IPA Today

If Only The Coalition Knew How To Govern Like Labor

Written by
28 July 2022
Originally appeared in The Australian Financial Review

The ALP knows how to impose its agenda. Meanwhile, the sanguine Liberals are trusting in luck for government to land back in their lap.

Full credit to Anthony Albanese and the Labor Party.

They have a bare two-seat majority after an election in which they received 4,776,030 primary votes in the lower house, which is 32.6 per cent of all first preferences. The Coalition had 5,233,334 primary votes, which is 35.7 per cent of the vote.

But winning is winning, no matter how close the margin. A casual observer wouldn’t guess that Labor’s vote actually declined from 2019, given how the prime minister and his ministers walked into parliament this week.

They acted as if they owned the place. And as if they’d never left. Labor is behaving as if its “mandate” is a result of an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives. In fact, it has 50.99 per cent of the available seats.

From the symbolism of the flags Labor luminaries stand in front of at press conferences to the gutting of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the ALP has wasted not a moment. Stephen McBurney, the head of the ABCC, was reported as saying that “while he expected the new government to scrap the body, he was taken aback by the speed of the move”. He shouldn’t have been.

Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke has said even if the legislation to abolish the ABCC isn’t passed by the Senate, the government would simply stop funding it – which would abolish it in all but name. It’s impossible to imagine any Coalition minister contemplating such a move.

The difference between the ambition of the ALP in office and the meekness and timidity of the Coalition is stark.

For a party that has spent so little time in government federally, the Labor Party is very good at imposing its agenda. The difference between the ambition of the ALP in office and the meekness and timidity of the Coalition is stark.

The Labor frontbench may well be stacked with former trade union apparatchiks whose only life experience is politics, but it’s a system that produces ministers and staff who understand power and how to wield it.

That helps to explain why, even though Labor has formed government only three times after the last 10 federal elections, the party has immeasurably more influence on the direction of Australia’s policy and politics than the Coalition.

Conservatives govern as if they’ll be in power forever. That’s why they achieve so little. The left, appreciating its hold on popular support is only ever tenuous, uses every means at its disposal to implement its policies.

The climate change legislation Labor introduced into parliament this week is a good illustration of this. In it is a little-noticed provision far more significant than the enshrining into law of a 43 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030. The provision would allow the government to change the legislated reduction in emissions without reference to parliament and without requiring approval by the Senate.

This is made clear in the explanatory memorandum: “The greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets referred to in this Bill are both the legislated targets in the Climate Change Bill and also any targets included in new or adjusted nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement. This is essential to ensure that the Commonwealth legislation to be amended is implementing Australia’s international obligations under the Paris Agreement as in force from time to time.”

Whether the parliament has the legal authority to pass a law giving the executive such a vague and all-embracing power is at the very least arguable. But constitutional niceties aren’t stopping the Albanese government.

At the moment at least, Coalition MPs appear remarkably sanguine about all of this. The vast majority believe one or both of the following.

Either that this government will go the way of the previous recent ALP governments; or that when official interest rates reach 5 per cent and home mortgage interest are 10 per cent, voters will flock back to the Liberals.

If such an economic scenario does indeed eventuate there’s no guarantee the Liberals will benefit. What sort of reputation the Coalition now has for responsible economic management is not known.

Maybe government will fall back into the Liberals’ lap. A tossed coin might land on tails three times in a row – but an electoral strategy based on luck isn’t much of a strategy. And it’s a strategy that doesn’t take account of the chance Labor has learned something from the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years.

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John Roskam

John Roskam is the Senior Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs

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