Politics with Michelle Grattan: Anthony Albanese on his new frontbench, Joel Fitzgibbon, and Labor’s imminent workplace policy


Last year, Anthony Albanese was criticised for his lack of cut-through during the COVID crisis, as Labor was sidelined by a hyperactive government.

This year, amid ALP leadership speculation and now a shadow ministry reshuffle, Albanese is seeking to assert himself more forcefully, declaring last week “I will be leader of this country after the next election”.

With that election possible within the year, the need for Labor to outline its policies, including on climate change and industrial relations, is becoming more pressing. Albanese is still intent on taking his time on climate policy, where international developments are fast-moving, but the IR policy is imminent.

This week, the opposition leader joins the podcast to discuss the reshuffle, and his and his party’s goals.

“Labor will always stand up for the interests of working people,” he says, and that commitment will be at the heart of its workplace policy.

The policy’s “priorities are very much on job security and income security.”

“Whether it be people in labour hire companies…working next door to someone but earning less money… whether it be people in the new gig economy who are sometimes working for almost nothing in some cases, whether it be issues of workers who are having to bid against each other.”

Albanese says the policy will be in direct contrast to government legislation, drafted last year and now before parliament, which would “cut wages and conditions”.

Will the ALP definitely vote against the government’s measures?

“We’ve said we will not vote for any legislation that cuts wages or cuts conditions such as penalty rates.”

Transcript (edited for clarity)

Michelle Grattan: Anthony Albanese has had a rough start to 2021, the serious car accident and speculation about the future of his leadership. He’s hoping for some reset from the frontbench reshuffle he undertook last week, which saw Chris Bowen replace Mark Butler as spokesman on climate and energy. And at least this week’s Newspoll brought some encouragement, showing the Coalition and Labor commencing the year 50-50 on the two-party vote. The opposition leader joins us today.

Anthony Albanese, your reshuffle didn’t quell the leadership talk. Did you expect it to?

Anthony Albanese: I was determined to do the right thing. The advice that I had of some people before the reshuffle was you don’t make changes. If you don’t make changes, no one can complain. But that’s not the right thing. The right thing to do is to put in place the team with the right people in the right jobs in the lead up to the election. And that contrasts with Scott Morrison’s reshuffle that he talked up when Mathias Cormann was leaving the parliament and which left Angus Taylor in place, left Stuart Robert, the person who presided over the robodebt debacle in place, Melissa Price, still there in charge of defence procurement when we have real issues with the subs, made no changes of any substance. So I did the right thing by the Labor Party and that is making sure that we maximise our potential to winning the next election.

MG: Now, Covid obviously made things extraordinarily difficult for oppositions last year, but even allowing for that, have you been surprised at the extent of angst within the Labor Party, given that federal Labor is polling not too badly, obviously on a two-party basis, the latest poll has you 50/50.

AA: Well, I reject the premise of the question. The fact is that overwhelmingly my colleagues and the caucus is focused on holding the government to account, on putting forward constructive suggestions and developing a clear alternative at the next election. That’s overwhelmingly what people are focussed on.

MG: Do you accept that Labor’s primary vote, around 36% is too low? And what can you do to get that up?

