Inside Story

Cometh the hour

Katharine Murphy’s latest Quarterly Essay probes where politics meets personality

James Walter Books 9 December 2022 2286 words

Close to his chest: prime minister Anthony Albanese during a Juvenile Arthritis Foundation Australia event at the Lodge last month. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

Katharine Murphy is one of our more astute political observers because she pays close attention to the intersection of politics and personal style. With a sharp eye for performance and role expectations, she teases out how politicians’ behaviour, ideas and rhetoric reveal their strengths and weaknesses. She then explores how particular skills or incapacities play out as they perform within the political context. We find out what we might expect of their leadership or, in retrospect, why it failed.

Often this technique leads to brilliant summary descriptions that seem to capture a person perfectly in a specific moment. Her essay on Malcolm Turnbull at the moment of his defeat is especially memorable, but remember, too, her farewell to Peta Credlin in 2015: “Even after the terrible rout of [Abbott’s downfall]… she’s refusing to shrink, rolling on, stoking her own mythology like a little sustaining campfire, owning a persona she invented for a purpose, refusing to defer.” Identifying a persona invented for a purpose seems to be Murphy’s forte.

The Scott Morrison persona, and prime ministership that resulted proved more difficult for her to pin down. I’ve noted before that she once considered Morrison to possess unusual “shapeshifting” proclivities. In 2020, she described his prime ministership as a work in progress, fascinating to watch. A year later, though, she was incensed by a government that claimed to be “trying to do its best” without the “barest hint of remorse, or any sustained interest in learning from past mistakes.” Only then did she conclude, “we endure these cycles of self-exoneration and thin-lipped irritation [from Morrison]. Why are people so mean to us?… It is a disgrace.”

She realised then, as did others, that nothing had changed: there was no “work in progress,” no growth. Morrison, as Sean Kelly recently remarked, recalling his earlier analysis of the man behind the ScoMo myth, “was allowed to shrug off much of what he’d done before [he became leader]. It wasn’t, it seemed, really who he was. In the end, it turned out to be exactly who he was.”

Murphy is on surer ground with her new Quarterly Essay, Lone Wolf: Albanese and the New Politics. Anthony Albanese has been around a long time: so, now, has Murphy. She is dealing with a practitioner she has watched for years — experienced, fully formed and exercising capacities congruent with the collaborative leadership he promises. Her title is teasing because of the contrast between what we expect of a “lone wolf” and the persona of the team leader Albanese now presents — inclusive, committed to working with others and recognising the importance of collective enterprise, all of which is demanded by “new politics” in an era of declining big-tent parties.

Murphy’s purpose is to explore how Albanese’s contradictory traits work in creative tension to produce his leadership style, and why that style might succeed in this era of new politics and declining big-tent parties. It is a story of growth, from the young firebrand “lone wolf” party activist who took no prisoners to the seasoned parliamentarian who knows how systems work, recognises the need for flexibility and negotiation.

But the dynamic she outlines isn’t linear. The dogmatic, aggressive demeanour may have been ameliorated but a root disposition remains: the need for privacy and personal space, the habitual self-reliance, the tenacity with which views are held once decided, the fact that “people can move in and out of favour for unfathomable reasons.”

Hence the balance of opposing characteristics on which he can strategically draw: the ruthlessness that politics requires, but the loyalty needed in transactional business; a willingness to negotiate, but only within the bounds of his electoral mandate; the investment in personal relationships, but the loner’s need for personal space from which he can connect with his networks on his terms; a capacity for tough, wily calculation leavened by well-timed empathy and kindness.

Even in his firebrand days, long-time associates recall, Albanese had the capacity to bring people with him. “He could get people to do stuff because they wanted to be doing stuff with him,” recalls Meredith Burgmann. Former Labor minister Tom Uren is said to have taught him about “forgiveness and long-term thinking,” but he always had to look ahead. With a single mum, and living in council housing, he had to plan from an early age. “If I didn’t plan, my mum wouldn’t have food, we wouldn’t pay rent.” Bringing people with him, having a plan and orchestrating others to work with him is now his leadership mode.

