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  • Writer's pictureBronwyn Kelly

If Anthony Albanese becomes prime minister, what should be his top priority?

Securing decent and open institutional changes in our democracy that are necessary to bed down reforms for the longer term should be the top priority for a progressive prime minister.

The Labor Party platform is a reasonably progressive one. Not as progressive as it should be for climate change, inequality, and strategic independence in international relations, but it’s progressive enough to count as an agenda that will make at least some inroads in easier access for poorer Australians to health, education, affordable housing and the care sector. It will help the most disadvantaged get more of what they need right now – things they are sure to be denied if the Coalition is given a fourth term.

If Labor wins office reforms of health, education, housing and the care sector are things that can be reliably delegated to ministers. Albanese has an impressive front bench so they are likely to achieve a lot if they win. But a prime minister – one of real statesmanship and visionary leadership – would need to focus on something above and beyond that detailed hard work of implementing particular reforms. Albanese would need to step up and focus on higher level institutional reforms capable of ensuring that whatever progress is made by his ministers is not going to be unwoven all over again by the eventual return of a conservative government.

Over the last two decades Australians have watched while just about every decent (or halfway decent) reform of the Hawke, Keating, Rudd and Gillard governments was slowly picked apart or twisted into something that it was never meant to be. Giving just a few examples: Offshore detention was transformed into indefinite torture and violation of international law. Corporatisation of public sector trading enterprises and natural monopolies was transformed into full privatisation of public assets and services on a scale that amounts to grand theft and near abolition of productivity growth and competition in delivery of services. Medicare was wound back to a shadow of its former service level and the NDIS is being set up to go the same way. Some other reforms such as the Gonski reforms for school education never even got out of the starting blocks.

Much of this is because the Labor party did not retain office for long enough under Rudd and Gillard to bed them down. But even if it had retained office this would not have protected the reforms in the eventually inevitable change of government to the Coalition or to some other conservative mix in the parliament that might be similar to the mix in the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison years that has been geared to wind back taxpayer funding of social services in favour of big business and fossil fuels.

One of the main reasons decent progressive reforms are vulnerable to perversion or destruction is because there is no institutional arrangement in place at the federal level to establish the priority policies, strategies and reforms that Australians themselves wish all parliaments – no matter who’s in charge of the executive government and who is in the mix at Parliament House – to persist with and protect on behalf of the people – all the people. For even if one government is voted out and another elected in its place, it is possible and indeed highly likely that a majority of the people might want to continue with the policy legacy of the outgoing government. This was the case, for example, with the Whitlam government’s introduction of Medibank, abolished by the incoming Fraser government but re-introduced to near universal approval by the subsequent Hawke government.

There is no place or mechanism in which core priorities and valued items on a people’s agenda, like Medicare, figure at all in either their parliaments or the founding instruments of their wider democracy. There’s no overarching mechanism which protects the long term interests of Australians from being set aside in changes of governments. And because we the people are given no place in the centre of our democracy – the federal parliament – in which to assemble the long term agenda and present a coherent picture of the will of the people to those we elect, we are constantly being subjected to shallow policies and short term bribes, all of which we are forced to accept even though we know much of it will be at the expense of our genuine interests and needs in the longer term.

Much of what we will be forced to accept, for instance, in the limited attempts of both major parties to deal with climate change will be at the expense our country and livelihoods probably inside ten to fifteen years – since neither Labor nor Liberal have yet put forward policies that will actually stop global heating before it is too late to stop it.

In fact, everything on offer from the major parties is more or less confined to the short term – and this applies regardless of how hard each campaigner has tried to assert that they are offering a better future. The Morrison government is offering little if anything that suggests they have thought beyond the 2025 election. Some bribes such as the extension of the Low and Middle Income Tax Offset don’t even last past the end of 2022.

Labor is offering more continuous reforms but even so, if Albanese’s campaign launch speech says anything about his vision for the future, it’s that he defines it in relatively limited terms. In a measured, safe and non-threatening mode, he basically confines his vision for a better future to what he thinks we need most right now. Repeating the words “we need it now” in a rhetorical flourish, he gives the impression that both he and we are concerned only with immediate need in the here and now and that what we know we need beyond that doesn’t really matter by comparison or perhaps at all.

