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Saturday, June 25, 2022

Grattan on Saturday: Albanese government mugged by gas crisis as it faces challenge of managing expectations

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Tony Burke reads a poem aloud every day and has a piano lesson once a week.

The new minister for employment and workplace relations, as well as minister for the arts, says it’s important not to get trapped by the “facts in front of you” without any room for creative thought.

And, having been a minister before, Burke brings to government lessons learned from first time round. One of them is not to rush things like a bull at a gate.

For former ministers, a second chance at power is a rebirth, an opportunity to do things differently, avoid mistakes, as well as to augment an earlier legacy. Burke is one of more than half the new cabinet who were ministers previously.

Anthony Albanese, with the experience of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government, has a headful of the dos and don’ts of exercising power.

By the same token, moving into government can be like having diligently swotted for the big exam and then being hit by some left-field questions on the day.

Labor knew it would inherent a cost-of-living problem – it campaigned on it. But it didn’t expect the dramatic crisis in gas prices Australia is suddenly facing, driven by events in Europe, outages at coal-fired power stations and other factors.

Inevitably, the government is coming under pressure to “do something”, including pulling the “trigger”, established by the Coalition, that would force gas producers to divert exports to supply the domestic market. The “trigger” came after the Gillard government granted licences for gas exports from eastern Australia without any “reservation” provision for domestic use (such as exists in Western Australia).

The challenge for the government is to be seen to be on top of things, while not rushing into precipitate action.

Energy Minister Chris Bowen, another minister with extensive experience in government, including as a treasurer, walked that line on Thursday.

Bowen has convened a meeting of energy ministers for early next week, and he assured reporters Resources Minister Madeleine King was talking to gas companies and Industry Minister Ed Husic was in discussions with large industrial users.

But Bowen pointed out the “trigger”, even if pulled, couldn’t come into force until January.

The government would “take whatever action is necessary”, but after full briefings and gathering all the information.

The next few months will test the government’s ability to the limit on economic and energy issues, as it confronts major problems while trying to manage expectations.

On the gas crisis, it’s one thing to eschew, as Bowen said, the knee-jerk reaction; it’s another to find an appropriate reaction and know when it has to be applied.

Then there’s the budget. This week’s national accounts showed 3.3% annual economic growth, which was better than anticipated.

Despite this, Treasurer Jim Chalmers – one of the first-time ministers, although a chief of staff to then treasurer Wayne Swan – was negative in his language. Perhaps this is because he is anticipating bringing down what will be a difficult budget. Chalmers’ performance drew some criticism because of the risks of talking down the economy.

What the new government has been talking up is its intention (and ability) to bring a new style and tone to politics. It is setting a high bar for itself because, as the freshness wears off, political behaviour tends to revert to the old ways. The sceptics will say, we’ve held lofty sentiments before and often they haven’t come to much.

Albanese invokes the Hawke “consensus” approach as a model. A major test of this will be the jobs summit the government plans to hold ahead of the October budget.

Hawke’s 1983 economic summit is the gold standard for summits. Attended by employer, union and community representatives, it ran for a week and enabled a detailed airing of issues. In 1985, Labor’s tax summit was a much more fractured affair; it laid the path for some important reforms but failed to pull off support for Paul Keating’s desired consumption tax.

Kevin Rudd’s Australia 2020 summit, co-chaired by Glyn Davis, the man Albanese this week announced will head the prime minister’s department, was an altogether different gathering.

It was an occasion for the free flow of ideas, with an overlay of celebrity. It was criticised for the later outcomes failing to live up to the hype.

To get the best out of the jobs summit – which is to be followed by a white paper – it should be broad in the issues addressed, but focused, and backed by extensive preparatory research. It should run long enough for detailed discussion. A few hours won’t cut it.

It should also be public. This has the downside of excessive grandstanding – the usual suspects saying the usual things – and requires careful management. But it has the upside of allowing voters a (modest) degree of buy-in to the policy process.

The government is also promising to deliver a parliament that behaves and operates better. It is certainly confronting a transformed House of Representatives, in which the crossbenchers have swelled to 16 (including four Greens).

This influx would force changes of itself. For example, last term the crossbench had only one question each day – that will naturally increase.

Burke, in his role as leader of the house, is open to other changes, but makes it clear there are limits.

He is not inclined to supplementary questions (which happen in the Senate). And forget an end to “Dorothy Dixers” – questions from backbenchers inviting ministers to say what good things the government is doing. Burke thinks that’s too valuable a platform to give up.

Will we see less sledging and general bad behaviour in the house? The larger crossbench will promote an improvement. But the conduct will also depend on the strength of whoever Labor puts in as speaker, and how Peter Dutton (a natural headkicker) approaches his role of opposition leader.

As well, the tone is likely to worsen later in the term, when contestants are shaping up for another bout at the ballot box.

The public want better standards of parliamentary behaviour. But old ways are hard to break, so let’s judge in three years’ time.

Another big front on which Albanese has raised expectations is federal-state relations, although he hasn’t sketched out detail.

Scott Morrison’s national cabinet had a mixed record in the COVID era. Relations between federal and state governments varied from co-operative to fractious, depending on the time and issue.

Albanese faces four Labor states, with New South Wales and Tasmania in non-Labor hands. Not that political stripe necessarily determines where a state stands on issues – for example, the GST distribution sees WA set against other states.

Two state elections are looming – in Victoria in November, and NSW in March. If the Perrottet government, which is progressive on issues such as climate and tax, were returned, it would likely be anxious to co-operate with the Albanese government on a reform agenda. If there were a new government in Victoria, that state would likely be less co-operative.

The experience of the pandemic has profoundly altered the federation, without any formal change of the constitution. The premiers have been empowered and energised. Albanese needs to weld them together to deliver a slate of national outcomes.


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Disclosure statement

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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