Michael Pascoe: Not the ‘broken promise’ or policy rethink, it’s Albanese’s bumbling politics that worry

Anthony Albanese supported the review's decision not to recommend divestiture powers. Photo: Getty

Anthony Albanese supported the review's decision not to recommend divestiture powers. Photo: Getty Photo: Getty

To be clear, the proposed adjustment to the stage-three tax cuts is a big improvement on the ideological trap set by Scott Morrison (who?) in 2019.

And the outraged screams of “broken promise” by the Coalition and the usual media suspects are confected – a better policy beats a dud promise every time if the game is about the nation’s welfare.

And the big four business lobby groups made fools of themselves by claiming anything less than sticking with the original design would damage the economy. Zero cred.

But the manner of finally coming to the changes, the last-minute timing before an important byelection, the missing of earlier, better opportunities to openly examine, debate and explain the weakness of the original Morrison package – all that smacks of a government stumbling, making a hard job of something that should have been easier.

The bumbling leaves the distinct impression it has taken poor internal polling for the Dunkley byelection on March 2 to drag Albanese to finally put policy before that wedged promise.

After botching the Indigenous Voice, apparently deaf and blind to its inevitable failure, the manner of these changes damage confidence in Mr Albanese’s political ability. His next big domestic test after referendum poorly executed.

The moral high ground for improving stage three was largely lost, replaced by the hint of political necessity.

And yet to come is the horse trading the Greens will try in the Senate to pass the necessary legislation. The Greens won’t let the new legislation pass without seeking credit for the improvements, having led the political campaign against the original model.

I should confess here that Albanese managed to surprise me. After freshly hearing for the umpteenth time from Albanese that there would be no change, in Saturday’s edition I publicly believed him, thinking the government would go the route of offering something extra for those missing out on most of the tax cuts.

Silly me. I owe 2GB’s Chris O’Keefe an apology for doubting the veracity of his Monday afternoon scoop that the government had indeed flipped.

The Greens were still hard at it on Monday, bucketing the inequity of stage-three cuts with fresh figures from the Parliamentary Budget Office.

But there was nothing new about that inequity, about where the needs were greatest in society at present, about the ideological desire of the Liberal Party to flatten our progressive income tax system.

The long campaign by the Greens, social welfare groups, the Australia Institute, unions et al make it look like Mr Albanese had to be dragged to agreeing to change, rather than seeing the problem and leading change.

Husbanding political capital has done Labor few favours as it heads towards next year’s election with minority government the most likely outcome at present.

In retrospect, the weasel wording of “our position has not changed” when asked about the tax cuts looks a bit like dithering, inviting the uncertainty, making the Opposition’s histrionics now look less pathetic.

And, having been made to ditch one policy commitment in this manner, the way has been opened to lobby harder for other policy changes.

Sure, Mr Albanese dropped Labor’s previous policies to reduce the capital gains tax discount and restrict negative gearing – but did he really mean that?

With our housing crisis, especially our social and affordable housing crisis, only getting worse, the government is in danger of being seen to be led rather than leading.

It’s messy when Mr Albanese can’t afford to be messy after the Voice mess.

The sharpest criticism I’ve seen of Mr Albanese’s Voice performance came from Don Watson in The Monthly, zeroing in on the need to lead, not to follow, when it was obvious that the referendum would be doomed without bipartisan support:

“The Prime Minister would not hear of compromise. He pushed on. Like Ferdinand Magellan, he would cast aside the fainthearts and lead the way to a new world. Except Magellan was in a boat, and the Prime Minister was in politics.

“To be fair, more than likely he reckoned that if the likes of Pat Dodson, Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton and a host of others had given so much of their lives to this cause, he should have the courage to back them in.

“But what he needed was the courage to say to them – admirable as they are, formidable as they are – as Prime Minister, as a politician, as someone who is paid to read the political signs, to lead: I can’t go on with this knowing I will be leading you over a cliff. Courage is essential, but defeat in this is unthinkable. We must find another way.”

Letting the stage-three changes unfold as he has, it doesn’t look like Mr Albanese was leading.

And there are other problems that need dealing with but will be harder without that sense of leading. For example, Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, who seems to be developing a habit of sticking his head up when the Prime Minister is otherwise engaged.

He did it before Mr Albanese’s China visit, championing his Dingo Warrior status and doing the Prime Minister no favours.

And he did it again after the visit, scoring an own goal for the government by providing Mr Dutton with something to rant about.

As explained by former Senator and freedom of information sleuth Rex Patrick, Mr Marles managed to beat up the HMAS Toowoomba divers incident in a manner that ended up making Mr Albanese look weak.

“Marles’ testosterone moment backfired over the following days, with Dutton making an issue of the Prime Minister not engaging with President Xi,” Mr Patrick wrote for Michael West Media.

“Albanese, perhaps because of his cautious nature, handled the matter well until Marles put his foot in the government’s mouth. But one could argue that Albanese still deserves the political bollocking he got, but more for having left Marles in charge without proper supervision.”

All these issues individually aren’t government-threatening, but the impression of weakness that comes from not leading can combine and amplify them.

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