Inside Story

Gramsci’s message for Anthony Albanese

How the government can build on what’s been a good month

Frank Bongiorno 27 January 2024 2050 words

Framing the shift: prime minister Anthony Albanese at the National Press Club on Thursday. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

Watching the Albanese government in recent months has reminded me of a fleeting experience I had about fifteen years ago, around the middle of the first Rudd government’s time in office. Although I was working in London, I happened to be in Australia for a few weeks and scored an invitation to a workshop to be held at a Sydney hotel. Labor officials and Rudd government staffers and speechwriters presided, but those invited were academic types — mainly historians — and others seen as broadly sympathetic with progressive politics. The task, as I understood it, was to find a narrative for a government seen as lacking one.

As it happens, I don’t think we did ever find a story the Rudd government could tell the Australian people. Nor do I recall hearing anything further about this grand mission afterwards. A year or so later, of course, Rudd was gone and, at the 2010 election, so — almost — was the government itself. Julia Gillard, who led Labor to minority government, called Rudd’s “a good government… losing its way.”

It has recently been hard not to wonder: is Albanese’s going the same way?

In many respects, the comparison is unfair. This Labor government has plainly learnt a great deal from the last and has gone out of its way not to repeat its errors. Many of its ministers were there, in more junior roles, last time. Albanese himself, as a rising figure during that era and leader of the House for almost the entire period before ending up as deputy prime minister, sometimes seemed traumatised by the infighting that more than anything wrecked Labor in government.

The differences matter. Rudd wanted to win the media every day. Albanese often seems more like Malcolm Fraser in his aspiration to keep politics off the front page. Rudd talked a big game in opposition about keeping government accountable but then failed to follow through by calling inquiries into the grand failures and scandals of the Howard era such as the Iraq war and the Australian Wheat Board affair. Albanese’s government, by contrast, has called one inquiry after another, most of them exposing the sheer badness of the Coalition on issues ranging from immigration policy through to robodebt.

Barely six months into the life of his government, Kevin Rudd was being called Captain Chaos by the Australian’s John Lyons. Albanese has gone out of his way to emphasise the careful, orderly and process-driven nature of his government. Albanese probably intends such remarks as a rebuke of Scott Morrison, but they often sound equally applicable to Rudd.

The Albanese government has a right to consider itself a good government, even allowing for the fairly low standards we have so often seen this century in Canberra. It has fulfilled many election promises. It has grappled effectively with key areas of Coalition failure and neglect, including stagnant wages and a shambolic immigration policy. It has responded to the general challenge of rising inflation and the particular one of spiralling energy costs. It has conducted that bewildering range of inquiries — not, seemingly, just to kick a can down the road but with the apparent aim of consulting widely and doing good policy — which gives substance to its commitment to evidence and process.

If good government receives its due reward, you might imagine that this is a government coasting to a comfortable election victory next time round. It is remarkable to consider that Labor won a resounding victory in the Aston by-election as recently as 1 April 2023; at the time, it seemed unassailable.

But politics is rarely so simple, and it tends not to be terribly fair either. Recent opinion polling has been discouraging for the government: Newspoll had the two-party-preferred vote at 50–50 in November, and then Labor at 52 to the Coalition’s 48 just before Christmas. That’s not disastrous — the middle of a term often looks grim for incumbents — but it would have given Labor Party strategists plenty to worry over.

Three issues have figured in the commentary. Almost everyone gives significant weight to the cost of living, which is hitting lower- and middle-income families hard. Pollsters and pundits argue that Labor’s support in the outer suburbs is fragile and it needs to do more to show it is on the side of struggling families. Peter Dutton and the Liberals, meanwhile, see these same voters as their only serious pathway back to government. November’s Victorian state election gave signs that Labor’s vote on Melbourne’s suburban frontiers might be a little more fragile than many assumed at the 2022 federal election. The forthcoming Dunkley by-election will test some of the claims made in recent months.

The second issue was the defeat of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Labor championed this cause: it became part of the government’s brand from the moment of Albanese’s victory speech on the evening of 21 May 2022. When, therefore, it went down, it was inevitable that the government’s reputation should go down with it. Governments have not historically been thrown out of office on the back of such a defeat, but failure at a referendum can wrong-foot a government struggling under other pressures — as the defeat of its attempt to ban the Communist Party in 1951 did to a Menzies government grappling with 20 per cent inflation.

Third, there is the Gaza war. The horrors that have occurred in Israeli border communities, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and in Gaza will move anyone with a sense of humanity, but the political reality is that they have tended to move different groups of people in rather different ways. Labor’s problem here is that for large parts of the left, the Palestine issue is the defining cause of the age; for them, it divides pretend progressives from real ones.

