SUBJECT: The Australian Labor Party.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: We just got the lowest vote for the Australian Labor Party in primary votes in over 100 years.
KATHARINE MURPHY: Anthony Albanese is reckoning with the future of the Labor Party.
ALBANESE: We went backwards in seats that have been held by Labor, that were marginal seats, are now safe Coalition seats. We need to examine things as they are, rather than as we would like them to be. And if you don’t start with that point, and the need to win over something like at least 1.2 million people, then we’re not going to be successful.
MURPHY: G’day. This is Politics Live. Today, the Federal Labor Leader wants to talk about the next three years. There’s been some flak in recent weeks from progressive people around the traps about Labor seeming to bitch about Government legislation before rolling right on over. Has the famous Tory fighter taken off his boxing gloves? Listen up. Anthony Albanese thanks for coming in.
ALBANESE: Thanks for having me on the program.
MURPHY: Now entering just the first question and I don’t ask it gratuitously, how are you settling into opposition?
ALBANESE: Well, I’d rather be settling into government of course, and that’s what I was hoping for, and the entire Labor family was hoping for, whether they’re in the Parliament or in branches or supporters. But we have to deal with what the Australian people gave us, which is a third term for the Coalition Government. It’s difficult, opposition is tough. You have less resources, you can’t do the things that you want to do. Labor seeks Government not just so that we’re there rather than the other side, so that we can change power relationships, so we can do good economic social and environmental policy. But you have to accept in a democracy, outcomes of elections, and we didn’t get enough people to vote for us.
MURPHY: Well, and we’ll get into the why of there weren’t enough people voting for Labor in a sec. But my observation is, or might, just looking at you all, looking at a number of you, appeared concussed immediately after the election, and my observation of where people are at is, now, are sort of semi-concussed. Do you think people are adjusting to their new old life, or, I’m talking about the colleagues? How do you think the mood of the show is at this point?
ALBANESE: Kim Beazley used to say that if you’re in this place, if you’re in this building as a Member of the House of Representatives or a Senator, then every day is a good day. Days in Government are much better than days in Opposition but you should be thankful that you’re given the honour of representing your electorate or your State in the Parliament of Australia.
MURPHY: But do you think people have got to that, I don’t know, like how many stages of grief there are? I don’t know, do you think that people have reached acceptance yet, or not?
ALBANESE: Oh, quite clearly, I think they have. There’s a reality which is; we’re sitting on the Opposition benches. But it is hard, particularly given the expectation that was there, that Labor would be successful on May 18.
MURPHY: And I want to talk to you, well about a bunch of things today, but why don’t we just start with, the Parliament’s back, we’ve had quite a substantive week this week. We can now divine something of Labor’s strategy in Opposition, which in my office, we have dubbed, ‘bitch and fold’. So you have attracted criticism from progressive people, predominantly, for not digging in behind Labor’s policy agenda that you articulated at the last election. So why don’t you talk to me about ‘bitch and fold’. What is ‘bitch and fold’, and will it persist?
ALBANESE: Well, that’s just a characterisation by cynical people at The Guardian.
MURPHY: I’m not at all cynical.
ALBANESE: Some of your colleagues have been a little bit lately, I’ve got to say, some of the pieces, and what they haven’t done is analyse the counterfactual, what happens if we do something different? Take tax policy. We supported Stage 1 before the election, we campaigned for it. We changed our position on Stage 2 after the election, we said not only should it happen, but it should be brought forward, and we did that because of the state of the economy. We’ve seen two interest rate cuts since the election. We’ve got consumer demand very flat, we’ve got economic growth that’s flat, we’ve got productivity going backwards. We need to stimulate the economy and the Reserve Bank has said that monetary policy can’t do it all. So we argued that case, and we argued to get stage 3 out, because Stage 3 is for higher income earners. It doesn’t actually flatten (take away the tax scales), that was done in 2018, the removal of the three per cent rate. And that has been frankly misreported in some areas that that was part of the package. What Stage 3 simply did was for that $45,000 to $200,000 bracket of a marginal tax rate, reduce it from 32.5 to 30. We argued against that. That comes in in 2024-25. We argued that it’s hard to say what the economy will look like in a year, let alone all the way in six years’ time. So what we did was argue to remove that. We weren’t successful. We were only one vote short in the Senate. Had we did that, the motion before the Parliament would have been to support the Senate’s amendments, and if that had happened, the Government would have been the ones in the position of being reversed wedged, because they would have had to, in order to…
MURPHY: Decided whether to split the package or not…
ALBANESE: They would have said: ‘well if you really want Stage 3, then you’ve got to lose Stage 1 and 2 as well, to not have any tax changes at all’, and that clearly would have had a serious impact on the economy. So what we did was we were faced with the decision when we weren’t successful by that one vote of whether we are defined by what we’re for, or what we’re against. Now we were for Stage 1 and 2 and were against Stage 3. Stage 1, which is the only element of the tax package that takes effect this term, the only bit, gives up to $1080 to low and middle income earners. To every nurse, to every child care worker, to every council worker, to people in hospitality, to the people who serve you at Woollies and Coles. And the idea that having said we supported that before the election, having argued the case for that on the floor of the House of Reps and the Senate, that we would vote against that, would have left us for the next three years of being told by the Government that we had voted against tax relief for every nurse and every council worker in the country.
