CHRISTOPHER DORE: Ambition, jealousy & incompetence ... it ain’t easy being Albanese with Bowen and Plibersek

Headshot of Christopher Dore
Christopher Dore
The Nightly
This a tale of thwarted ambition, jealousy, incompetence and two ministers with nothing to lose.
This a tale of thwarted ambition, jealousy, incompetence and two ministers with nothing to lose. Credit: Olivia Desianti

Chris Bowen thought he could be prime minister some day.

Sorta still does, if only someone would ask. The true heir in the royal Labor lineage that began with the original western suburbs Prince of Darkness, Paul John Keating.

Tanya Plibersek thought she could be prime minister some day too.

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Kinda still does, if only someone would let her. Labor’s genuine champion of the bleeding heart inner-city intellectual left. Not the fake one next door.

Neither are massive fans of the bloke who is actually Prime Minister. Unrelated of course, they’re not exactly making it easy for him to stay that way.

Both Climate Change and Energy Minister Bowen and Environment Minister Plibersek are doing their very best, and making it much worse, for Anthony Albanese.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaks to Australian Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek during House of Representatives Question Time at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, February 27, 2024. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING
Australian Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek. Credit: LUKAS COCH/AAPIMAGE

The pair sit at opposite ends of Labor’s factional rainbow and diagonally across from each other at the Cabinet table. They harbour leadership ambitions and now share a super department overflowing with activist public servants and the odd belligerent bureaucrat.

What’s also becoming increasingly obvious for many in Labor is they each have a pinky poking through the pin of the same grenade ready to blow up Albanese’s chances of an outright win at the Federal election.

Unperturbed, or unaware, Albanese is uninterested.

Bowen’s on a disastrous policy bender that even his mates think requires an intervention. “He is in danger,” they say, solemnly. Too many dark forces lining up “solidly against Bowen.” Time for a change. Extract. Get him out of there. Nemo resideo.

Albanese: everything is fine, leave the man behind.

Plibersek, having chucked the proverbial toys out of the playpen, is operating on a higher plane. Subtlety is her love language. Her policy plaything is a slow burn.

Albanese: sorry, what’s going on?

Energy and Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen.
Energy and Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen. Credit: TheWest

CRASH AND BOWEN

Clever lad Bowen is a garrulous Mr Bean-like figure who stumbles from one political crisis to another totally oblivious to the carnage and calamity he creates by his mere presence.

His situational awareness is non-existent.

But in Christopher Eyles Guy Bowen’s mind, he is of the moment.

Whenever he rises to his feet, a calmness befalls him. A man so confident, so content; with a brazenness befitting a princeling, preening, so proud, so goddamn proud. As if, in his head, at this moment before words start to slip from his lips, he can hear Cher, in that outfit, in that moment, circa 1975, swirling around for an audience in awe of this magnificent specimen before them. “Now can I hear a little commotion for the dress … now let’s hear it for the back of the dress.” To wild applause. In his head.

What the rest of us hear is Scott Morrison murdering Cher, circa 1985, at karaoke, with a ukulele, and the house lights on.

Bowen has already stuffed energy policy. Now he’s doing it again.

He’s reaching into your pockets, grabbing the keys to your ute, taking out all your spare cash and stealing your PIN to go and get some more. He wants electric cars on the road, and he’s prepared to make you pay for them. It doesn’t matter if that’s true or partially true, or completely false. Bowen has set the scene with his political wish-washery for yet another almighty scare campaign, already being planned for marginal seats near you.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese meets students at Thorlie TAFE during his visit to WA on Monday.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Credit: Kelsey Reid/The West Australian

THE EYES HAVE IT

And then there is Plibersek. So much to offer and yet so little to show for it. She is giving: I booked the deluxe king room and got the twin share. The unfairness of it all. The once charming, ambitious deputy Labor leader is politically dissociating before our eyes.

How could she not? Her once great mate, now absolute a...hole of a boss Albo, relegates her out of spite to the lowly, thankless portfolio of environment. So what to do? How about adopt a strategy out of the Hamas playbook: start an entirely unnecessary policy war, one you’re likely to lose, one that maximises casualties and one that will inevitably end very badly for your side?

So Plibersek is pursuing a radical re-writing of the apparently arcane environment laws, for which no middle Australian either voted for or cares much about. She’s doing so in a somewhat secretive fashion, maximising angst and anxiety in the resources sector. A cashed-up, creative industry with a penchant for causing havoc for a careless, combative and confrontational crew in Canberra.

THAT’S NOT A KNIFE, THIS IS A KNIFE

“If Albanese is going to make her Environment Minister, she’s going to be the f......g Environment Minister,” is how one Labor insider characterised Plibersek’s cavalier attitude. At the heart of Plibersek’s agenda is the new religion of environmentalists worldwide, the Nature Positive movement. “Nature Positive is about prioritising the environment in all decision-making and actions,” so it goes.

“Put nature first,” is the motto. “Put costly, legally enforceable, time consuming, regulation at the forefront” is the reality.

Perhaps even put a price on nature, and send us all the bill.

Well that’s the fear miners have, but aren’t entirely sure, as the consultation so far has resembled Abu Ghraib-lite — lights out, bags-over-the-head-style lock-ups with one blunt government-issued HB pencil and a Minty wrapper to write some notes.

Tanya Plibersek thought she could be prime minister some day too.

