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What can we expect of a progressive government?



In Australia, the hopeful road to progress under a new Labor government is overshadowed by the gathering clouds of despair. Despite a decisive electoral shift and promises to solve generational crises in housing, climate, and the cost-of-living, the change many longed for seems slow and insubstantial. As this thoughtful reflection reveals, the realities faced by everyday Australians expose the profound challenge of translating progressive principles into action. What can be realistically expected from a government with a mandate for change, yet wrestling with complex problems that defy simple solutions? The storm looms, and the path forward remains uncertain.

I walk a road to a café where I often write. The road is known to me, as I have been at the cafe more of late, learning the story of the person who runs it. They arrived by boat a decade ago, were detained on Christmas Island, before being given the uncertainty of a temporary visa here. They helped open a coffee shop in the heart of the city while facing an uncertain future ahead, not knowing if there would ever be a better future in Australia.

Last February, the new Federal government announced an end to temporary visas, as they had promised, and made a path towards permanency for many refugees. Like my friend, there have been many who hoped the election of a new government would provide some progress, but Labor’s first May budget was welcomed as a start by some and met with frustration by those wanting more change.

Australia is caught among storms that are a generation in the making – crises in housing accessibility, cost-of-living, the heating climate – but the nation saw little progress over the last decade of Coalition government. The advocates and faith leaders I speak with often express some hope, but also reflect this growing divide in people’s feelings. They see the Labor Government’s welfare increase that still leaves one million in poverty, a stalled social housing policy, a net-zero carbon legislation that’s paired with new coal mines and they feel frustration, even despair.

It has been little more than a year since Labor came to government with Anthony Albanese’s plan for a better future. I walk to the café and reflect on the promises Labor made, the policies Australians voted for, and I am left with a question; what can we expect a new government to do?

Expectations of governments are largely attached to their promises and Labor’s election platform focused on measurable outcomes like wage increases, cheaper childcare and health, and job creation (particularly through renewable energy). While described as a small target approach, these progressive policies did align with the top voter priorities during the campaign; cost-of-living, the economy, health, and climate change. Rather than promise radical change, on election night Albanese spoke of a ‘journey of change’, and pledged achievable policy outcomes that matched voter concerns (many of which have already been kept).


'Changing the government on election day does not actually change society overnight. We can’t shout at the sky for the storm to stop. The best we can do is choose a direction to move. I wonder if those in Government feel frustration as well. I wonder if they despair.'


Prior to the election, Albanese had spoken of the need to restore faith in politics, an articulation of the promissory obligation at the heart of representative democracy. It’s a value seemingly shared by voters given that one key factor in Scott Morrison’s loss was his dishonesty. Albanese’s journey towards a better future is one dependent upon restoring a sense of the social contract with voters, the roadmap suggesting that if a new government keeps smaller promises in the short-term, then voters may trust it to move towards a bigger destination in future.

While promising measurable goals in the short-term did indeed win Labor the election last year, those same voters also rejected Scott Morrison for failing to credibly respond to cost-of-living and the pandemic. This election result comes with two lessons: voters want governments to keep their promises, but they also need leaders to move in a crisis. The majority voted for a journey to a better future, but many are caught in a storm right now and while establishing the social contract may keep Labor from losing government, ignoring the social crisis may leave many lost altogether.

I see the crises grow over winter. Two desperate parents hand their children to DCP and move into their car. One church hires a shower truck for their carpark. Foodbanks start serving two-income families. One in four Australians are skipping meals with inflation at its peak. The mortgage cliff is coming, perhaps a recession.

The divide, the despair, is growing, and with changing demographics voting for more change, the major party vote is the lowest it’s been for almost a century. Almost half of voters now think the country is heading in the wrong direction. I imagine the storm washing the roadmap away.

I consider the Government’s stalled social housing policy, and the journey ahead for the housing crisis, with not enough supply at the state level, not enough protections for renters, not enough social housing, not enough affordable building supplies, not enough construction companies, not enough reform on investor tax concessions, and not enough voter support to change tax concessions. There is no single housing policy that could be implemented now to change all of this. Complex problems just don’t have simple solutions.

Nor can we assume the opposition, minor parties, and crossbench would support such solutions (they haven’t thus far). Market forces can attack large-scale reform that’s proposed without mandate (the $22m advertising blitz against Labor’s 2010 proposed mining tax almost ended the fledging progressive government). Crises a generation in the making require a suite of policy responses, implemented over time, with ongoing support from voters, the states, and industry.

Changing the government on election day does not actually change society overnight. We can’t shout at the sky for the storm to stop. The best we can do is choose a direction to move. I wonder if those in Government feel frustration as well. I wonder if they despair.