MURPHY: Well, in the event that they hadn’t split the package. But let’s…
ALBANESE: But they didn’t split the package…
MURPHY: No, I know.
ALBANESE: That was the point. Now that was the reality that we were confronted with. Now for those people who say we should have opposed Stage 3, we did. That’s why we moved amendments and divided on it in the House of Reps and the Senate. And indeed in terms of the second reading, which is when Parliament decides on Bills in terms of the framework, there were no divisions in the House of Reps at all on that, and that got missed by some of the commentators as well. So we make no apologies for voting to give tax relief to nurses and council workers, to members of the unions, who are a part of the Labor Party, and for us to do otherwise would have been for us to vote against our own policy that we put to the election. But more importantly than that, would have been for us to be confronted, not in the political sphere, but by a nurse coming up to us in the street saying ‘you voted against me getting my $1080, which I need. And what’s more, the economy needs me to get it, because we need that stimulus’.
MURPHY: Yeah, sure, but there’s also, okay, we ventilated tax right, the rationale for tax, but you are applying the ‘bitch and fold’, my characterisation as you say, cynical person’s characterisation, you’re applying this regularly now.
ALBANESE: That is not right.
ALBANESE: It’s not right, Katherine.
MURPHY: Let’s just talk this through. So, on the drought funding package for example, you wanted to have a conversation with the public and with the Government that it wasn’t a good idea to pick up funds from the Building Australia Fund,
MURPHY: Transfer them into a, you know, drought relief project because there’s a loser in that, there’s a silent loser in that. But at the end of the day, you weren’t going to vote that proposition down. Same with national security, you know this tranche in this week of Parliament which is about the Temporary Exclusion Orders. Now you know Labor’s made a lot of points about, you know it could be potentially unconstitutional. There’s not sufficient checks on the Minister’s power. Now I mean we’re having this conversation combatively, which is actually not my intention, I’m trying to understand what you’re doing.
MURPHY: So, from my vantage point it looks to me like you are trying to have a conversation, both with the Government and voters, to ventilate problems that you see with government proposals, but not necessarily turn everything into a knockout boxing match. Is that right? Have I characterised it correctly? And there’s another question that comes from that and it’s just an obvious one. Are we looking at a Parliament where Labor is never going to, if push comes to shove, vote against a Government bill?
ALBANESE: No, we’ve just voted against one just before this.
ALBANESE: On the Medevac Legislation, which is completely unwarranted. The Medevac Legislation that was passed last year has been effective. And, we just voted against it, and we’ll vote against it in the Senate, that is, the repeal which is what the legislation’s aimed at it. We’ll deal with the Parliament that we’ve been given. We can’t wish that we won the election, or wish that we can pass amendments. What we can do is put our case and argue the case for the amendments, and for changes to legislation, or we’ll decide to either support legislation, we’re also supporting legislation today, which is about the boundary in terms of oil…
ALBANESE: In Timor Leste and Australia. That agreement, which has been reached through conciliation and the international law of the sea.