To make matters worse, environmentalists, also in the dark, are a little fidgety too, for their own, entirely opposite reasons.

Just 12 months away from the next election, both ministers are attracting more than just idle interest from industries ready to run co-ordinated campaigns against the Government.

Households with tradies on the sofa and utes in the garage in suburbs that make up marginal electorates will be recruited to campaign against Bowen’s policy, and then vote against Bowen’s party.

“Motoring groups are planning a campaign … there will be pressure coming back through the backbench … but it could be too late for Labor by then,” says one operative familiar with the plans.

EATS, ROOTS AND LEAVES, KEN OATH

If all this wasn’t enough to send shivers down Labor spines, Plibersek has even enlisted the help of former treasury boss and wombat whisperer Ken Henry.

For those not paying attention, Dr Ken, as treasury secretary, was the genius behind the resources super profits tax back when Kevin Rudd was PM. The open declaration of war against the mining industry opened the gates of hell for Rudd, contributing to his early demise.

This time’s sure to be different right? No way does Dr Ken still believe the mining industry, the architects of his greatest professional humiliation, is guilty of “moronic economic illiteracy” anymore, right?

Shrouded in mystery, the concerns with Plibersek’s agenda, until this week at least, have been bubbling below the surface. Bowen’s on the other hand are more of a Mt Vesuvius nature.

WA Premier Roger Cook has convened WA’s first Energy Transition Summit at the Perth Exhibition Convention Centre. Pictured is federal minister for climate change Chris Bowen and federal minister for resources Madeleine King at the event
Federal minister for climate change Chris Bowen. Credit: Justin Benson-Cooper/The West Australian

AM I THE VILLAIN, I DON’T THINK I’M THE VILLAIN

“There are a lot of problems happening here, and the cause of it all … is Chris Bowen. He doesn’t like being open about anything, he prefers spin to substance. And that’s why his past is littered with failures right,’’ says one insider.

Bowen, indeed has been here before. While Scott Morrison was championed as the messiah from the Shire after snatching the 2019 election, Liberals credit Bowen for destroying any chance Bill Shorten had of getting into The Lodge. “You can’t underestimate the impact of Chris Bowen,” former Liberal MP Tim Wilson said after Shorten lost the unloseable election. “Without him, we would have lost, the Morrison government would have fallen.”

There are a lot of problems happening here, and the cause of it all … is Chris Bowen.

Bowen loves to quote one of his great inspirations, the 19th century American philosopher poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, a “transcendentalist” (a fancy word for dreamer).

Bowen, oblivious to this day, orchestrated Shorten’s demise, securing the disaster by firstly concocting, as Labor’s emeritus economics guru, a bagful of preposterously poisonous policies, and then repeatedly taunted taxpayers, worried about what the changes would do to their savings, to “vote against us”. They took him up on the offer.

Never mind! The Dreamer, always thinking big, in the shadows of the devastating defeat, immediately seized his moment.

LOVE WILL TEAR US APART, AGAIN

Inspired no doubt by Waldo, a leader of the romantic movement, who believed the divine is all about us and nature and the soul are at one, Bowen, driven by the inherent goodness of people, announced his intention to run for the Labor leadership.

I am “sharper” than Albo, he declared while standing in a park, under a tree. “I’m of the suburbs. I spend all my time in the suburbs. I understand what happens in the suburbs.” I am “slightly better than Albo” at talking to suburban Australia. “I have the western Sydney thing going for me.

He quit the race the next day. Maybe Albanese was sharper after all.

Like most voters, ask Albanese about the romantic movement and he’ll start talking about Depeche Mode or Spandau Ballet.

Plibersek was Shorten’s hapless deputy during those disastrous dark days in defeat. While once long time friends and still factionally aligned to Albanese, Plibersek instead backed his rival, later flirted with her own leadership tilt, and will forever pay the price.

IT AIN’T EASY BEING ALBANESE

Some fear now though, that it will be Albanese who will ultimately pick up the bill.

Neither of the rogue ministers are Albanistas. He can’t rein them in. Even if he wanted to, it’s not in his nature.

Labor operatives are hoping Albanese’s new political fixer David Epstein can do what the boss can’t.

“Albo prides himself on running a Hawke-style Government, with a serious Cabinet process where he doesn’t have young advisers telling ministers what to do,” says one.

“Ministers tell him what they want to do.”

Neither of the rogue ministers are Albanistas. He can’t rein them in. Even if he wanted to, it’s not in his nature.

Uniquely, Epstein, with all his wrangling experience and expertise, “can be the one that taps the minister on the shoulder, ‘we want you to run your own race … but have you thought about this’”. Good luck.

When it comes to climate change and energy policy, at the heart of the Government’s mounting electoral problems, Labor has a more existential crisis. And the party is largely in denial.

“The fact is tackling it will make the economy worse and energy more expensive. We are going to spend a s..t load of money doing it and it will take money out of everybody’s pocket,” says one Labor realist. “You can do it in a way that is less costly, but there is no way you can do it where it’s great for everyone.

“Our people have started to believe the bulls..t messaging about how we can solve this in a way that creates jobs. As if the biggest technological and ecological disaster that’s ever fallen on mankind is somehow going to be an economic positive for us.

“That is a very, very dangerous set of views.”

Perhaps Eighties Cher could serenade Chris Bowen after all, if she could turn back time. If she could find a way.

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