But this symbolic importance – as the possible representatives of a seismic shift in voters’ attitudes – is at odds with the amount of legislative power these new MPs have in the House, which is close to none. How much attention should they get?
If this is a tricky question for the media, the government, at least, has decided to give some of them – the teals – quite a bit. The conventional wisdom is that this is because Albanese wants them to win again, depriving the Liberals of seats.
This is probably right, but the other reason, I suspect, lies in their symbolic power. Each time he gets their vote he sends a message to voters that he is part of the emerging sensitive centre; that the weight of reasonable opinion has moved away from the Coalition. This is power too.
Is the parliament important or unimportant? Is the parliament a symbol, or a body with a practical operation as a venue for accountability and the passage of important legislation? Are the teals historically important or the product of a moment? The answer to all of these may be “both”, and that is fine. What the government must avoid is running from one extreme to the other depending on circumstance.
It is often said, reasonably enough, that Scott Morrison had contemplated for parliament. That was true, but what was particularly egregious was the way his public approach was chopped and changed. When he needed the parliament to seem important, he said it was; when he lost a vote, or when he tried to hold him to account, he was happy to dismiss it. This undermined the parliament; Unfortunately for him, it undermined Morrison too.
Much of the government’s impact so far has come from symbols: speeches, meetings, and, yes, parliament. A paradox for Albanese is that, while he is quite good at the symbolic work of politics, his political appeal to him remains on seeming to be someone who does not grandstand, who is less concerned with image and more with quiet action.
The stage 3 tax cuts occupy interesting ground. It is clear Albanese sees them partly as symbolic: a part of his pact with the Australian people to deliver his election promises from him. The problem with the cuts, though, is mostly practical: they are poor policy, hurting the budget for a little point, spending money in the wrong place.
To say that they are “already legislated” gives them a mythic, symbolic status they do not deserve. If the government is considering scrapping them, as it should be, then it must work to shift the discussion to a more practical ground.