The personal and political transformation of Anthony Albanese since he came to office in May has been something to behold. On the personal level, he has shaken off his lowly-born tags like few before him. The tough western Sydney teenager now has the appearance of a learned Cambridge don. Then, politically, he has shown a conservative streak that no one saw coming, especially with his affection for the mother country and his being a stickler for upholding Westminster traditions.
Much of the change in Albanese is to be admired. He stepped into the role with an assuredness that surprised and impressed in equal measure and although many Australians could never envision him as a statesman, he has proven them wrong with his natural leadership on the world stage. But there is a growing perception that, since coming into his office, he has come under the influence of certain old-fashioned British notions, being notions that are at odds with what he and his party are thought to stand for.
His recent sympathies with the royal family, for one thing, go beyond what is called for upon the passing of Elizabeth II. ‘I think this is a time when a bit of respect is required’, he said of the calls for the Queen’s image to be removed from the five-dollar note. Albanese’s ‘respect’, however, is seen by some as monarchical reverence. ‘For King Charles, the loss of his mother is very personal’, he observed whilst encouraging the Prince and Princess of Wales to visit Australia and to bring their children. It will certainly be an awkward backpedal for Albanese if he is to return to the Republic agenda, which has now made contingent on being re-elected in 2025 anyway.
More worrying for Australia is his high-mindedness with the principles of Westminster government, with its reviews, reports, recommendations, deliberations and all-round navel gazing. In August alone he initiated another review of the Defence Force, the third in recent years, and commissioned a review of the Morrison multi-portfolio episode. With both, the reviewers will in due course submit 800-page reports to be digested by the staff of the relevant ministers with recommendations to then go before the Parliament for debate, all in keeping with Westminster traditions.
Indeed, with regard to the review of Morrisons’s conduct, the practice of hauling one’s predecessor as leader over the coals is itself a timeless tradition and one that even has a place in canonical literature. In Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver visits the land of the Yahoos and recounts that, whenever their leader is deposed, the Yahoos tie him to the base of a tree, climb the boughs and piss on his head. In its application in Australia in 2022, Albanese has added some sophistication to this ritual, appointing retired High Court Justice Virginia Bell to inquire into Morrison’s behaviour and report on how Parliament can better implement ‘Westminster’s checks and balances’.
The problem with this style of leadership is that Australia is currently being menaced by a government that takes direct action. China’s boast that its one-party system allows it to get things done appears never more vindicated than when viewed in comparison with Australia’s Westminster system. Australian policy is reviewed with every change of government or Prime Minister and any inclination towards substantive executive action is hemmed in by our inherited British bureaucracies. Whilst China takes ownership of another deep-sea port in a country that has defaulted on its BRI loan, for instance, Australia is poring over the conduct over its previous Prime Minister. Whilst China co-opts the Solomon Islands, Australia is debating a revision of the previous government’s foreign investments legislation.
For all the talk of wanting to leave the Commonwealth, Australia under Albanese can be seen to be becoming more British than Britain. Even our media, by continually describing the CCP with the diminutive ‘assertive’, bring the China threat within a framework of British-like sensibility. Both Kevin and Greg Rudd have more accurately described the CCP as being skilled in the arts of ‘rat-fuc*ery’ but our media repeatedly reduce this to CCP ‘assertiveness’.
Indeed, on 3 August when Albanese commissioned the latest review of our Defence Force, he insisted that the reviewers deliver their report within the truncated period of nine months, which was presented as the government acting with a urgency. We just need to hope that, come March next year when those nine months are up, the Chinese military are not already be marching through our streets, and, if they are, that our media are not marvelling at how jolly assertive they are.
None of this of course is to suggest that Australia should forsake the Westminster system. It provides us with our democratic freedoms and safeguards us against the repressions of the autocratic world. The irony of our times, however, is that too much of a reliance on British and Westminster traditions only enhances CCP prospects of undermining those very traditions within our country.
We need Albanese to address this. Not British-born like Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott, he is the last Prime Minister we would have expected to be enamoured with Westminster ideals. We saw him as the PM who would shed Australia of certain British airs and graces. If we are to successfully confront the China threat, we need him to live up to that expectation.