Anthony Albanese
Labor leader Anthony Albanese (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

After being forced by the pandemic to put aside politics as usual for much of 2020, and facing a government throwing around hundreds of billions in deficit spending, Anthony Albanese now has an opportunity to inflict serious damage on Scott Morrison.

If he’s up to it.

Australian workers need him to, for their financial security and for Australia’s economic recovery.

The government’s proposed “worse off overall test” to enable agreements that will see workers’ pay cut under a nebulous “public interest test” requirement for at least two years will further reduce already weak wages growth, undermine the recovery, and accelerate the shift of national income to business away from workers.

Having broken faith and produced this WorkChoices-style idea from his back pocket after keeping it secret during consultations with unions earlier in the year, Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter is trying to argue it will be extremely limited in its use.

You can believe that about as much as you could believe Peter Costello claiming WorkChoices would lift labour productivity.

The Coalition couldn’t help itself. After a pretence of consulting with unions, it has let ideology and the desires of its business donors take over again to further weaken the bargaining power of workers after years of wage stagnation. So much for “we’re all in this together”.

There are high stakes over this — which are completely absent from just about any press gallery coverage. “Public Bar” Porter’s proposal would cut wages growth and undermine household spending at the exact moment the economy needs households to keep lifting spending.

Albanese has deployed some acute attack points on Morrison in recent months — especially the entirely correct point that Morrison is primarily a salesman interested in the photo opportunity but not in the delivery.

Albanese’s childcare policy in response to an anti-women budget was smart. But a government mired in sleaze and scandal, the most corrupt in postwar history, should be living in fear of the opposition.

Plainly it isn’t.

For a leader who professes to love fighting tories, Albanese has had to play nice for much of the year rather than, as he puts it, “throw the toys out of the cot”.

No opposition leader — either those playing nice or those who have politicised the pandemic — has prospered during the pandemic in Australia. But both Albanese’s polling and Labor’s numbers — to the extent they can be believed — have held up better than any state opposition.

Nonetheless, the persistent criticism is that, unexpectedly, he lacks mongrel and cut-through. The press gallery is already running leadership stories.

Porter’s “worse off overall test” should be the perfect opportunity. Labor should spend every day between now and the next election talking about Morrison’s pay cut. If the government baulks now, it indicates it will try again after the next election. It plainly can’t help itself.

That the government is mulling an attack on superannuation as well should strengthen Labor’s hand in portraying it as an ideological outfit hell-bent on cutting workers’ pay and super.

The Australian Financial Review, News Corp, business lobby groups and much of the press gallery will denounce it, but that applied to the campaign against WorkChoices too.

And if Labor under Albanese can’t turn this into a vote-winning issue — protecting workers’ super and pay, and supporting the economic recovery — it should just give up.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

What a year. Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW