ANDREW CARSWELL: Albanese may still be popular, but his Government isn’t

Andrew Carswell
The Nightly
4 Min Read
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese might be popular, but it’s not enough to make him a good PM, writes Andrew Carswell.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese might be popular, but it’s not enough to make him a good PM, writes Andrew Carswell. Credit: Kelsey Reid/The West Australian

Prime ministers are meant to enjoy April.

There are no parliamentary sitting days, where conflict and chaos hijack your message. You wave goodbye to Canberra and its media critics and head into the real world, pressing the flesh with voters and handing out pre-budget goodies.

Your tired ministers get a relieving break with family and morph back into properly functioning adults.

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The narrative switches to the economy where all governments want to dwell, with the treasurer pumping out scene-setting economic speeches and talking growth. But April 2024 is no oasis for Anthony Albanese; no breather from the mire of March that left the Government battered and bruised.

Instead, it is dangerous territory.

It’s a month of walking on eggshells, careful not to further insult a public that is increasingly frustrated with his approach to, well everything.

A month of tiptoeing through a minefield of policy disasters, born of ministerial miscalculation or ineptitude, or both, that threatens to steal away the spotlight from the impending Federal Budget.

A month that looms as an existential threat to the PM’s hopes of clinging to majority rule.

There appears only one thing currently saving Albanese from a precipitous decline in public support that would end such hopes.

And even that one thing is quickly losing its lustre.

But despite all the calamity he has presided over, despite his weakness in not reigning in rogue or substandard ministers, despite incompetence becoming the hallmark of his government, Albanese is still widely perceived as a decent bloke.

That’s it. A “nice” bloke, who just happens to be a very ordinary Prime Minister.

Anyone who has sat through focus groups recently knows this perception remains. It may be said alongside less-generous terms — ineffectual, weak, focusing on the wrong things — but the “good bloke” image is enduring, providing ballast to a boat taking on plenty of water.

Certainly, polls suggest Albanese is on the nose. And he is, but it’s his performance that stinks, not his popularity. In determining approval ratings, pollsters ask voters to judge a political leader’s performance. Not whether they like them or not.

Perceptions in politics carry immense weight, particularly given our political game is largely played at arm’s length from the public.

Not everyone gets to meet a PM and have the opportunity to form an opinion of their character, demeanour or class. Perceptions are all we have.

But we are close to an inflection point here, where voters who are tired of the direction of the Government, who are becoming aware their values don’t align with the Government, and who are disappointed in their political leadership, begin to cast aside any saving graces they have afforded their Prime Minister.

The point where “good bloke” doesn’t matter anymore.

Welcome to April.

You get the sense Albanese is in danger of being swallowed up by one more misstep, one more scandal, one more mismanaged crisis.

April is full of those opportunities.

Instead of clear air on the pre-Budget economic message, the Government will be forced to contend daily with heated questions around its handling of the immigration detention saga.

Last week it sought to cauterise the wound by rushing new deportation powers through the Parliament without proper scrutiny; a cynical attempt to fix a political problem, not address a policy conundrum.

It was schooled by the Coalition, who pulled off its most effective parliamentary strategy this term, forcing the rushed Bill to a Senate inquiry, and prolonging the pain for the Government through April.

This now-festering wound will soon have the whiff of gangrene.

Ditto for Chris Bowen’s stalling fuel emissions standards regime, which foolishly pitted the Government against ordinary folk who had the audacity to buy a ute.

When you can’t understand why people buy Ford Rangers, spend the school holidays in caravan parks, or take the boat out on long weekends, you’ve lost touch with the abiding values of everyday Australians.

April is D-day for this policy frolic. Fix it, or the public will fix its sights on you.

Add that assault on values to the Government’s continued bungling of religious discrimination laws. When you threaten to do a deal with the Greens on matters of religion, you spit in the face of the millions of Australians of faith.

It’s okay to have a difference of opinion on the effectiveness of such laws. But when you are threatening to undermine the rights of both religious folk and religious institutions, you are inviting electoral retribution.

Forgiveness is eternal, but forgetting is hard.

But there is a further trap that awaits the PM this month.

Standing beside the shuttered Liddell Power Station last week, Albanese committed to travelling around Australia during April, talking up manufacturing and renewable energy.

Such a daily reminder, to both industry and households, of the Government’s abject failure to provide affordable and reliable electricity carries immense risk.

Australians are already becoming suspicious of the Government’s stubborn solar and wind obsession. Gallivanting around the countryside promising more investment in solar farms and wind turbines is perhaps a misjudgement of the public mood. Promised power “savings”, for a future generation, amid a very present cost of living crisis?

April may start with a joke. But it may end in tears.

Andrew Carswell is a political strategist and former adviser to the Morrison government.

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