There were a couple of big questions before the new Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, announced his shadow ministry on Sunday.
One of those was where would former leader Bill Shorten end up after the party’s humbling loss in last month’s federal election. (The answer: head of the NDIS and government services portfolio.)
One of the biggest beneficiaries of Albanese’s changes was Kristina Keneally, who was handed the powerful portfolio of home affairs – opposite an immediately dismissive Peter Dutton – in addition to immigration and citizenship. She will also be the deputy opposition leader in the Senate.
Our experts have already analysed the chief challenges faced by the new ministers in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s cabinet – now, we’re asking them to look at Labor’s shadow ministers, as well.
In some cases, the shadow ministers hold more than one portfolio. To simplify the policy analysis, we’ve chosen a key policy area for which they’re responsible and asked our experts to analyse this.
In his first excursion as leader, Anthony Albanese this week visited the Queensland electorate of Longman. This seat tells, in microcosm, the story of Labor’s success and failure, hopes and disappointment between 2016 and May 18 2019.
The ALP wrested Longman from the Liberals’ Wyatt Roy in the election in which Bill Shorten became a Labor hero by bringing Malcolm Turnbull within a whisker of defeat. Then on Super Saturday last July, Shorten held the seat, reinforcing his own leadership and undermining Turnbull’s. But on May 18, Longman went back to the government, as part of Queensland’s rejection of the ALP.
Labor this week has looked like a routed army forced to regroup while it is still bandaging wounds and burying its dead.
The leadership transition was the easy part, with Albanese the only candidate, after the party’s right couldn’t muster support for an alternative. But installing a new frontbench has been a messy process, exposing the downside of factionalism.
The factions are devotees of the “iron law of arithmetic”, so when Albanese demanded Kristina Keneally be given a place, someone in her NSW right faction had to bite the dust. It was especially unfortunate that this was Ed Husic, widely seen as a talented performer, who incidentally is one of only two Muslims in the caucus.
“It seems right that a man should step aside for a stellar woman to take over,” Husic told the ABC.
At the same time, a Muslim friend texted me, “What kind of ‘diversity’ is Albo’s ALP presiding over, when a Muslim-background MP is elbowed out from the frontbench in deeply Islamophobic times? Husic has been very supportive of Muslim communities.”
There were, one would have thought, better candidates than Husic for the sacrifice.
In the Senate, right faction player Don Farrell has also made room for Keneally, who has replaced him as deputy Labor leader there. She was able to mount a claim to this position on gender balance grounds – with Tanya Plibersek replaced by Richard Marles in the deputyship, the two top opposition posts are in male hands.
All in all, the path of the one-time NSW premier has been much smoothed. Keneally only entered the Senate at the start of last year, after a middling performance in the Bennelong byelection. Shorten made her his “bus captain” in the campaign, and planned to ensure she was in a Labor ministry. Albanese has gone out of his way to back her. Not all in caucus are impressed and she’ll have a good deal to live up to in the next three years.
Apart from the loss of Husic from the shadow ministry, the other bad outcome was the dropping of Andrew Leigh. He was shadow assistant treasurer but is non-factional, so he lacked muscle men to preserve his place. Leigh, a former economics professor, did a solid job, and Labor could always benefit from more rather than less economic talent.
And in the week when Ken Wyatt became the first indigenous federal cabinet minister,
Indigenous senator Pat Dodson did not run for the frontbench. Wyatt is minister for Indigenous Australians, the post Shorten had foreshadowed Dodson would have. Dodson is likely, however, to be given some role on reconciliation.
Albanese will allocate portfolios, to be unveiled Sunday, and also announce parliamentary secretaries (the leader chooses these and this could, and should, provide an opportunity to use Husic).
Jim Chalmers, former finance spokesman, is set to be shadow treasurer. He’ll replace Chris Bowen, the architect of some controversial policies, notably the clampdown on franking cash refunds; in the pain of defeat, Bowen is being scapegoated by many. Chalmers, whom some wanted as a “new generation” leader, should be a credible economic face for the party.