ALBANESE: So some legislation we’ll support, some we’ll oppose. Others we will put our case, we put our case on both the tax legislation, we put our case in terms of any of the national security legislation, we’ll move amendments in the House and in the Senate. We did the same on the drought fund. I mean the drought fund came about with a forum last Thursday where Scott Morrison in Dubbo stood up and announced that they’d be introducing this legislation this week. I immediately stood up and said we would support the drought fund, immediately. So there is no change in position here. What the Government did was say that they’d take money from the Building Australia Fund and give it to the drought fund, $3.9 billion. Now the impact, fiscal impact, of the Building Australia Fund only has an impact when it’s spent. So it’s just been sitting there. They’ve chosen to not spend it because they don’t want the constraint, which is it can only be spent by projects recommended by Infrastructure Australia. So it’s an integrity measure.
ALBANESE: Designed to depoliticise the infrastructure debate. The difference between us, though, allowing that to happen and us saying we will recreate a Building Australia Fund mechanism connected to Infrastructure Australia, is zero, none. So we can, whether we spent that money from the existing BAF or created our own BAF and expended it, if we are successful being in Government based upon IA projects is zero. So, we’ll have the same impact by making that commitment as we would if the Government hadn’t have done what they’ve done with the drought fund and the BAF of which, of course, there’s no real link. So, this is the Government just trying to play politics with an issue. It’s rather bizarre the strategy, because there’s no impact for them either, they would’ve had exactly the same impact if they’d left the BAF there and they’d said ‘we’re going to put $3.9 billion in a fund and bring it down to the tune of $100 million a year from 2020’.
MURPHY: Yeah I accept all that, but it’s a couple of things, I think you not wanting to push everything to the wire reflects some commentary you gave at the beginning of taking the Opposition Leadership that people had conflict fatigue, that you wanted to bring the volume of politics down, that you wanted to look for consensus, if consensus was there to be had, you know this was your sort of opening frame.
MURPHY: So, does this strategy relate to that, or is it genuinely issue by issue?
ALBANESE: Not really, what it relates to is us making decisions based upon policy integrity rather than based upon just opposition for opposition’s sake. So, the easy thing for an opposition to do is to just say, ‘we’re against everything’. The problem that that leads to, and I’ve said that Tony Abbott turned the Coalition into the ‘Noalition’. Is that when they got into Government, they haven’t really had an agenda and now we’re seeing it this week as well. So that the third term Government, under the third Prime Minister that they’ve had, has said in the commentary leading up to this week’s Parliament, not, ‘we are introducing legislation in the national interest’, not. ‘we are doing this to boost the economy or jobs’, not, ‘we’re doing this to boost farmers’. But that this is all about a test for Labor.
ALBANESE: Yet you end up being defined by what you’re against, and that I’m very conscious of. So we will examine legislation on its merits. We’ll put forward ideas and have that debate, and yes some of that we will have in public. We’ll have proper processes internally, so that we come to decisions in a democratic way as a party, and all of the decisions that we’ve made have been by consensus. But we’ve had discussion on things like the tax issue, we had a couple of Shadow Cabinet meetings to discuss the issues through because I think proper processes, if you do them in Opposition, then that transfers itself into good Governance.
MURPHY: Yes, of course. But are you basically saying that, because you’ve copped quite a bit of criticism from progressive people since going into Opposition, for not standing up for the progressive program that Labor took to the last election? Are you saying to those people we lost the election and we will continue to lose the election if we don’t modify our position?
ALBANESE: No, I’m not saying that. I’m saying Labor under my leadership will take a progressive agenda to the election. But what I’m saying to those people as well, and I understand the disappointment that’s there, but some of it’s being taken out on us rather than on the Government. I’ll give you an example, I had an email yesterday which said ‘I’m very disappointed that you have not increased Newstart because you’ve been Leader of the Labor Party for a month’.
ALBANESE: A great example is that Jim Chalmers said in an interview, or at a press conference, said that Labor would not have our inquiry, that was to be a Government inquiry into Newstart. And that was reported as a reversal of position. No, we’re not the Government, so you can’t have a Government inquiry into Newstart, which is what we committed to. So, I understand the disappointment that is out there and I understand that people are looking for easy answers. But if we simply said we will do exactly the same thing, with exactly the same policies, in exactly the same way, then you should expect exactly the same outcome.
