Fury over Chalmers’ essay is a reminder to Labor: change won’t get an easy ride | Katharine Murphy

One of the more comical subplots of the political week has been the fury belching from the opinion pages of the Australian and the Australian Financial Review in response to Jim Chalmers suggesting in conciliatory terms that capitalism should (brace yourselves readers) be tethered by values.

You might have missed this because the tantrum was contained largely within those enclaves. If you missed the provocation that triggered the response, the treasurer penned a 6,000-word essay for the Monthly during his summer break. The Chalmers thesis was capital could be harnessed both for private profit and public good. He also posited (wait for it readers) that better informed markets make better decisions.

Even though these ideas are entirely orthodox in 2023, hysteria descended for at least 72 hours from a chorus that appeared to have renounced reading and monitoring external events shortly after finishing Atlas Shrugged at university in 1985. And as is often the case when a contemporary Labor figure says something different to what someone imagines Paul Keating might have said about something circa 1983-93, there was handwringing about Chalmers’ alleged departure from The Great Reform Project™.

I would never presume to speak for Keating because that would be both presumptuous and dangerous. But given the former prime minister observed a couple of years ago that liberal economics had “run into a dead end and has had no answer to the contemporary malaise”, I’d hazard a guess he’d be broadly OK with the spirit of the essay and may even think Chalmers pulled a punch.

In any case, diverting as this pile-on was, I suspect the treasurer wasn’t laughing because it was a salutary reminder that there are factions in the commentariat and the Australian business community fully committed to never letting a good idea go unpunished.

Fresh thinking tends to collide with rote. Let’s just get back to advocating more tax cuts for companies that don’t pay tax and call that a productivity agenda. Let’s get back to the iron rule of the market decides, unless the market decides to accelerate the revolution to low-emissions energy, in which case let’s get back to ranting about the scourge of wokeism. Coal: a victim of cancel culture. Wash, rinse, repeat – preferably loudly enough to discourage any more summer think pieces from treasurers who might hope to do something more meaningful than gripping and grinning at an AFR summit.

The mainly ridiculous reaction to the Monthly essay will have reminded the Albanese government – which has enjoyed a wellbeing fillip associated with a six-month political honeymoon – that there is no loyal cheer squad waiting to fawn and flatter. If you want to make change, there is no easy ride.

Australia – like every democracy everywhere – is divided between people who want to change the things that are fundamentally wrong with the systems and institutions that shape our lives, and people who want to change nothing at all. This is an enduring cultural cleave. We saw it this week as mourners farewelled the late Catholic Cardinal George Pell. In camp conservative, the deceased was a saint for his times, but for the sexual abuse survivors the Catholic church shamed and silenced, Pell was something else entirely.

The Albanese government has set up base camp at the cleave and will subsist there for much of this year as the voice to parliament – one of the most important policy agenda items this year – is characterised variously in the court of public opinion as a landmark in Australia’s long journey of reconciliation and an insidious proposal that will divide Australians on the basis of race.

The new parliamentary year opens on Monday. The first six months of the Albanese government were solid and polls suggest Labor was rewarded by voters for governing rather than posturing. There is a palpable appetite in the community for problem-solving. Households are battling high inflation, rising interest rates and crippling energy bills, and people, quite frankly, have had enough of the bollocks in Canberra.

In that spirit of problem-solving, between now and the end of March, parliament will consider legislation establishing Labor’s housing future fund, a proposal putting super in the national employment standards, an overhaul of the safeguard mechanism to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and an extension of paid parental leave. There will be a new round of workplace reform over the next 12 months.

Anthony Albanese and the premiers have kicked off a significant cycle of health reform that will play out in increments between now and the budget in May. Restructuring Medicare is necessary because as the South Australian premier, Peter Malinauskas, says, the intersection between Australia’s primary healthcare service and the hospital system is “broken”. But pursuing a new blended funding model will involve difficult, detailed reform undertaken in a sector populated by “loud voices and sharp elbows”, as the federal health minister, Mark Butler, put the dynamic on Friday.

On Sunday, Albanese will open the parliamentary year with a scene-setting speech to a thinktank. This week I sat down with the prime minister for an hour-long conversation about how he’s managed the transition from opposition to government and how he leads. We also canvassed two of the big issues of the year – the voice and the defence strategic review. Albanese understands the risks both for reconciliation and his prime ministership of pursuing the voice in the event Peter Dutton’s soft no escalates to a hard no. But the prime minister has lined up the premiers and intends to push through to a decision come what may.

When it comes to the looming defence strategic review, Albanese says Australia has to get serious about self-defence given the elevated threat environment, which likely means a higher spend and certainly means different kit. Related to this exercise is the resolution of the contentious Aukus nuclear submarine pact. But as two former prime ministers, Keating and Malcolm Turnbull, keep pointing out, there are a lot of unanswered questions about this arrangement between Australia, the US and the UK. The questions start with whether this is a good idea and end with the consequences for sovereignty. Does Aukus effectively render Australia a branch office of the US in the Pacific? Is this wise?

The government has an enormous amount of work to do over the coming 12 months, much of it difficult. The whole apparatus will be hyperextended and hurtling.

But I hope somebody has the bandwidth to be paying close attention to the royal commission into the robodebt fiasco – the royal commission investigating why and how an unlawful Centrelink debt recovery scheme was established in 2015 and ran until November 2019.

Watching events closely in Canberra means I can only tune in and out of this process periodically. But what I’ve seen is truly mind-blowing.

As well as ministers who didn’t think it was their responsibility to check the legality of programs they were implementing – a phenomenon that also surfaced during the whole sports rorts controversy – we’ve had public servants apparently presiding over a catastrophic failure of governance. Not speaking up, not pursuing uncomfortable lines of inquiry. Not grabbing their political masters by the lapels and saying, “Excuse me, this is wrong, we can’t do this. Seriously, we won’t do this.”

If I were an incoming government, intent on pursuing a suite of complex reforms simultaneously across government and across tiers of government, I’d be deeply, deeply worried about what that royal commission is revealing about the parlous state of frank and fearless advice in Canberra – and I’d want a substantial shift in bureaucratic culture, preferably yesterday.


Katharine Murphy

The GuardianTramp

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