crumble his way to The Lodge?

Anthony Albanese is betting on deliberate attacks, rather than sweeping assaults. Picture: Getty Images
Anthony Albanese is betting on deliberate attacks, rather than sweeping assaults. Picture: Getty Images

Journalists are always told to put the important bit up the top, so let's skip the background and begin with who's going to win the next election.

Of course nobody can be certain and sure, a lot can change between now and the end of the year. Nevertheless, if he thinks he can win, that's when Scott Morrison will probably call the poll. So let's assume nothing dramatic happens and there are no major changes. What's going to happen?

Well, if the opposition was sure to win, you'd expect it to be doing better in the polls than is currently the case. Psephologist Kevin Bonham points out that in 2012 Tony Abbott was consistently recording a four-point lead (52-48) over Labor nine months out from the polls. In 2007 Kevin Rudd was doing even better, ahead by almost 10 points (55-45). Finally in 1995, the other recent change-of-government election, John Howard led by five points (52-47). Today, however, polling shows a 50-50 two-party-preferred split.

While that's enough for Labor to shift their posteriors across and onto the government benches, the odds are that they'll (just) miss out. Again. After all, the government's got so many tactical advantages it can use to pull ahead. Funnelling money into marginal seats, launching new programs, benefiting from incumbency. Labor's still in with a good chance, but it's not the favourite.

Most critically, only about 36 per cent of people are planning on giving Labor their first preferences, and that's about two points below the accepted minimum primary vote the party needs. And finally, even though his post-COVID gloss is wearing thin, Scott Morrison is still a very long way ahead of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese. The Prime Minister's still recording massive approval - 63 per cent in a recent Newspoll (compared to the Labor leader's 41) - and holds a 57-29 advantage in the preferred-prime-minister stakes. So how can the opposition improve its chances?

First step: change the leader.

In the words of one parliamentarian last week: "Forget it, Nic. It's not going to happen."

The obvious replacement is Tanya Plibersek - left wing, articulate, experienced. She isn't, however, destabilising the leader - and (after the post-Rudd reforms introduced to protect the party leader) doesn't necessarily have the numbers to take him on. Her problem is, quite simply, that Albanese doesn't want to go. He still believes he can win, and is demanding his turn rather than standing aside. It probably also doesn't help that Plibersek's been a long-time factional rival and the pair sit in adjoining inner-city Sydney seats. This does, nevertheless, provide a hint that she could do better. At the last election, Plibersek's vote surged by 5.67 per cent, while Albanese was left scoring a solid, but lower, swing of 4.79.

Complicating any change to the leadership team is the issue of Albanese's deputy, Richard Marles. He isn't preforming brilliantly, however there's no obvious replacement and this is helping to secure his position. One potential candidate often mentioned at this point is shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers, who's good, even very good. But while this might justify his current portfolio, others point out that his own personal electoral vote in his working-class, southern Brisbane seat went backwards by a massive 7.91 per cent at the last election. There are all sorts of reasons, of course (it went up by 7.16 at the preceding election) but the bottom line is there are few immediately compelling reasons for other MPs to abandon their own hopes of succeeding Marles and swing behind Chalmers.

Second step: introduce a big policy alternative. But Albanese isn't attempting to win that way.

Instead he's appealing to that hugely dominant urge: self-interest. The Labor leader is relying on individual voters hearing his message, lodging it in the back of their minds, retrieving it on election day and plumping for change. He's not attempting to be a messiah, like Rudd, or an eviscerator, like Abbott. This is intended to be a quiet revolution, slowly swelling as it becomes infused by creeping alienation and awareness of the basic unfairness of economic distribution, rather than suggesting the whole system's wrong and in need of dramatic reform.

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Albanese is attacking where he thinks he can make a point, but not otherwise attempting to put forward an entire program advocating robust transformation. This is no blitzkrieg. Think of it more like British general Bernard Montgomery's strategy as the Allies fought their way slowly across Europe during World War II - attempting to "crumble" enemy strongpoints one by one. A deliberate attack, rather than a sweeping assault.

Albanese knows he can't win if he fights on Morrison's terrain, so instead he's adopted the approach of an insurgent, springing up to talk about issues (like childcare) that matter to individuals instead of advocating an entire program (like tax reform) where the devil is in managing to explain the details.

It sounds like a plausible strategy. The question is, though, will it be enough? It certainly isn't the method that's been employed when we've seen previous changes of government; it also relies on Morrison clinging on to his current policies rather than altering them or coming up with new framing that could leave Labor suddenly exposed and outflanked. Rather than promising to change the world, Albanese's offering to work towards a better one - not immediately, but with certainly and in a concrete way.

Feeling enthused enough to change government now?

Australians want a party that will offer us a future. Labor's relying on preferences to slip across the line. Will it be enough? Maybe, but it might need to up its offerings significantly to ensure it remains attractive to both Green voters and One Nation ones. Perhaps big policies might be the answer after all.

  • Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.
This story Can Albanese crumble his way to The Lodge? first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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