The first weeks of the new Albanese Labor government have gone well. Albanese has had plenty of time to observe the mistakes made within his own party when it was last in power and contemplate the failures across the aisle. He’s come to the conclusion, he says, that he will need to unite Australia and “change the way politics is done” by “avoiding sound bites and actually answering questions”. How novel! And how promising.
He has also embraced symbolic gestures, with mixed success. Having himself sworn in swiftly, in order to head to the scheduled Quad meeting was an early and important gesture of his commitment to the alliances that Australia relies on to secure its place in the world.
Anthony Albanese has made a good start promising to change the sway politics is doneCredit:James Brickwood
Meanwhile, his foreign minister, Penny Wong, prioritised a visit to Fiji to intercept China’s attempt to build a Pacific power base. The disappointment of the Chinese suggests it was an effective gesture, or at least that there are grounds to hope that love-bombing the region has thrown Sino-Pacific plans off track.
These sorts of actions suggest the Albanese government is identifying clear problems and using symbolism to help deliver solutions.
But not all of the Albanese government’s symbolism has been so well calibrated.
One of less well-designed pieces of symbolism regards Albanese’s commitment to deliver on the Uluru Statement from the Heart “in full”.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong made the Pacific region her priority.Credit:Getty
Now, there is immense good will across the political aisle towards the idea of giving Indigenous communities a say in decisions that affect them, but the mechanism remains vague. Given the issues that many Indigenous communities have encountered with the Aboriginal land councils established to represent and serve them, there is reason for concern that a national Voice would encounter the same challenges.
It is also not yet clear how a Voice would address the desperate and entrenched cycle of disadvantage currently confronting Indigenous Australians.
Unless the connection between the Voice and the problem is made, the success of a referendum will rely on the number of Australians willing to constitutionally enshrine a virtuous feeling.
And the problem with that is that virtuous feelings often conflict. Point in case is the cashless welfare debit card. Welfare advocacy groups object to the card because it is stigmatising and campaigned for it to be discontinued. But their push to get rid of the card has been in direct conflict with what some Indigenous communities, especially the women within them, want.
If the Indigenous Voice to Parliament had already been enshrined, the government would presumably have had to listen to those Indigenous people. And that could have meant not abolishing the cashless welfare card.
Thank goodness for symbolism, eh? It allows so much leeway. Advocates in the Indigenous and welfare spaces can have simultaneously warm fuzzy feelings without killing each other’s vibe.
And because you can never have too many symbols, Albanese also named an island in Canberra after the Queen of England (and Australia) while practically in the same breath swearing in an assistant minister for a republic.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese lit the Commonwealth beacon in Canberra, as part of Australia’s Jubilee celebrations.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Introducing some unintentional symbolism, the rechristened island is a fake island, located in the fake lake at the centre of the fake city. Perhaps there’s a signal of some sort in all that.
It should serve as an important early reminder that symbolism is worth little unless it is linked to substance. Policy has to solve a problem.
And that is how Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ foreshadowed “wellbeing” budget must be judged.
Kiwi Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, a maestro of the symbolic, made wellbeing budgeting a centrepiece of her prime ministership when she introduced her first wellbeing budget in 2019. It has since been called “marketing as opposed to substance” by the former chief economist of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand.
But Chalmers, who has made no secret of his ambition to convince Australians that Labor are the better economic managers, wants to introduce one. His dual aims will only come off if “measuring what matters” is a framework for better directing funds rather than increasing them indiscriminately. And this is where symbolism might be very handy in delivering on substance.
The Treasurer has said that he wants educational attainment and health outcomes to sit alongside economic data in the budget. These are two areas in which increasing spending has historically not necessarily translated into better outcomes.
The Liberal Party has been saying this for years, of course, but nobody on that side of politics had the wit to adorn a program of spending reform with a “wellbeing” ribbon. It may be that what these policy areas were waiting for was someone who can regift neglected proposals for improving teacher quality and ironing out the perverse incentives within the health system by packaging them up in fresh wrapping paper. That would create an outcome that matters and is worth measuring.
It is as yet unclear whether the Albanese government will learn to systematically deploy symbolism for something more than its own sake. If it is, we may be in for a very long Labor reign. If it isn’t, this government will go up in a puff of extremely virtuous smoke.
Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.