AA: Well, I want it to be 100%, Michelle, but it’s worth saying that that’s 3% higher than it was at the last election. And if anyone thinks that if we get 3% higher primary vote across the board, we won’t win the next election, then they’re wrong. The fact is that we, of course, need to continue to work on that, but it’s heading in the right direction. And one of the things that will continue to argue for is that this is a do nothing government. We’re seeing today the prime minister give a speech at the National Press Club where once again, there’s no reform, no plan for the economy or for social policy. We still don’t have an energy policy. No plan to deal with the challenges of the future. We’ll continue to hold the government to account. During 2020, we put forward practical ideas and policies such as wage subsidies, support for mental health programmes, including telehealth, the issue of the vaccine, issues of quarantine and our borders, the need to have a plan to deal with aged care. We put forward all of those suggestions, some of which were adopted by the government, such as wage subsidies, the increase in unemployment benefits. It’s not like we weren’t focused on policy, we were. It’s just that we were focused on the immediate needs, and that’s what the Australian people expected of us. We were constructive. And that stands in stark contrast to the attitude of the Coalition during the global financial crisis. And that will put us in good stead at the next election. And what we need as well now, and we’ve started to do that, as I said we would on your podcast when I became leader, when we received the review of the election defeat last time around, that we would have more strategy and less tactics. We would roll out our policies from the time of the budget reply. Now, that budget reply was delayed, but we certainly did that with major childcare reform, a major initiative, a building on just as Labor made universal health care through Medicare, universal superannuation, universal provision of child care, working towards that is a major economic reform and as well a future made in Australia, recognising that whilst the pandemic has shown the strength of Australian society and the strength of people being prepared to look after each other, it’s also exposed some of the underlying economic weaknesses, our lack of economic resilience. Our need to actually be able to manufacture more things for ourselves, the weakness that’s there in the labour market to increase casualisation and all of those present opportunities for Labor to present clear alternatives at the next election. We’ve done some of that, we’ll be doing more of that in coming weeks and months.

MG: They’ve obviously become increasingly frustrated with the criticisms by Joel Fitzgibbon. But do you at least agree with him that labour, L-A-B-O-U-R, needs to be put back into the Labor Party.

AA: The Labor Party has never walked away from looking after working people. We’ve been around for some 130 years, we are Australia’s oldest and proudest political party and I reject the idea that we don’t look after working people. The last Labor government got rid of WorkChoices and put in place reforms in the interests of working people. What we’re advancing now in terms of childcare is about working people as well. Workers these days aren’t all blue collar males. They are women. They’re men, they’re young people, they’re older, older workers. You’ve seen the economy transition and we need modern solutions, we’ll continue to do that. But Labor will always stand up for the interests of working people.

MG: Do you think it’s possible that Joel Fitzgibbon might leave the Labor Party, join the crossbench?

AA: Look, no, I think that Joel Fitzgibbon actions will speak. People will make their own judgement about the role that he’s playing and whether he’s trying to be constructive or not.

MG: But you don’t think he’d jump.

AA: People will make their own decisions. Joel has said himself he made the decision some time ago, just after the last election, that he would stay on the frontbench for 18 months. And we had discussions about the timing of his departure. He chose to depart in a way that was different from what he had indicated to myself as leader and to others over a long period of time. And people will make their own judgement about that. I mean, the Coalition have Barnaby Joyce, have Craig Kelly, they’ve just knocked off Kevin Andrews, the longest serving member of the House of Representatives. They have a whole range of people on their side who are out of step with the mainstream opinion, on the LNP side. The difference is that Labor, when we’ve had an issue, we’ve dealt with it. We’ve intervened into the New South Wales and the Victorian branch whilst I’ve been leader, making necessary reforms and made those branches stronger as a result. Scott Morrison’s just sitting back watching the sort of chaos that’s seen, frankly, Kevin Andrews humiliated after a long period of time in the parliament.

MG: The coronavirus supplement stops at the end of March when JobSeeker would return to the old level. The base, at the moment, for JobSeeker is $565 a fortnight and the supplement currently is $150 a fortnight. What level do you think the ongoing JobSeeker should be struck at?

AA: Well, what we say is that it should be more. That $40 a day isn’t enough to live on, the government acknowledge that. We’re not in a position to change the level of JobSeeker in April and we’re not going to let the government off the hook. We’re going to continue to say that they should not be reducing JobSeeker to $40 a day because they themselves have acknowledged that this drives people into poverty.
MG: This is not a complicated policy issue to nominate what you think would be a reasonable level.

AA: There are costings, that are required of that process, we will have…

MG: You could make them.

