“Obviously something went wrong,” Senator Katy Gallagher says of the election. “As to whether you can pinpoint a particular issue, maybe not so much. We have to accept that the package we took forward wasn’t accepted by the Australian people.”
Among many other senior Labor figures, the newly re-elected senator is taking stock following the announcement of Anthony Albanese’s shadow cabinet line-up. Gallagher will take on the finance and public service portfolios, and resumes responsibility for managing Opposition business in the Senate.
But polling errors aside, the questions about what went wrong with the unlosable election are front and centre.
“Did we do less? Did we have too much policy? How did we communicate?”, she says. “Issues like negative gearing and dividend imputations won’t go away, they’ll still take up large parts of the budget. There are no easy answers, and we need a fair bit of assessment about where things didn’t work out, and to listen to what people say on the ground.”
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According to Senator Gallagher, some of those questions will be about the revenue-raising proposals Labor took to the electorate, although she thinks that “communications, attacks from outside and scare campaigns” also had a role to play in the shock loss for Labor.
“Albo has asked us to have a look at everything. All policies are up for review,” she says. “It’s about listening, reflecting and taking responsibility. The voters aren’t stupid, they get it and vote accordingly and they didn’t vote for us en masse.”
In the meantime, her new responsibilities have given the senator plenty to be going on with. As someone who is relatively familiar with its operations, she looks forward to taking on the shadow public service portfolio, although she says that doesn’t mean she’ll always agree with the public sector unions.
But Gallagher says that while the recent trends towards decentralising the public service have taken root in the government, she’ll need a lot of persuading to see their merit. She believes that Canberra was established to be the natural home of the public service and to provide that service to the executive branch of government.
“I find it unbelievable that people would mess around with that fundamental principle. If there are good, effective cost-saving reasons for moving a Commonwealth department, then let’s have that discussion. But not if it’s about pork barrelling or Canberra bashing.
“Over the last six years, there has been an eroding of capability across the public service. We’ve lost good leaders and sometimes appointed questionable people. There’s been a loss of permanent employment and people are asked to do so much without resources, which leads to failures in government and disrespect for the public service. This is where policy originates and is delivered, and we need that link clearly drawn.”
Senator Gallagher points to failures of public policy including Robodebt, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ census problems and Centrelink service issues as examples of the need to ensure public service is properly resourced and led for their tasks. She concedes that developing a greater respect for the public service requires cultural change, but says that’s a fight she’s willing to take on.
The finance portfolio is also a key challenge, pitting her against Senator Matthias Cormann and giving her responsibility for developing policies that are intended to apply across government.
Gallagher says the focus will be on pulling together an economic team that will work on those policy directions for the next three years, and will presumably learn some tough lessons from their defeat a few weeks ago. In the meantime, there is, she says, “soul searching to do”.