Paul Bongiorno: Leaders face summer of discontent – and that’s before floods and fire

Peter Dutton will be happy with how the year has ended for Anthony Albanese, writes Paul Bongiorno.

Peter Dutton will be happy with how the year has ended for Anthony Albanese, writes Paul Bongiorno. Photo: Getty

Coming to the end of 2023, the year hasn’t worked out quite as well as Anthony Albanese would have wanted.

It has been much more to Peter Dutton’s liking, and therein lies the challenges for both leaders going into the new year – the final stretch of the parliamentary term.

You don’t need a string of opinion polls to tell you that the cost-of-living crisis is dominating the concerns for millions of Australians, and that suits the political agenda of the Coalition just fine as it sheets home the blame for the struggles of voters on the government.

Nothing new in that of course – governments always look to the silver lining while the job description of the Opposition is to see only the dark clouds.

What has helped Peter Dutton and his mates in this exercise is the government’s failure to sell its achievements, and for that Anthony Albanese can’t avoid a lion’s share of responsibility.

Selling isn’t only about repeated and even accurate words; it is also about image and perception.

The Opposition’s attacks accusing the Prime Minister of being distracted and absent were fed by important but not in every instance essential overseas travel – APEC in San Francisco comes to mind, and by a botched mishandling of the Voice referendum.

And all the while persistent high inflation and the Reserve Bank on a relentless path of interest rate rises provided a grim context.

The 2022 election was proof enough Albanese is not a great campaigner – a turning point in Labor’s fortunes came when he was sidelined by COVID and his colleagues stepped in.

The prolonged honeymoon given his government after Labor – assisted by a string of independents – scraped across the line has ended.

Disillusion seems to have replaced the romance.

The first 12 months were a dream run as Australians appreciated the fact a stable, competent government was in charge – in contrast to the do-nothing circus Scott Morrison’s administration had become.

The loss of political capital built up in the early months coincided with the emphatic failure of the Voice referendum.

The referendum proved to be a shocking miscalculation made worse by a Yes campaign that failed to fire, despite the Prime Minister putting his full weight behind it.

You don’t need hindsight to convince you that once the Nationals, and then the Liberals, withdrew their support for this proposed constitutional recognition of First Peoples, the ability to generate the overwhelming consensus needed to get a majority of votes in a majority of the states was doomed.

No one can doubt Albanese’s conviction or heartfelt commitment to the cause but it needed someone with more campaigning skills than he could muster, or more relevantly, someone who saw that a pivot was needed before an inevitable disastrous rejection.

Subsequent polling by the Australian National University has shown significant majority support for a legislated Voice, which suggests postponing the referendum pending this course playing out would have been a wiser process.

So, on Monday Nationals leader David Littleproud drew it together this way: “All Anthony Albanese has been focussed on is the Voice this year, rather than the cost-of-living crisis that Australians are feeling now.”

His more colourful colleague Barnaby Joyce broadened out the criticism and went completely over the top, as is his custom when playing for attention.

Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce. Photo: AAP

Joyce said “the government’s focussing on constitutional change and climate change in Dubai and not focussing on cost of living, not focussing on detainees who have been wandering around the streets, paedophiles, rapists, murderers”.

No distortion is off limits, as we saw in the No campaign, but here Joyce is flagging the Nationals will return to their successful ignoring of the necessity of climate change action to make it a cost-of-living issue only.

This is surely a wilfully irresponsible call in light of the extraordinary and catastrophic flooding we are seeing in Far North Queensland, which is of a piece with other more frequent and severe natural disasters around the world.

Australians are bracing for a brutal summer with scientists and the Bureau of Meteorology making the link to humanity’s incontrovertible contribution to the crisis through unabated emissions.

The human suffering with the destruction of homes, infrastructure and production will certainly add its own ruinous dimension to the cost-of-living pain.

How our leaders respond to these challenges in 2024 doesn’t inspire confidence.

Time is running out for the planet as the United Nations through its relevant agencies is warning, but in this country we run the gamut from denial through to an urgent, immediate shut down of coal and gas.

We can only hope Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen is right when he takes seriously the conclusion of the Dubai COP climate summit that the world is committed to “transitioning away from” fossil fuels and Australia is playing its part.

That debate like the climate crisis will not go away and proposing nuclear energy on the never never as the Coalition is doing is a laughable solution in light of the urgency.

The pressure is on Treasurer Jim Chalmers to deliver more cost-of-living relief in next May’s budget.

Albanese says his government will not be offering measures that actually fuel inflation because “inflation affects the poor more than anyone else”.

Albanese takes heart from the fact inflation is coming down and in the past two quarters wages have risen and, according to the mid-year economic review, they will continue to rise.

Now there’s a silver lining for a merry Christmas and a happier new year.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with more than 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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