AA: We’ll have, well we could make things up, Michelle, but I don’t want to do that. Just make things up without proper costings and without proper processes. And I haven’t done that. We will be in a position, I would hope, to make changes to a whole range of policies after the next election when we’re in a position to form government. But what we’ve said under my leadership very early on was that $40 a day wasn’t enough to live on. That was acknowledged by the government that that was the case.

MG: You mentioned Scott Morrison’s speech today in which he’s very optimistic about Australia’s economic recovery. Are you as optimistic?

AA: Well, one of the things that I wouldn’t do, what Scott Morrison said that today and Josh Frydenberg has been saying as well, is that everything is all hunky dory. The fact is, a whole lot of people have been left behind during the pandemic. So, yes, some people have done well, some businesses have done well. They’ve not only received JobKeeper, they’ve had their profits increased and being able to give big bonuses to corporate representatives. But other people are really struggling and people who are in casual employment didn’t receive any JobKeeper payments. They were the first ones to be laid off, and you have around about two million Australians today are either unemployed or want more work than they’re getting at. They’re being left behind. A whole lot of people are struggling to pay their rent or to pay their mortgage. And a whole lot of other people, because of problems with the labour market, are really doing it tough. The costs of childcare are something like four or five times the increase this year than the inflation rate. You have circumstances whereby in some cases people working, doing the same job in the mining sector, some will be earning around about 30% or in some cases more, less than their counterparts simply because of the use of labour hire. There are people in the gig economy who are basically working for third world conditions. There’s no minimum rates for them and they’re being left outside the system. Now, some people choose and it’s convenient for them and will continue to use new technology. And that’s not a bad thing at all. But some people who are in the case of people driving around on bicycles, delivering food and other products to people, have seen a considerable loss of life because they have to take risks because they’re not being paid enough to get by. When you have all those sorts of issues, I think that Scott Morrison as the leader of the nation should speak up on behalf of those people who need assistance and are struggling, not just those people who’ve done well.

MG: Do you think JobKeeper should go beyond the end of March when it’s due to end?

AA: I think for some sectors that are needing of support, if the logic of wage subsidies was to keep relationships between employers and employees so as to avoid businesses failing and workers being unemployed, then if those circumstances are still there, why would you prematurely withdraw support.

MG: Which sectors?

AA: So areas, for example, like the tourism sector that are continuing to struggle, particularly in sectors that are reliant upon international tourism like far north Queensland.

MG: Now, obviously, climate policy was much talked about during your reshuffle with the move of Mark Butler and Chris Bowen being the new spokesman. What difference do you think this move will make?

AA: Well, Chris Bowen is a former treasurer. He will focus, as he has already. You’ve seen him focus not on diminution of our commitment to action on climate change, but emphasising, for example, that Deloitte Access Economics says that 250,000 jobs will be created by moving, over coming decades, by moving to net zero emissions by 2050, and that, by contrast, hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost if we don’t act on climate change. It’s that link that I’ve continued to say since my time as the environment and climate change spoke. A person under Kim Beazley, I argued the action on climate change was good for jobs and good for the economy, the policies that were put in place under the Rudd and Gillard governments that I developed in Kim Beazley’s blueprint we published in 2006, were significant, such as the most important of which was the 20% renewable energy target by 2020. At the time opposed by the Coalition, questioned by a whole lot of people, including some people in the Labor Party. The fact is that was the right thing to do that helped create jobs not just directly in terms of the renewable sector, but also in terms of reducing costs of energy for manufacturing sector.

MG: So this move, does it represent a change of substance or a change in how the substance is presented?

AA: Well, the Labor party policy is decided by the Labor Party, not by an individual spokesperson. And the Labor Party believes in climate change and that it’s real and that by acting, you produce more jobs, lower emissions and lower energy prices. The Labor Party is very consistent on that. And we’ve been consistent on it for a long period of time since we advocated well before we, of course, signed up to the Kyoto Protocol. But we argued, of course, for ratification. And that was the first action of the Rudd government in December 2007. So we’re absolutely committed to action across the board. And I’ve seen some commentary that says that a member of the New South Wales right wing grouping somehow won’t take action on the environment. Well, Graham Richardson, Bob Carr, Tony Burke were three outstanding advocates for our natural environment and for action. They all have a proud record of achievement in that area. Chris Bowen’s absolutely committed to strong action. And and I think he will do an outstanding job.

