Albanese bet big on his everyman schtick. Can it go the distance?

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What gives a leader success can also be their undoing. Scott Morrison secured the Coalition’s unexpected election victory in 2019 by going solo. He detached himself from his government colleagues, made the campaign all about him and ran on the fact that he wasn’t Bill Shorten.

But in the ensuing three years, Morrison’s weird act got weirder and more off-putting and in 2022, Anthony Albanese got Labor over the line by not being Morrison or Shorten.

If opinion polls are any guide, October 14 cannot come soon enough for the Yes side and Anthony Albanese.Credit: Dionne Gain

Leaders have always had an outsized role in our politics but since the days of Gough Whitlam’s TV-focused “It’s Time” campaign, the trend has intensified and electoral contests have become increasingly presidential in style and tone. That worked for a while. But lately? Not so much.

If we’re to have a politics based on a star system, the “stars” must have star power that can last beyond a few weeks.

The referendum campaign for a Voice to Parliament has revealed a lot about the leaders of the major parties. Peter Dutton will do and say anything to gain a political advantage, all the way up to sowing doubt about the integrity of the electoral system. His stance on the Voice is incoherent and in keeping with the bad faith he’s shown towards the issue from the start. Dutton humiliated his original Indigenous affairs spokesman Julian Leeser, a known Voice supporter, to the point where he eventually had to resign from the frontbench to avoid the destruction of his political career. This seemed to be of no moment to Dutton.

But Dutton has had the easy job. Australians like voting No, especially when a Labor government has called the referendum. Since Federation, Labor governments have put 25 referendum questions to Australians. Only one, which gave the Commonwealth power over social services, has got up and that was in 1946 by Ben Chifley. A roll call of Labor greats – Bob Hawke, Gough Whitlam, John Curtin, Andrew Fisher – suffered nothing but referendum defeats.

Albanese has convinced himself that where those giants had failed, he will succeed. From a standing start. In his second year of office. After conducting an election campaign that even his friends would say was patchy. And how has it gone? Not well.

Throughout the referendum campaign, he has been passive and reactive rather than assertive, speaking in generalities rather than specifics, and relying on a fallback position of encouraging Australians to vote Yes to feel better about the country rather than on practicalities.

If every available opinion poll is any guide, the referendum voting day of October 14 cannot come soon enough for the Yes side because the likely No vote keeps increasing.

Some will say that focusing on the direction of the respective campaigns comes at the expense of discussion of the Voice, but that argument ignores the fact that the referendum is created by politicians via legislation. And whether it succeeds or fails, it will affect the political process.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney at the Australian Labor Party’s national conference in August.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

With more than five weeks to go, it already seems to be doing so. The latest Newspoll suggests that the campaign is acting as a transmission belt, moving support for the Labor Party over to the Coalition. Especially disappointing for Albanese will be the 12-point drop in his approval points and move into negative approval territory for the first time as prime minister.

Much of Albanese’s public persona is wrapped up in his presentation as a popular everyman. But it’s now producing diminishing returns, as his flubbed Hawke-style proposal for a public holiday if the Matildas won the World Cup showed.

The referendum looks to be lost but that does not mean the government cannot capitalise on some important lessons from the experience. It would do the Labor Party well to reconsider redefining their leader’s public role and winding back the presidential trend. Albanese is not, by all accounts, a micromanager but the evidence is starting to mount that he has serious limitations as a campaigner.

And there’s the question of his judgement. He chose to run this referendum at this time and he has insisted on sharing campaigning responsibilities with Linda Burney, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, whose performance has also fallen short. What’s been required is a whole-of-government effort.

The government has some strong advocates, among them Tony Burke and Jim Chalmers. Burke is doing what a Labor workplace relations minister should be doing, redressing a long-gestated imbalance in favour of people at or near the bottom of the income pile and trying to strengthen the industrial bargaining system. He doesn’t take a backward step in the face of an onslaught from a wide range of very wealthy industry groups who can regularly count on an easy run in the media.

A return to a form of cabinet government where a wide range of ministers consistently have more substantial policy and political profiles after the one-man shows of the past few governments is not all that radical. Presenting as an ensemble piece and not a star vehicle could be the government’s salvation.

Shaun Carney is a regular columnist.

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