No prime minister has come to government from opposition in the past three decades facing more challenges than Anthony Albanese.
The list is formidable, beginning with a COVID-19 pandemic that is far from over; a third wave is building with deaths and infections; there is catastrophic climate change wreaking havoc, and an international situation threatening global growth and security.
How Albanese deals with each of these will be critical to his government’s success and already we have seen mistakes can be easily made – like waiting two weeks to be persuaded to restore pandemic leave payments despite evidence of their continuing need.
If the first terms of past prime ministers is any guide, Albanese will need extraordinary discipline and leadership to stay at the helm.
Kevin Rudd didn’t survive his first term, nor did Tony Abbott.
More optimistically, Bob Hawke and John Howard, two of our most successful prime ministers, had horror starts and came close to crashing and burning when they next faced the people.
However, the fact that Albanese is Prime Minister is in itself a tribute to his tactical smarts when he was widely underestimated by his political opponents, commentators and even nervous members of his own caucus.
There was no hint of self-doubt when he addressed his 103 members and senators on the eve of the first sitting day of the 47th Parliament.
The Governor-General’s formal opening speech, he said “will outline a government of ambition, a government which sees it has a responsibility to break Australia out of the inertia that the former government was stuck in”.
Though he was accused of being a small target during the campaign, the PM now boasts a significant platform, with 18 pieces of legislation to be introduced in this sitting fortnight.
Gallantly, he reminded his troops a key ambition was to “change the tone of politics in this country”.
“We want to make sure there’s less shouting and more delivery. The former government sat around and talked about how we wedge the other side of politics. We’re not interested in that.”
There is no such undertaking from the Opposition Leader. And while some in the government have a low opinion of Peter Dutton’s interest in or knowledge of parliamentary tactics, they underrate him at their peril.
Oppositions have it in their power to turn the place into a shambles, which invariably rebounds badly on the government of the day.
The new Speaker Milton Dick will need to be on his mettle. He could take note of how his Liberal predecessor Tony Smith operated, or the short-lived but exceptional parliamentary umpire Peter Slipper.
Already the Dutton opposition has signalled it is in a take-no-prisoners frame of mind.
Nationals leader David Littleproud has accused the eight-week-old government of “being rife with inaction and indecision” in dealing with the foot and mouth disease outbreak in Indonesia.
Dutton joined his colleagues on Monday demanding the border with Indonesia be closed, while raising the prospect of Australia’s entire cattle and sheep herd being at risk.
This hyperbolic overreach is not shared by farming and business groups, who warn that such drastic action would risk our $500 million two-way trade with Indonesia.
According to these peak industry groups, our trade is still suffering from the precipitous 2011 ban on live cattle exports.
The border closure call is not supported by the scientific evidence, according to Agriculture Minister Murray Watt. One cattle producer describes it as “utter tosh” that would play into the hands of competitors like Brazil.
What reveals the reckless political intent of the opposition is the fact these were the same people who were strident in their criticism of the Gillard government’s hasty response in 2011.
Albanese accused his opponents of “trying to create opportunistic positions,” and in the short term it is the Coalition leadership’s credibility that’s suffering but their mindset is eerily familiar.
Tony Abbott in his early days as opposition leader similarly struck out, but his intent and persistence eventually paid off – aided by Labor disunity and inability to control the agenda.
So far Labor’s cohesion has been impressive, but the first acid test of its agenda will come with the debate over its 43 per cent emissions reduction target.
A failure to have it pass the Parliament will improve Dutton’s standing and weaken Albanese’s.
Dutton is clearly counting on the Greens repeating their 2009 efforts and help him thwart the Prime Minister.
That prospect alone has the Opposition Leader prepared to ignore the results of the past election driven in significant part by the electorate’s demand for greater climate action.
There’s nothing easy about politics. Just ask Albanese.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics
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