MG: You’ve justified waiting to produce a climate policy on the grounds that a lot is happening this year. Now, that includes the Glasgow climate conference towards the end of the year. If we don’t have an election this year, will you delay announcing your policy until next year?

AA: Look, we’ll make our policy announcements at the appropriate time. They probably won’t be, with due respect, on a podcast, there’ll be a full scale press conference for all to see and to assess. But it’s not like we’ve delayed policy announcements, Michelle, I have very clearly stated in one of my earliest speeches and policy announcements as leader, net zero emissions by 2050, and that we would act consistently with that. We have argued and I wrote to the prime minister before I addressed the National Press Club in the middle of last year, saying that we supported a mechanism to drive change through the economy and that that should be a bipartisan mechanism and then people could disagree on what the ambition was within it. But we’ve done our best to try to be constructive, but we’ve made it very clear that we will be ambitious when it comes to climate change. We’ve made specific policy announcements as well, opposing the changes and and the attempts by this government to get rid of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. And we announced in the budget reply last year the Rewiring the Nation policy. Now, that was a $20 billion fund to be made available to make sure that you fix transmission in this country. And what the, all the experts, the Australian energy market operator, no less, and all of the major energy companies say is that, that would address the major challenge because what that would enable it to do is for the renewables sector, which is, the problem there is one of storage and and reliability to be a part of the grid, to operate more effectively, which would, of course, assist the renewable sector. Now, because that wasn’t couched in terms of a percentage or what have you, maybe it didn’t receive the focus of something like the net zero emissions by 2050. But that was a very, very significant announcement. And indeed, the most significant thing that could be done according to the energy sector itself.

MG: One policy you are going to announce soon is on industrial relations. Now, obviously, you’re not going to be revealing the detail of that today, but can you just tell me, what are the topic headings, as it were, that you’ll concentrate on - the priorities?

AA: The priorities are very much on job security and income security, the fact that workers currently feel vulnerable, that if you’re in insecure work, that means you have difficulty getting a mortgage. It means you have difficulty planning for your first child or future children. It means that businesses suffer because they don’t have the certainty either of people being able to spend money and keep that flow, which then flows on to the economy. So that’s a big challenge. The wage stagnation that has been there since 2013, we have never seen since records were kept, wages being so constrained as they are. We need to deal with people who are in secure in work, in the workforce, whether that be people who work in labour hire companies and are working next door to someone doing the same tasks but earning less money, whether it be people in the new gig economy who are sometimes working for almost nothing in some cases, whether it be issues of workers who are having to bid against each other. And that’s one of the things we’re seeing as to areas like the NDIS, workers are being essentially putting in a bid to provide services, but the lowest cost is the successful bidder. Now, that puts a real downward pressure on wages, but also in the delivery of the services and the quality of that service delivery.

MG: The issue of insecure work will be a centrepiece of this policy…

AA: It will be front and centre because that’s a big challenge. And that’s something at the same time as, what Scott Morrison’s solution? Well, we know they’ve produced legislation last year which would cut wages and conditions.

MG: Will you vote against that legislation…

AA: We’ve said we will not vote for any legislation that cuts wages or cuts conditions such as penalty rates.

MG: So you will vote against it in the Senate.

AA: We will try to, of course, amend legislation and then we’ll make decisions, but we won’t be. Labor will always stand up for working people and their wages and conditions.

MG: Well, it will be a lively industrial relations debate in the next few weeks.

AA: It certainly will be, and that will be a major focus of Labor, which is consistent with the approach that I’ve always held and my Labor team holds.

MG: Anthony Albanese, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Additional audio

A List of Ways to Die, Lee Rosevere, from Free Music Archive.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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