Of particular interest will be what portfolio Shorten has. Of more concern, however, will be how the former leader sees his broad post-leadership role.
At this point, Shorten is not showing signs of taking much personal responsibility for the election disaster, although to be fair, he would still be in shock, and it is early days.
In the “grab” from his Thursday speech to caucus, Shorten lashed out. “We were up against corporate leviathans, a financial behemoth, spending unprecedented hundreds of millions of dollars advertising, telling lies, spreading fear.
“Powerful vested interests campaigned against us through sections of the media itself, and they got what they wanted,” he said.
“And I understand that neither of these challenges disappeared on election night. They’re still out there for us to face”.
To Labor voters he just offered “my regrets we did not win”.
Albanese, in his speech to caucus, struck a different note. “I accept my share as a senior shadow minister in the show, for the fact that we weren’t successful”.
Later at a news conference, he was open (as he has been since the election) in acknowledging the flaws in the franking policy, and the problem with “some of the language that was used” in the election (when Shorten targeted “the top end of town”).
More generally, Albanese’s emphasis before the election was different to Shorten’s and that’s also coming out in his early remarks as leader. He stresses his relationships with the business sector, the centrality of economic growth and jobs – and the importance of “aspiration”.
“ Labor will be seen, by all of us, our entire team, as being pro-business as well as pro-worker and I believe that’s exactly where Labor is and where we need to be,” he said.
Given Shorten has chosen to stay in parliament, it’s appropriate he has a shadow ministry and a substantial one at that.
But whether it is sensible for him, or good for Labor, that he remain in politics is another question.
He’s always been a factional player and he and Albanese have long been rivals. Adjusting to a diminished position, avoiding the temptation to criticise his successor even in private, being part of a team that has to move on from the Shorten-era policies – all that will be very hard.
If after a few months he feels he can’t do these things, Shorten should find another career.
The high tide of analysis concerning the Australian Labor Party’s shock 2019 federal election loss has been reached. It looks like so much flotsam and jetsam with the odd big log – leadership popularity, Queensland – prominent among the debris. Sorting through it, making sense of it, and weighting the factors driving the result really matters. It matters because decisions influencing the outcome of the next federal election will flow from it.
The learner’s error is to grasp onto a couple of factors without considering the full suite, weighting them and seeing the connections between them. What does the full suite look like?
Labor’s Bill Shorten was an unpopular leader, neither liked nor trusted by voters. The shift from Shorten in private to Shorten in leadership mode in the media was comparable to the shift in Julia Gillard when she moved from the deputy prime ministership to prime minister: the charm and wit went missing, replaced by woodenness and lack of relatability.
Shorten accepted advice to appear “leader-like”, creating a barrier Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who sought to directly connect with voters, was not hampered by. “It is often said of democratic politics,” historian David Runciman has said, “that the question voters ask of any leader is: ‘Do I like this person?’ But it seems more likely that the question at the back of their minds is: ‘Would this person like me?’” Morrison passed and Shorten flunked that test.
Shorten generally failed the “theatre of politics”. His suits often looked too big, making him look small. Television footage of him jogging in oversized athletic clothes during the campaign made him look small. Poor production of Shorten in these ways diminished perceptions of him as an alternative prime minister – a professionalism fail that could have easily been fixed but was not.
Lesson: Leadership unpopularity costs votes. Successful “theatre of politics” matters.
2.Supporting players’ unpopularity
Shorten was weighed down by frontbenchers in the key economic and environment portfolios who fell well short in the performativity stakes too. The camera is not kind to shadow treasurer Chris Bowen. While he developed serious policy chops, partly through sustained study of Paul Keating’s history as a reforming treasurer of historic stature, he also picked up Keating’s hauteur, but without actually being Keating and able to pull it off.