MURPHY: Well, I think that’s the question I just asked you. In essence, isn’t that what you’re saying to people is that we cannot do exactly what we did prior to the election because if we do exactly what we did, we will lose the election.
ALBANESE: Precisely, because we’ve seen the movie and it just played out, but that doesn’t mean we will have a less progressive agenda. That doesn’t mean that we won’t take a range of policies that look similar to the ones that we took to the last election. What it does mean though, as the next election is in 2022; by definition when you are in government you can make changes. This Government will make changes. It will be a different starting point in 2022 from where it is in 2019. That’s just the way that it is, and you can’t stop time and we can’t wish that we can sort of press the rewind button, have another crack at the 2019 election and see if we win this time. So, by definition, we will develop a progressive agenda in the lead up to 2022. It will be progressive on the range of issues on the economy, we need to win that argument because if you don’t win that argument, you can’t then win arguments about social policy, what you want to do in education and health, what you want to do on the environment and climate change.
MURPHY: Yeah, so obviously your own MPs are nervous about the negative backlash to ‘bitch and fold’, particularly on social media sites like Twitter where a lot of progressive people congregate, or activists, progressive activists congregate. I know your people are conscious of that.
ALBANESE: In part because of terms like the one that you’re using in this interview.
MURPHY: ‘Bitch and fold’, no, sure. But I’m actually I’m sort of doing that diagnostically right. I’m not actually making a value judgement about your strategy I haven’t made one yet.
ALBANESE: I think the pejorative term that you’re using is.
MURPHY: ‘Bitch and fold’.
ALBANESE: Is a judgment call.
MURPHY: Well, you can object to it.
ALBANESE: Call me old fashioned.
MURPHY: Well you can object to it.
ALBANESE: You can use whatever term you like, that’s up to you. But it doesn’t, look, we have had a total of four Question Times, we have had two ceremonial days, and four sitting days of the Parliament this year. So to suggest that you can make calls about the nature of this Parliament is, quite frankly, absurd.
MURPHY: Yeah. But just drag me back to Twitter, there was a point. Do you think that Twitter or the noise on those platforms are representative of the general voting public? Or do you think that Labor has got itself in a feedback loop that’s not been helpful to your electoral prospects?
ALBANESE: Of course it’s not helpful, but you know it’s there and it’s legitimate. I participate in social media platforms including on Twitter. But one of the problems with social media is that the polarisation of politics, because of algorithms, and because of the way it works, including use of artificial intelligence. People get told and encouraged to follow people who agree with them, so it reinforces the views. So one example is; there are a whole lot of people who think that we voted for a flattening of the tax rate. It’s not true, 2018, that happened. We voted against it. It had nothing to do with this legislation. But if you read Twitter, then you would think that the debate that went on, is whether there should be a single rate between $45,000 and $200,000. It was not part of the debate that the Parliament just considered but people feed off that. And I think for progressives it’s particularly concerning because progressives by definition, want to change people’s minds because you’re about about social change. So, if everyone just keeps having the same views you won’t get change, so we need to engage in a much broader way through different platforms, through platforms including social media, but talk to people who don’t agree with us, who don’t get on and don’t even know there was a tax debate last week because, guess what, every Australian gets one vote and we need to engage with all of them through whatever platforms. So, as much as there is some negative response post-election which is understandable. We just got the lowest vote for the Australian Labor Party in primary votes in over 100 years. So part of the commentary on social media is; Labor just lost the election. Actually we went backwards in seats that have been held by Labor, that were marginal seats, are now safe Coalition seats. We need to examine things as they are rather than as we would like them to be and if you don’t start with that point and the need to win over something like at least 1.2 million people, then we’re not going to be successful. So, we also need to acknowledge that the election isn’t next week or next month, not this year not even next year. And part of what I’ve said in terms of hasten slowly, we don’t need to tell everyone or determine what our position is going to be in 2022 right now. We need to examine what happened in the election, what went right, what went wrong. We need to examine the whole gamut of policies, but we also need to kick with the wind in the last quarter. So, for all those people who are disappointed, including myself and members of the caucus, who looked at the Newspolls, who looked at the commentary and who thought we were destined to be in Government. The fact is we have less seats now than we had before the election. The Coalition have more seats now, the Senate is far more conservative. It will be far more difficult to stop legislation. That’s what the Australian people voted for, and we need to respect democracy rather than just, no point complaining about it, that’s just howling at the moon. We need to make sure that we do better next time.