There are parallels here with the Spanish civil war of 1936–39, which was also a divisive issue for a Labor Party that contained secular leftists and others who supported the Republican government, and Catholic right-wingers who leaned towards Franco and the Nationalist rebels. It was a part of John Curtin’s achievement as federal Labor leader that he was able to steer a course through these turbulent waters, largely by committing his party — then in opposition — to isolationism.

That kind of approach isn’t available to Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong. But they still must steer a course that takes into account Australia’s alliance commitments, its support for the so-called rules-based order and international law, the pressures of the domestic political scene and challenges of electoral politics, and its attachments to basic decency, humanitarianism and justice. The government’s hostility to Hamas is taken for granted everywhere except among the unhinged populist right, whose extremism nonetheless now often finds a platform in parts of the commercial media.

But we can be equally certain that it gives Australia’s Labor government no great pleasure to be seen as too close to the present government of Israel, a regime that is for very sound reasons deeply unpopular in Israel itself as well as among many Australian Jews. There is little doubt that in negotiating these pressures, which it has actually done with fair success, the government has nonetheless at times sounded windy and looked wobbly.

By Christmas, I would not have been alone in wondering if this government was going the way of Rudd’s and Gillard’s amid these pressures. A great part of the difficulty has seemed to me the particular combination of policy wonkery and electoral opportunism that has come to hold too much sway in the Labor Party this century. We all like good, evidence-based policy, and we all like electoral professionalism. Successful political parties need both to get anywhere.

But politics is also an aspect of culture. Otherwise highly intelligent Labor politicians can sometimes appear very naive about such matters. The Rudd and Gillard governments are a case in point: who in the Gillard government, for instance, came up with the idea of appointing a former Liberal Party leader, Brendan Nelson, as director of one of the country’s leading public institutions, the Australian War Memorial — in the lead-up to the centenary of the first world war, of all times? And under this government, which seems to support a new direction for the memorial on the issue of representing frontier warfare, it reappointed to the council a former Liberal prime minister, Tony Abbott. Such statesmanship!

These matters might seem trivial beside the problem of ensuring that millions of Australians can pay for their next power bill. But the political right has fewer illusions — Coalition governments stack boards as if their very existence depended on it. Labor shouldn’t follow that lead, but it should pay much closer attention than it does to the points of intersection between civil society, cultural authority and state power.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci developed the concept of hegemony to explain how power and culture work in capitalist societies. The “common sense” of the ruling class — coinciding with its interests — comes to be seen as that of society as a whole — the “national interest,” to use some contemporary parlance. Conservatives apply Gramsci’s ideas faithfully in their relentless efforts to dominate culture. Their success in the recent Voice referendum was testament to such efforts. Labor governments imagine that so long as they can get that cost-of-living relief through the parliament next week, winners are grinners. That notion rests on a remarkably shallow understanding of how power operates in a society of any serious complexity.

This is why January has been a good month for the Albanese government. Two things happened almost at the very same time, one in “the economy,” the other in “the culture.” In the economy, it recast the stage three tax cuts to ensure that there was a redistribution of benefits towards low- and middle-income earners. Alan Kohler, so often a devastatingly astute commentator on such matters, was right to point out that this was somewhat of an argument over loose change: the tax system as a whole continues to favour those who are best-off. Yet it was something. Albanese, in a National Press Club speech and elsewhere, has framed the shift as a response to changed circumstances, and especially the cost-of-living crisis. A bolder leader would also have said that social democratic governments support progressive income tax and oppose massive hand-outs to those who already have enough.

At the same time as the upholders of national political integrity were launching philosophical disquisitions about Albanese’s “backflips,” “lies” and “betrayals” — often the same journalists and politicians who met far worse from Scott Morrison with vigorous shrugging or lavish praise — Labor was also attending to the culture. The appointment of Kim Williams as new chair of the ABC suggested a government that has an interest in ensuring that one of the country’s most influential public institutions is led by someone who has not only impeccable professional credentials but also sufficient commitment to public culture, the arts and the goals of excellence, independence and balance to align with values supposedly supported by the government itself.

The government can’t expect an easy run over the second half of its term. Media hostility has been increasingly uncompromising and will be relentless on the issue of tax cuts. The cost-of-living crisis, moreover, doesn’t lend itself to easy solutions.

On broader issues of policy, Labor’s Achilles heel seems to me to be housing. It has acted, but it has not done enough, and the Greens have made this one their own. It is ideally calculated to appeal to anyone under forty, and others too. The Coalition will also continue to pretend it has the solution, which involves allowing people with virtually no superannuation savings to use the little they have for a home deposit. The real estate industry will be delighted.

Labor would be well advised to craft a radical solution to housing in the spirit of the 1945 Commonwealth–State Housing Agreement — one that involves not only bold solutions to private provision but also a renewed emphasis on social housing. Even more than the “backflip” on taxes, a bold, evidence-based, well-costed housing policy could set Labor up for an extended period in office and a genuine opportunity to reinvigorate social democracy in this country. •