The arrogance of Bowen’s franking credits policy comment that “if people very strongly feel that they don’t want this to happen they are perfectly entitled to vote against us” was a defining misstep of the Shorten opposition. It made the leader’s job that much harder.
Shadow environment minister Mark Butler is another to whom the camera is unkind. He embodied the soft, urban environmentalist persona that is poison in those parts of Australia where Labor needed to pick up seats. An equally knowledgeable but more knockabout environment spokesperson – Tony Burke, for example – would have been the cannier choice in a “climate election” where regional voters had to be persuaded to Labor’s greener policy agenda.
Lesson: Appoint frontbenchers capable of winning public support in their portfolios.
The maths wasn’t wrong but the models on which the two-party-preferred vote is calculated have been blown up by this election, an event foreshadowed by recent polling miscalls in Britain.
Long-time conservative political consultant Lynton Crosby’s presence in the Coalition campaign has been invisible except for the tiny but crucial, and completely overlooked, detail that the Liberals’ polling “was conducted by Michael Brooks, a London-based pollster with Crosby Textor who was brought out from the United Kingdom for the campaign”.
The Coalition had better polling. Labor and everyone else were relying on faulty polling that misallocated preferences and uniformly predicted a Labor win – false comfort to Labor, which stayed a flawed course instead of making necessary changes to avoid defeat.
Lesson: Focus on the primary vote, the polling figure least vulnerable to modelling assumptions.
4.Media hostile to Labor
The Murdoch media have created an atmospheric so pervasively hostile to Labor that it has become normalised. It contributed significantly to Shorten’s unpopularity and Labor’s loss. Its impact is only going to get worse with Australia’s nakedly partisan Fox News-equivalent, “Sky After Dark”, extending from pay-TV to free-to-air channels in regional areas.
Lesson: Have brilliant ads in a sharply focused campaign that doesn’t fail to hit your opponents’ weaknesses.
7.Massive advertising spending gap
Along with the hostile media environment created by the Murdoch press, the unprecedented spending gap between the Labor and anti-Labor sides of politics and its role in the Coalition win has passed largely unremarked.
The previous election was bought by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with a $1.7 million personal donation that boosted Coalition election advertising in the campaign’s crucial last fortnight. That now looks like small beer next to the 2019 election’s anti-Labor advertising spending (approximately $80 million when one adds the Coalition’s $20 million spend to the Clive Palmer-United Australia Party spend of $60 million-plus). This is four times the size of Labor’s $20 million ad budget – a huge disparity.
Lesson: Australia already needed campaign finance laws to stop the purchasing of elections. It needs them even more urgently now.
8.Large policy target
Misleading polling showing it was persistently ahead gave Labor false comfort pursuing a “big” policy agenda – that is, making policy offerings normally done from government rather than opposition. If everything else goes right in an election, and with a popular leader and effective key supporting frontbenchers, this may be possible. That was not the case in the 2019 election.
Lesson: When in opposition, don’t go to an election promising tax changes that make some people worse off. Save it for government.
9.Green cannibalisation of the Labor vote
The primary vote of the Labor Party (33.5%) and the Greens (9.9%) adds up to 43.4% – a long way off the 50%-plus required to beat the conservatives. For a climate-action-oriented government to be elected in Australia, Labor and the Greens are going to have to find a better modus vivendi.
They don’t have to like each other; after all, the mutual hatred of the Liberals and Nationals within the Coalition is long-standing and well-known. But like the Liberals and Nationals, though without a formal agreement, Labor and the Greens are going to have to craft a way forward that forestalls indulgent bus tours by Green icons through Queensland coal seats and stops prioritising cannibalisation of the Labor vote over beating conservatives.
Lesson: For climate policy to change in Australia, Labor and the Greens need to strategise constructively, if informally, to get Labor elected to office.
10.Every election is winnable
Paul Keating won an “unwinnable” election in 1993 and pundits spoke of the Keating decade ahead. John Howard beat Keating in a landslide three years later, despite being the third Coalition leader in a single tumultuous parliamentary term.
