As we creep towards year’s end, marked by re-emergence of the elements that have dominated 2022 – the royals, prices, the way our institutions deal with allegations of sexual violence, COVID – it seems logical that Scott Morrison would figure once again. His appearance at the robo-debt royal commission last week was perhaps most notable for failing to surprise anyone at all. The frustrated reactions of Commissioner Catherine Holmes SC were more fascinating: she suggested to him, variously, that he was giving irrelevant information, that he should wait for the question, and that he was not listening.
And another declaration she made was striking: “I do understand that you come from a background where rhetoric is important but …”
Illustration: Jim PavlidisCredit:
Is rhetoric important in Australian politics? Or rather: is it still important? When I hear the word, my mind goes to speeches. How many important speeches have there been in the past decade? Though perhaps, perversely, given how little has been achieved, this might be an indicator that speeches are important, if for no other reason than to prompt politicians to ask themselves the question: what have you done that is worth talking about?
The commissioner obviously meant “rhetoric” in the broader (and correct) sense: language used to persuade. But it was also a depressing reminder of what, in recent years, we have come to accept as the dominant purpose of language in politics. It has become not so much a tool for persuading people of your case as a tool of negative persuasion: a way of defending oneself from scrutiny or responsibility, of placing a barrier between yourself and the people you represent.
The precise importance of political rhetoric is a question currently being posed by the ascent of Anthony Albanese: first to the prime ministership, and then in public approval. Last month, there was speculation Albanese would meet China’s President Xi Jinping. On foreign policy, leaders tend to speak cryptically, aware that small movements can provoke large reactions (not least in the press). They tend to underplay the chance of things actually happening. But Albanese was quite open, saying, “if a meeting is arranged with Xi, then that would be a positive thing … We are organising a range of meetings, but they haven’t been finalised and locked in at this point in time.”
By being so clear, Albanese left himself open to humiliation by the Chinese leader. No doubt he had been given hopeful signs, but it was still a risk.
Albanese does not always speak quite so clearly, for at least three reasons. The first is the usual political habit of evasion: during the debate over the stage three tax cuts this year he was as opaque as everyone else in Labor.
The second is less deliberate, more a function of his personal speaking style. Last Thursday, asked by Sky’s Kieran Gilbert if there was a risk the government’s policies on gas prices might chill investment or supply, Albanese was direct: “No.” Gilbert asked why. Albanese explained: “Because the truth is that a $12 price on gas, a ceiling, if you like, is something like 96 per cent of gas contracts, deals that were done in 2021, were for under that. And the average price was under $10. And so, the idea that somehow this decision today will inhibit investment, if the investment was good prior to 2021, based upon that price, then the higher price that’s allowed, by this temporary measure that we’ve put in, should do nothing whatsoever to inhibit investment. And I’d say to the sector as well, they want to be careful that they’re not talking themselves down, because there are big opportunities for future investment.”
Here, Albanese did two things: he made his argument, and delivered a warning, of sorts, to gas sector figures not to exaggerate how bad things were. But while his argument was discernible, it took effort to discern it. If Albanese was under more pressure, this muddiness might be a problem, bringing criticism. Instead, it avoids further inflaming the situation.
Which brings us to the third reason, which is that Albanese can afford to pull his punches right now. You can tell that Albanese speaks from a position of strength both from his own restrained rhetoric and from the overblown rhetoric the gas sector has begun using: “Soviet-style policy”, said the head of Santos, desperately, as though he sensed his actual arguments were not persuasive. Albanese repeated his own phrase on Friday – “don’t talk yourself down” – while smiling. This was no thunderous warning, but only gentle chiding. In this case, his lack of sharpness was obviously deliberate. The gas companies may want to turn this into war, but it is clear Albanese knows he does not have to let them.
Albanese’s restraint in language is matched, so far, by restraint in acting. One of the reasons the gas industry’s rhetoric doesn’t land is – as Albanese pointed out – that the government has chosen not to match its overseas counterparts and impose a windfall tax. Similarly, on industrial relations, it did not go nearly as far as it could have.
Restraint like this can be read in different ways. It may be that the government is proceeding with the right blend of ambition (the number of areas it has acted in) and caution (not proceeding radically in any of them).
Or it may be that by choosing moderation in all things it will not deliver results, but only the pain that always goes with change (your opponents will always yell). Or it may be that the government has huge ambitions, and is only getting started; or perhaps it believes it has the stomach for large changes but is kidding itself.
On the go: Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
A leader’s first successful election campaign often retains great influence over them. It would be fair to say Albanese’s campaign was marked by a desire to avoid conflict. But you could equally note that, in this, it was radical: a new approach for a Labor leader, against conventional wisdom.
Albanese’s first seven months in power have been marked both by industriousness and quietness, and this too has felt new. It is possible Albanese is a more radical leader than is yet obvious, not in the ideological way his critics mean but in fashioning a new type of leadership, in which the importance of rhetoric is not obvious.
Scott Morrison failed because his actions spoke louder than his many, many words. In politics, they always do. Albanese’s understanding of that fact gives him a head start.
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