Yet his background as an insurgent — as someone who had to blast his way into contention and always think two steps ahead — is significant. It was overlaid by parliamentary experience, ministerial responsibilities and, especially, the challenge of managing government business in the House under Kevin Rudd and then serving as key parliamentary tactician for Julia Gillard’s legislative program. But those residual methods of professional survival remain: always being battle ready; always thinking ahead. So, while others obsess over numbers, flow charts and strategy documents, “Albanese is often cartwheeling several steps in front, light as a tumbleweed.” At the same time, Murphy reminds us of his emotional intelligence: he feels things, and the public knows it.

It might be these abilities — to “cartwheel ahead” of those yet to acclimatise to the new politics, and to empathise with public anxieties — that prove to be Albanese’s strengths. For, as Murphy demonstrates, the challenge of new politics is to recognise that dramatic global uncertainty and specific crises (climate change, a European war, energy shortages, the pandemic, a potential recession) have provoked greater expectations of government just as the days of the big-tent parties are crumbling. Dwindling membership; a small and unrepresentative base of “true believers” clinging to precepts not shared by broader publics or even by habitual party voters; a precipitate drop in the primary vote forcing reliance on strategic preference flows — these are the lot of both major parties.

In this environment, the leader’s especially tough job involves building broader coalitions of support for measures that tackle public concerns — and that means appealing to a wide constituency and drawing, as needed, on minor parties and the crossbenches, all without sacrificing core values. At the same time, the leader must curb potential insurgency by old guard true believers and parliamentary colleagues.

Murphy draws adroitly on polling, demographic data and election studies to explain the decline of big-tent parties. She appears to have adopted this term, instead of the more conventional “mass parties,” because she is exploring whether the new politics, given the right leadership, offers a different form of big-tent politics.

The trends that have culminated in the current malaise of the major parties have been gathering momentum for at least twenty years. No prime minister between 2007 and 2019 successfully managed to sustain public approval while retaining core party support. Kevin Rudd captivated the public but lost his caucus; Julia Gillard managed a successful legislative program and retained caucus support until near the end, but couldn’t convince a disbelieving public that negotiation and compromise were essential; Tony Abbott thought the slavish support of his unrepresentative base was sufficient while his popularity, never high, was plummeting disastrously; the promises that initially boosted Malcolm Turnbull’s public popularity were always hedged by his right flank, which eventually turned on him.

Each of these prime ministers was torn down by internal insurgency. And then there was Scott Morrison — a leader with no apparent purpose other than to retain and secretively widen his own power.

But is the threat any the less for Labor, notwithstanding the realignment of tectonic plates at the 2022 election? The Liberals may well be facing an existential crisis, but Labor’s victory was built on its lowest primary vote since the 1930s, 32.58 per cent. And its win was delivered by preference flows indicative of an unusual degree of strategic voting by electors.

Is it realistic to expect that trend to continue? Partisan support for the major parties has reached record lows, but the election results revealed that voters are open to reforms that would change the trajectory of democratic politics. The proposition that Murphy invites us to consider is that Albanese might just be able to manage this challenge and offer the template for leadership in the era of new politics. Rather than folding the big tent, he will make it more accommodating.

Murphy argues that the buffer of protection around Albanese’s slim majority provided by non-Labor progressives in the House and the Senate was partly a consequence of Labor’s campaign strategy. The party encouraged Labor voters in teal-targeted seats to vote tactically — implicitly welcoming people who could help get rid of Morrison by voting for someone other than Labor — but also fought to retain (and in some cases, regain) support in its traditional territories. Despite big swings against it in some of those outer-suburban seats, Labor remained just enough ahead to maintain its hold.

