Politics Opinion

Honeymoon is over for Albanese's Labor

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Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (image by International Transport Forum via Flickr)

This first sitting fortnight for 2023 has been a roller-coaster ride for the Albanese Government, a few wins, a few losses and a by-election on the horizon, writes Belinda Jones

THE HONEYMOON IS well and truly over for Anthony Albanese.

The resignation of disgraced former minister Alan Tudge in the first week of Parliament for 2023, forces a by-election in the Victorian seat of Aston, this will be the first electoral test of the Albanese Government and a litmus test of their signature policies. 

Labor’s candidate for Aston is breast-cancer survivor Mary Doyle; she will have history against her and will enter the race as the "underdog".  The Coalition, keen to adopt the "underdog" tag for themselves, are yet to announce their candidate for the formerly safe Liberal seat, which slipped into marginal territory on Tudge’s watch. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has confirmed he will be campaigning in Aston, despite his unpopularity in Victoria.

The first sitting of Federal Parliament for 2023 started with the Government rushing through a “renewed instrument of designation” to rectify a blunder over offshore processing in Nauru. 

The original 2012 legal instrument, which designated Nauru as a regional processing centre, contained a ten year "sunset clause", which expired in October 2022. 

The Home Affairs Minister, Clare O’Neil, was not informed by the Home Affairs Department until December 2022, after Parliament had risen for the year, despite repeated requests to ensure everything was in order. This prompted the rushed legislation in the first sitting week of 2023, reignited the asylum seeker debate and fired-up the crossbench

Currently, 26 people live in the Nauru Regional Processing Centre and 40 refugees live in the community on Nauru. To date, the Australian Government has paid Canstruct International Pty Ltd $1,816,700,588.93 for the provision of “garrison and welfare services in Nauru”.

In addition to this, the Nauru Government 2022-23 Budget Paper 1 predicts the regional processing centre hosting revenue and other fees for 2022-23 will be $134,258,177.00, this amount represents 53 per cent of the tiny nation of Nauru’s total revenue. 

In Senate Estimates, a week after the blunder was rectified by the Parliament, veteran Department Secretary, Mike Pezzullo blamed human error

Pezzullo said his Department had:

“…failed to adequately monitor, track and report on the instrument that designated Nauru as a regional processing country.”

Pezzullo apologised for this gross incompetence.

At the time, the original instrument designating Nauru as a regional processing centre was signed, Mr Pezzullo was the head of Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (now the Australian Border Force) and would’ve been intimately acquainted with the document. This fact did not prevent the error in allowing the instrument to lapse.

With the public still reeling from the revelations exposed in the 'Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme' of gross incompetence by veteran public servants on exorbitant salaries, Pezzullo’s apology went down like a lead balloon.

In the first sitting week of the year, the public also learned that Minister Michelle Rowland had accepted approximately $19,000 in donations and support to her election campaign before the May 2022 election from gambling giant Sportsbet.

Long-time anti-gambling campaigner, Independent MP Andrew Wilkie said it was unfathomable Rowland accepted the donations when she was Shadow Minister for Communications and “vying to become the minister for communications”.

The communications portfolio has the responsibility to oversee online gambling. Mr Wilkie called for Minister Rowland’s sacking; those calls went unheeded by the Prime Minister. 

Both Albanese and Rowland appeared to forget they went to the Election on a platform of transparency and accountability in that moment and Rowland survived the sitting fortnight with her position unchanged.

In the second week of the sitting fortnight, the Albanese Government detailed the "safeguard mechanism" was in the news this week (the Bill was introduced in November of last year), a revamp of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s original idea to cut greenhouse gas emissions. 

With the Opposition uninterested in supporting the Governments emissions targets, Albanese and Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen started talking to the crossbench and Greens leader Adam Bandt, whose support the government will need to pass the legislation on this issue. Greens reiterated that they will not support any legislation that includes new coal or gas projects. Negotiations are continuing.

The safeguard mechanism did not score the goal that Minister Bowen had hoped it would, Juice Media was quick to condemn the revamped policy in an “Honest Government Ad” highlighting how the originally-flawed policy remains equally as flawed and will not adequately address emissions targets in the timeframe required.

Social media reflected a palatable sense of disappointment that the Albanese Government’s climate change policies were destined to repeat the climate mistakes of the former Coalition governments. There was no great fanfare, few congratulatory messages that the Government finally got Australia’s climate policy right; just disappointment that the policy failed to meet the expectations of those who had changed their vote to Labor in May 2022.

Albanese must not only navigate the minefield within Parliament to secure support for his key initiatives but also convince the public, who are exhausted from years of climate debate and intolerant of climate inaction.

The key sticking points on climate action remain no new coal and gas projects, yet this commitment was not forthcoming from the Government, which begs the question: if not now, when?

The Safeguard Mechanism will be overseen by the Clean Energy Regulator, whose current Board was entirely appointed by the former Coalition Governments. The four-person Board includes Liberal Party donor Charles Kiefel AM.

Also in the second week of the sitting fortnight, the Albanese Government’s signature $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund Policy passed the House of Representatives without the support of the Coalition or Greens.  The Fund will be managed by the Future Fund Board of Guardians, led by the former Liberal Treasurer Peter Costello and it is designed to create an ongoing fund to support the construction of social housing.

All current Board of Guardians appointments or renewals of their appointments were made by the Morrison Government.

The success of these key policies of the Albanese Government relies solely upon institutions that were stacked by the former Coalition Government and veteran public servants who seem to face no consequences for gross incompetence, which, prima facie is incompatible with their stated experience.

In December 2022, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus axed the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. He said at the time that the Liberals stacking of the review body was a disgraceful exhibition of cronyism. A new appeals body will be established this year with Dreyfus “promising a more transparent appointment process”.

During their time in office, the Coalition bastardised every institution where they had the power to appoint Board members or executive teams. Liberal donors, ex-Coalition MPs, friends, ex-staffers, and Liberal sycophants were appointed to positions of power, often on long, lucrative contracts that have years before they expire.

These are the people now charged with the power to ensure the successful implementation of the Albanese Government’s key signature policies. It’s a recipe for disaster.

For the Albanese Government’s plans to succeed there must be a review of all institutional appointments made by the former Coalition Government and, where necessary, institutions abolished and re-established with a transparent appointment process of new Board members or executives. If not now, when?

You can follow Belinda Jones on Twitter @belindajones68.

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