“A growing economy with more skilled workers for more good jobs – that’s my vision,” says Albanese. This constant translation of the terms in which pieces of our preferred future might be scaled right back to the here and now and served up perhaps in coffee spoons is probably pragmatic. After repeated election losses, that may be what Labor needs to do to attain office in 2022. But it’s also a bit underwhelming for a leader seeking simultaneously, as he did in his campaign launch, to characterise his party as up there with the successful reformist tradition of the ALP that established Medicare, compulsory employer funded superannuation, the NBN and the NDIS.

A limited “vision” of what is on offer in the here and now might be the pragmatic means of attaining office for a progressive government, but it’s less likely to help him keep office for long enough to get us all safely to a better future and get us there before it all gets much worse.

As each climate horror event bears down on us, the electors of Australia will be justifiably unforgiving as some watch their livelihoods and even their lives ripped away and the rest see their standard of living ebb away as climate change outpaces their transition to a more sustainable economy. Longevity in office, which progressives need if they’re to make a real difference even in the short term, will not be secured by a government which does not get a lot more done than Albanese is offering to do in emissions reduction and economic transition before 2025.

That being so, it should be accepted that if Albanese happens to land the top job, then his big priority must be to become, and be seen to become, a truly future-focussed prime minister. If he wants to leave a legacy of a similar calibre to the Hawke, Keating, Gillard or Rudd legacies he will need much more institutional support behind him than they ever needed, bearing in mind that he will be charged with solving the most difficult problem humanity has ever faced and is starting more than a decade too late.

How can Anthony Albanese become a truly future focussed prime minister in the 2020s, as opposed to the 1980s? As a minimum, he will need to make space for a new institutional process within our current arrangement of democracy. This will be a tough step-up because, being a politician, it can be vouchsafed that he doesn’t actually know what that particular institutional reform would look like. But if he asked Australians, he would find that it looks like an institution that openly seeks out not his but their truly preferred vision of the future and sets out a comprehensive long term plan to achieve it.

That vision must describe what sort of country we really want to leave to our kids in ten, twenty and thirty years’ time and the plan to make it a reality must be one that excludes no-one from that future. With this in hand, a leader like Albanese who so clearly wants to “leave no-one behind” should be able to connect with Australians in a way never before thought possible and secure their support and commitment for at least a decade. In short, it’s what he needs to secure longevity in office for his party and it’s what we need him to do to ensure that the particular reforms we select to secure our future are indeed lasting in their desired effect.

Anthony Albanese has the seeds of this reform in his head already, but not quite. He has stated he wants to govern by consensus in the style of Bob Hawke. If he wins, we can expect to see a rush of “summits” of community leaders, all of which will be designed to repeat the success of the summit that produced the Prices and Incomes Accord of the 1980s, but they are also likely to result in no greater connection with the other 99.9% of Australian voters. He needs a much more efficient framework for consensus government. He won’t have the time as prime minister to connect by bus tours of electorates and fund-raisers.

Summits of leaders won’t work as well as they did in the less complicated times of the 1980s. An ongoing, truly respectful community engagement process needs to be built right into the centre of our democracy – the federal parliament. The best place to start that reform is simply by establishing an office in the parliament (not in a government department, mind – in the parliament) for national long term planning and reporting. Legislation is needed to make community engagement for purposes of long term national planning compulsory. If it is established alongside the Parliamentary Budget Office, this new office of national long term planning will enable the whole parliament for the first time to build and work in accordance with a common and fully costed sustainable plan – a plan that is in line with what everyone can see is absolutely necessary in the national interest.

Australia’s recent parliaments have not worked together because we have no such overarching road map. As a result we have a nation in decline. The State of Australia 2022 shows the facts of that decline and that we can no longer afford just to wing it or trust our future to politicians who do not plan for longer than the here and now. But a thoughtful leader committed to genuine respectful engagement about our truly preferred future could offer us a legacy we would otherwise miss. That should be the top priority for Albanese or any truly great leader in the 2020s.

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