MURPHY: What about, though, you’ve got the Greens now styling themselves as the true Opposition in inverted commas and demanding that Labor be the true Opposition as well in inverted commas. Now, it’s a balance though isn’t it? You’ve laid out a very strong eloquent case for why Labor needs to reposition, but there will be progressive people also out listening to this conversation, out there, who will want Labor to stand up and to stand up forcefully on issues of importance to them.
ALBANESE: But we have done that and we will do that. Yeah there’s nothing progressive about denying nurses tax cuts today because you’re worried about what will happen in 2024-25 after the election after next. That’s not a progressive regressive reactionary debate that goes on with the Parliament that we’ve been given by the Australian people and the Greens Party will run their own agenda. But one of the difficulties for progressive parties, for Labor, is that the Greens Party haven’t criticised the Government over their policy and their agenda of Stage 3 of the tax cuts. They didn’t criticise Centre Alliance, again, people who would regard themselves as progressive people in South Australia, who’ve been elected by a whole lot of people who would regard themselves as progressives in the House of Reps. We didn’t get the support of Zali Steggall, of Centre Alliance, over removing Stage 3 of the tax cuts backed in by Get-Up, out there campaigning away to get them elected to Parliament. Silence, radio silence on all of that. And the truth is, we did our best to remove Stage 3 of the tax cuts, simple as that. We couldn’t do it and we weren’t prepared to, therefore as a result, spit the dummy, throw the toys out of the cot and say well we’re against any tax cut for any low income worker because that was not our position.
MURPHY: Sure, but there’s an obvious test though that sort of then emerges as a consequence of this. So, Stage 3, you’re going to have to have a position on Stage 3 before, when you go to the election.
MURPHY: Any idea what will that position be?
ALBANESE: Yes. And we announced, we announced at the time that we announced what we were doing in the Parliament, we said that our tax policy will be our tax policy that we will take to the next election. We won’t determine that now and we’ll determine that with proper processes, we are democratic Party, we have an ALP National Conference that determines our policy broadcast on a platform that is broadcast on national TV. The Greens Party don’t allow the media into their conferences. They have leadership challenges that we find out about a year after they’ve taken place in this building. So, we’re an open transparent party and in part, that can make it more difficult. But I’d rather that, than the alternative. And the truth is as well, in New South Wales, there have been 2500 people joining the Labor Party just in one month after I became Leader after the election. Around the country, the meetings that took place in Fremantle, in Launceston, in Adelaide, in Mackay, many of those I launched their campaigns during the election, in Darwin. I went back, the meetings after the election, were at least twice as big and in some cases, in Fremantle, people just couldn’t get in. What that tells me is that yes, people are disappointed, but they are determined to do better next time. And the fact that people are flocking to the Labor Party and wanting to participate and wanting to be engaged is a very positive thing and I want to harness that positivity. If you looked at Twitter you wouldn’t think that that was happening. But the truth is that is happening on the ground, and that will make us a much stronger Party and one of the things I said on the day that I became Leader was people should join, get involved. Labor’s the alternative party of Government, get involved. Have your say in what we will develop up to the next election
MURPHY: And Twitter because you stepped around that slightly….
ALBANESE: I think that we should not think that any particular segment of commentary should determine our policy. It’s as simple as that. So, we should take into account anything that people are saying, but we need to also bear in mind that in part you get competition as well, on the left and the right, for a less fact driven more rhetorical position. So, someone will write on Twitter; ‘that’s pretty bad’, the next person will write, ‘No that’s really bad’, the next person will write ‘that’s horrific’, and the next person will write ‘that’s cataclysmic’. That is in part the genre, that’s the way that it works. But if you looked at it and you arrived on the Sunday, May 19 having looked at what Twitter was saying on May 17, if you looked at my feed you would think no one in Australia was doing anything other than voting Labor or the Greens Party. And the problem with just talking to people who agree with you is that it just distorts your outlook. At this election in my seat, for the first time this century literally, I won on primaries. I got a very big swing, if you looked at the commentary you would think I was about to lose my seat.