With climate policy as her lead example, Murphy shows how Labor managed to “swim between the flags” — identifying the bedrock of majority support for action, but within certain parameters, and carefully calculating the political and practical max-out point. This is not just old-school pragmatism. It gave space to the bottom-up, community-engaged independents on whose support it would ultimately have to rely, while recognising the need to be seen to respond to majority opinion on key concerns and to re-engage with those whose support it might once have taken for granted.

These strategies worked. The 2022 Australian Election Study shows that voters identified the most important issues as the cost of living, the environment, economic management and health, and that voters preferred Labor’s policies on three of these, including the one rated most important — cost of living. Only on economic management (where the Coalition’s 2019 advantage was significantly reduced), taxation and national security (which were not high on the list of voter concerns) were Coalition policies preferred. Albanese was evaluated more favourably than any party leader since Kevin Rudd; Morrison emerged from the study as the least popular party leader in its history.

In the six months since then, Labor has done what it promised, purposefully but not precipitately. It brought together employers, unions and community representatives at a Jobs and Skills Summit, the recommendations of which will feed into policy. It has steered sixty-one bills through parliament, including the National Anti-Corruption Bill and the controversial Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill, the latter involving delicate and ultimately fruitful dialogue with independent senator David Pocock.

While new governments often experience a honeymoon, the polls for Labor and for Albanese have continually improved. In late November the Guardian Essential poll had Labor comfortably ahead of the Coalition on its “two-party-preferred+” measure, with more voters believing the country to be on “the right track” than the wrong, despite surging concern about inflation. A week later, the Age/Sydney Morning Herald Resolve poll reported a rise in Labor’s primary support to 42 per cent, with the Coalition dropping further to 30 per cent and Albanese leading Dutton as preferred prime minister by 54 to 19 per cent. These findings indicated that voters “weren’t quite sure about Albanese as the agent of change” before the election but since then he “seems to have blossomed in their eyes.”

Much of this reinforces Murphy’s argument. To form majority government, the big-tent parties have always needed to court and hold diverse electoral coalitions and appeal to millions of voters whose values may not align with one another.

In the past they did this by assuming they had the support of their core base and their habitual voters, and then targeting those “swinging voters” they felt were persuadable and ignoring the rest. Now they have to cope with the disjunction between their base and their habitual voters while rallying minority parties for their preferences and as potential collaborators across the aisle. But conventional mass parties have gradually lost the institutional and ideological flexibility needed to pursue the compromises necessary in the “impatient and uncompromising age” of new politics.

Murphy’s compelling essay draws attention to four qualities Albanese brings to this process of making the old politics new. First, he believes that Labor is the party of change — the party that enacts reforms responding to community needs — and that change requires time and patience. Second, there’s the calculated strategy of “swimming between the flags,” staying within the parameters of what the public will accept.

Yet third, according to Murphy, is Albanese’s need to keep moving. As he once told Meredith Burgmann, “You’ve got to keep them dancing.” What he meant, according to Murphy, was “they can’t see you as having no further moves,” which is a spur to continually innovate to keep ahead of coming disruption. Murphy encapsulates this as a talent for dexterity, fluidity and strategic ambiguity that in the last period of Labor government served everybody’s interests, including Albanese’s own. It has become a necessary talent and markedly at odds with the polarising rigidities that plague the Coalition.

Fourth, as evidenced in the campaign’s gamble on progressive independents, Albanese is confident of his ability to negotiate with MPs outside the major parties.

These four elements might be the means for developing the diverse constituencies of support and collaboration needed to maintain government in the era of new politics. At the least, as Murphy persuasively demonstrates, they indicate that Labor won’t surrender to bleak mega-trends — zero-sum identity politics, adverse demographic change, a distrust of conventional parties — but will remain relentless in chasing the means of staying alive. •

Lone Wolf: Albanese and the New Politics
By Katharine Murphy | Quarterly Essay | $24.99 | 128 pages