Albanese hit by unexpected wave as he tries to clear the decks

  • Written by Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

In 2023, Anthony Albanese was shooting for the moon, his eyes on the Voice referendum. On one view, he looked like the idealist reflecting his left-wing roots.

In 2024, we’re seeing a pragmatic, determined, managerial prime minister, busy attempting to reinforce the anchors of the ship of state and to clear its decks ahead of the May 14 budget. But this week, some rough weather hit the boat.

At a Labor national conference less than a decade ago[1] Albanese opposed the ALP embracing turning back boats carrying asylum seekers. This week, his government tried to rush through legislation to give it power to force non-citizens to cooperate in their removal by, for example, signing an application for a passport or other travel documents.

Also this week, the government watered down its proposed vehicle efficiency measure in an effort to defuse opposition attacks that it is a “new car and ute tax”.

On another front, Albanese last week took the extraordinary course of declaring the government won’t proceed with legislation on religious discrimination without bipartisan support.

Taken together, these actions show a PM wanting to chart a course firmly focused on an election that is at most just over a year away.

Preoccupied as it was with the Voice referendum for much of last year, the government was late to appreciate the extent to which voters were becoming overwhelmingly concerned with the cost of living.

It’s not making that mistake now.

Last year it also didn’t anticipate a possible threat to its immigration detention regime. It was ambushed by the High Court’s judgement in November prohibiting the indefinite incarceration of immigration detainees.

As a result of that decision, about 150 people were released, the Coalition sparked a fear campaign about ex-criminals roaming the streets, and the government played catch-up with emergency legislation including for preventative detention.

Read more: The consequences of the government's new migration legislation could be dire – for individuals and for Australia[2]

But it always has the refugee lawyers on its heels and so, for example, to avoid court rebuffs to legislation already passed, it has been withdrawing its requirement for individuals to wear ankle bracelets.

The government didn’t want to be caught out a second time by the High Court, which has another seminal case coming, with a hearing in April. It relates to an Iranian man who’s refusing to cooperate with attempts to deport him; Iran won’t take back involuntary removals.

The government has better prospects of winning this case. But it wants to shore up its defences, both to convince the court, and in the event the worst happens.

This week’s bill would prohibit non-citizens the government is trying to remove from refusing to cooperate. The penalty would be a mandatory year’s jail, with a maximum sentence of five years. Countries that refuse to accept involuntary returnees would also be subject to sanctions – their citizens (with some exceptions) could not get visas to come to Australia.

One can imagine what Labor would have said if a Coalition government had thrown up such a bill with no notice.

The government gambled the opposition would have little option but to pass the bill. But on Wednesday the Coalition called its bluff.

In a rare alliance of Coalition, Greens and crossbenchers, the Senate has referred the bill to a committee inquiry. This is due to report on May 7, meaning the legislation can’t be passed before the budget session (or the High Court hearing).

Worse for the government, the heat intensified on Home Affairs Minister Clare O'Neil, after a report that she had bawled out her departmental secretary, Stephanie Foster, over Foster making public, in the context of a Senate hearing, a document about the ex-detainees’ criminal backgrounds.

On the same day the immigration legislation was unveiled, Energy Minister Chris Bowen and Transport Minister Catherine King walked back the government’s vehicle efficiency standards policy.

Initially the government had released three options for this new (and overdue) policy, declaring its preferred option would see Australia in line with the United States.

Then a few things happened. The Coalition went into full attack. The US recalibrated its own position, under pressure from its auto industry. The Greens, unhappy about another government policy, indicated they wouldn’t wave through the government’s option.

The Albanese office maintained oversight of negotiations with the industry, and agreed to take meetings with senior stakeholders from the car companies and industry bodies, to build confidence in the consultation process.

The retreat on emissions standards is modest, although the opposition will campaign against the standards regardless.

While the battle over the immigration bill and the retreat on emission reduction standards were playing out in public, behind closed doors Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus was briefing his opposition counterpart Michaelia Cash, the Greens and crossbenchers about the proposed religious discrimination draft legislation.

Read more: Future of Anthony Albanese's religious discrimination legislation is in Peter Dutton's hands[3]

The government has given Cash the draft legislation, on a confidential basis. The Greens and some crossbenchers were angry they were not provided with it.

From what’s been said so far, the proposed religious discrimination legislation would scrap the present provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act, which allow religious schools to discriminate on grounds of sexuality and gender identification against both students and teachers.

This would be replaced in new legislation by a prohibition of any discrimination against students. Schools would be able to preference people sharing their faith and values in hiring, but not discriminate in firing.

In addition, there would be an explicit protection to safeguard people against discrimination on the basis of their faith.

The Senate forced the government into an inquiry on the immigration legislation, but Albanese has said he won’t have an inquiry into the religious freedom legislation.

Albanese’s conditional stand on this legislation is driven by his not wanting a divisive debate in the run up to the election. He has been seared enough by the Voice issue.

On religious discrimination, he is wedged between LGBTQ+ advocates and various faith groups. The situation is further complicated by the Greens saying they would be willing to work with the government on the legislation. If the attempt to get bipartisanship – Labor-Coalition agreement – falls apart, both sides can blame each other. Most voters will have their minds on more urgent concerns.

The final days of the autumn parliamentary sitting have run off course for the government, with the delay of the immigration legislation. The uncertainty hanging over the religious freedom legislation is unhelpful. Despite Albanese’s efforts, the seas are still choppy.

Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Read more https://theconversation.com/view-from-the-hill-albanese-hit-by-unexpected-wave-as-he-tries-to-clear-the-decks-226727