In the time I spend in the café, I watch the work my friend does. New arrivals come to be together. My friend helps people with visa applications. One morning, an MP is invited to listen to their stories. I have been in that coffee shop trying to find my own way forward. I have lost part-time work in recent months. I’m not as well as I normally would be. I have my own share of privilege and will find my path, but there are many there that need some certainty, some way forward. I look at the road outside to see rain clouds have gathered overhead. There are many out there that need much more than promises right now.

I finish writing for the day and ask my friend how the change in government feels. After a decade of uncertainty, they say the change is too slow, but there is now hope, and they know the system takes time. The Government have processed visas for thousands of refugees since winning the election. There are thousands still to go. In the meantime, my friend will keep opening the café, doing what they do. The government needs to do more now, but those wanting change must do the work in the long term regardless, to make our communities what we need them to be. No one can promise a better future. We make our way forward one step at a time.

I step out onto the road just as the storm breaks over the city streets. Those with coats and umbrellas take the careful path, stepping slowly towards their destination. Those caught in the storm move and rush for cover. A divide opens up. I look at the road ahead, unsure of how to take it, which way to go. I hold my bag over my head and hear myself whisper; there is no roadmap, then rush forward into the rain.




Anthony N. Castle is an Adelaide-based writer. He has written for The Guardian, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, and other national publications. He tweets @AnthonyNCastle.

Main image: Anthony Albanese. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Anthony N Castle, Labor, Progressive, Government, Change



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Existing comments

Change takes time. We have to be patient. The lobby industry has benefactors with super deep pockets. To undo neoliberalism with its mantra of individualism will take decades to reverse. One lives in hope although at 75 I don't think I will ever see it eventuate.

Gavin O'Brien | 04 August 2023  

It will take a long time to clean up the mess bequeathed the current government and the Australian people by the era of Howard, Abbott and Morrison - and the attempt to clean up that mess is now being actively opposed by Dutton and his ilk. God help us.

John Frawley | 04 August 2023  
Show Responses

How very true John. It must be a bit like inheriting a run-down family home which is encumbered by previous commitments and trying to restore it faithfully with a limed budget.

Ginger Meggs | 14 August 2023  

You have raised a few discrete issues in this piece, Anthony. The majority of the Australian electorate, who put the Labor government in office are basically interested in maintaining their often somewhat precarious lifestyle. Issues such as asylum seekers are of marginal concern to them. Likewise, the long and expensive sales pitch for the Voice and the incredible expense of AUKUS are not universally favoured. We also seem to be backing the Ukraine in an unending war against Russia, where the Pope is plumping for peace. The federal government needs a reality check as to what its most important goals should be.

Edward Fido | 04 August 2023  

It seems to me to take a considerable stretch of the imagination to label the Albanese government a progressive government. Whitlam Labor was progressive, Albanese Labor is centre-right.
The Albanese government's climate change policy is hopelessly inadequate for what a former Labor PM labelled "one of the greatest scientific, economic, and moral challenges of our time."
Independents who are not supported by the fossil fuel industry donations are arguing for much stronger action and even quoting Pope Francis on the need to stop opening new coal and gas production; and legislation to define a duty of care for young people and future generations; and calling for a royal commission into offshore detention of asylum seekers.

Joseph Fernandez | 04 August 2023  

Thank you for your very article which raises many important points about the Albanese Government.

I agree with you when you say that changing a government on election day does not actually change society overnight.

However, many might question the description of the current federal ALP government as progressive. There is no doubt that it is more progressive than the Howard, Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments before it, but how progressive is it really?

All too often, ALP governments have been content to be a little kinder to the battlers than the LNP, but not by a significant margin. The retention of the LNP policy of giving huge handouts to the large corporation and wealthy despite the fact pay little or no tax by the Albanese Government has not help Australians doing it hard.

Nor has the fact that the same government has embedded us even further into AUKUS and the warmongering activities of the US war machine to the projected cost of $368 billion.

I wholeheartedly support the YES campaign for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament which could make a lot of difference to indigenous Australians if governments actually heed the advice they receive from it.

It has to be noted that while Anthony Albanese is spruiking for the Voice, it is also allowing the large coal mining and fracking corporations to enter Aboriginal lands without their consent to extract more fossil fuels. When they are burnt, they will increase the pollution burden that is causing global warming and more premature deaths from pollution-related diseases.

It was great that AG Mark Dreyfus took action to drop the charges against Bernard Collaery who did so much to assist the East Timorese from being ripped off from their resources in the Timor Sea by Australian LNP and ALP governments .

It has to be asked why the same was not done for other whistle blowers who are suffering for their truth-telling.

And on the issue of Timor Sea resources, the Albanese Government looks to be doing nothing about paying Timor-Leste for the sales of the resources in their half of the Sea which is considered to be about $8 billion.

I think we should expect much better from a truly progressive government.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 08 August 2023  

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