MURPHY: It seems to me possible, for reasons I still can’t quite explain to you, that the whole frenzy of 24/7 has kind of tempered slightly. It’s still crazy and it still thunders around the clock, right, but it seems like for some reason there’s been a pause post-election. Do you think that or not?
ALBANESE: I don’t know. Look I hope that that’s the case. I mean in part because I think the Government’s made a conscious decision to wind it back a bit. You don’t have Scott Morrison making daily press conferences. I’ve said I won’t be holding press conferences every day. So, I think that has happened and that’s a natural consequence of what happens after an election. But I think there’s something else as well which is that the Government is looking for an agenda and…
MURPHY: Without doubt.
ALBANESE: And so they have; for example, the Senate on Tuesday did not have any legislation before it. On the second day of the second sitting week, they ran out of business to deal with, that happened. It wasn’t picked up very much, but that is pretty extraordinary. Normally a Government when it comes in, would have for a new term, a whole lot of legislation that would have been prepared during the gap by the bureaucracy because it had been foreshadowed and announced and that work will have taken place. Now that hasn’t happened, and that is in part because the Government don’t really have a big agenda. There are so many areas including energy and other issues as well. But I think one of things that we’ve tried to do as well is, I mean, we are trying to change the way that the politics is conducted. Now, some would say does that mean you’re sort of softening your position. No. I think people are sick and tired of people just yelling at each other, not people who are listening to this podcast. People who have never listened to a podcast on politics in their life and won’t ever do that, and guess what, that’s a majority of Australians.
MURPHY: And they’re also the people that determine elections anyway.
ALBANESE: And so we need to, I think, acknowledge that. Talk to people and find ways to engage with those people as well, because they get the same vote as you or I.
MURPHY: Do you think part of the reason Labor lost the election was that you were in a way in an activist prism and perhaps you didn’t even notice?
ALBANESE: One of the things that the review will look at, that’s been conducted by Craig Emerson and Jay Weatherill, is to really examine in detail that. And it’s important that we’re prepared to do that. One of the things that I’ve tried to do already as the Leader now but I always tried to do as a Shadow or as a local member; is work out ways to engage with people outside of the, the activist mode. So whether that is attending the Italian National Ball or Madeira Day in my electorate, or just engaging in different ways and forums and activities, then I think we have to do that. It’s certainly one of the things that’s going to be examined and that is reflected in polling. I don’t have the answer for this but there’s a lot of commentary about polling and what impact it had and how did it get so wrong. One of the things, perhaps, is that people when they answer polls, answer knowing it’s a poll, rather than what they’re going to vote. So, it’s a chance to send a message to the Government that’s more negative. But when you’re actually in a polling booth, you’re voting for a Government. So you’re voting for who the Prime Minister is going to be, who the Government’s going to be. You’ve got to have confidence, particularly about the economy, about national security, about the social policy agenda, about the environment. You’re voting on all of those things as well as the issue of the day that your most focused on what’s happening. And so I think there’s a range of things certainly that the review will look at. I know the polling companies themselves are looking at this as well. But at the end of the day for my team and the Labor cause, the thing that we have to bear in mind is 2022 Election Day, and we work back from that. So, there will be a whole range of things that we do from time to time that people wonder why we’re doing them. We can’t focus on the day or the week, we have to focus on the term and at the end of the day if you’re not in government, you can’t change things in a progressive way. And I’m a progressive, I’ve been active for a very long period of time and I’m determined to make sure that we get a positive outcome in 2022, not because that means a change in where people sit in this building, but because I genuinely believe and passionately believe, that only Labor Governments make a positive difference to people’s lives in a long term way, and in a transformative way. And we did that through Medicare, we did that through superannuation, we did that through pensions, we’ve done that in so many ways the economic transformation. And I want us to do that, because I think we’re treading water as a country at the moment with a Government that is pretty directionless, and therefore the danger in a Government that doesn’t have a clear idea of why it’s there is that they just go nasty. And I think we’re seeing that with the anti-union rhetoric and the positions that they’re putting forward in this week of Parliament.
MURPHY: We’re going to have this conversation a lot I think over the next three years anyway. Thank you for it, I appreciate it. Thanks for coming in.
ALBANESE: Thanks for having me on.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.