Morrison won the 2019 election despite internal Coalition leadership turmoil, political scandals and a revolt of the party’s women MPs against the Liberals’ bullying internal culture.
Lesson: Every election is there to be won or lost. Take note of Lessons 1 to 9 to do so.
The government’s tax relief package is shaping up as the first test of incoming opposition leader Anthony Albanese, with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg declaring on Friday it must be supported “in its entirety” when put to the new parliament.
But Albanese has only guaranteed support for the first tranche. As for the later cuts for higher income earners, “we will consider that,” he said on Friday.
But let me tell you, it is a triumph of hope over experience and reality that the government knows […] what the economic circumstances are in 2025 or 2023, in the middle of the next decade.
Appearing with Albanese on the Nine Network, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said:
Albo, it would be remarkable if your first act as leader of the opposition was […] to oppose a long term package of tax relief – that would show a real tin ear for the Australian people”.
In an interview with The Conversation, Frydenberg refused to be drawn on what the government would do if unable to get the whole bill through.
It would, however, be hard for it to avoid splitting the bill – to hold out would deny the immediate relief pledged in the April budget.
All or nothing
Nor could Frydenberg say when parliament will meet to consider the legislation, although the government has effectively conceded it will not be in time for the promised July 1 start of the additional tax offset promised in the budget. (A smaller offset from last year’s budget will be paid from then.)
But Albanese said the tax cuts could be passed in time for July 1, because it would only need a couple of hours of sitting. “We’ll do a deal. I can do that. One speaker a side, and Bob’s your uncle.”
Frydenberg said Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe had highlighted the positive impact the tax cuts would have on household incomes.
“Let’s too not forget that $7.5 billion will flow to households in the coming financial year, as a result of these tax cuts,” Frydenberg said.
Tax cuts as good as rate cuts
“This benefit to households and the economy is equivalent to two 25 basis point interest rate cuts and is one reason why growth and household consumption is projected to pick up,” he said.
“The tax reforms we are putting to parliament are not just providing immediate relief, but leading to long term structural change. This will tackle bracket creep and reward aspiration.
“Earning more is nothing to be ashamed of and should be encouraged not punished. Rewarding aspiration is in the Coalition’s DNA and will be a fundamental driver of our policies in government.”
In his assessment of the economic outlook, Frydenberg had two messages.
He said in his discussions with some of Australia’s biggest employers, “I’ve been buoyed by their confidence and their desire to work with the government, to support continued economic growth and job creation”.
But the economy “faces significant headwinds. Trade tensions between the United States and China have increased, with the potential to negatively impact global growth.
“Were there to be another round of US tariff increases, the potential for which has been flagged publicly, the proportion of global trade covered by recent trade actions would double from 2% to 4%.”
Also, flood, drought and fires had taken a toll and the housing market slowdown was hitting dwelling investment and having an impact on consumption.
The challenges made the government’s agenda for growth, including tax relief, so important and time critical.
Asked whether the “headwinds” faced by the Australian economy were stronger than at budget time, when he also spoke of headwinds, Frydenberg said: “I think the tensions between China and the US have increased”.
Frydenberg spoke with the US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin this week and the two will meet in Japan at the G20 finance ministers meeting in a few weeks. Frydenberg stressed in the conversation the importance of free trade to Australia and its wish to see disputes resolved as amicably as possible.
Asked whether, if the economy deteriorated further, the government would be willing to live with a smaller surplus next financial year than the $7.1 billion projected in the budget, Frydenberg said, “that’s the amount that we’re committed to”.
He would not be drawn on the signal this week from Lowe that an interest rate cut was coming.
The Treasurer said the current unemployment rate of 5.2% reflected “strong labour market performance”.
While there are no plans for an overhaul of federal-state relations by the re-elected government, Frydenberg said he would work closely with the states on infrastructure and managing population.
I recently had cause to look at a large file of material I collected about Mark Latham during 2004. It is full of many of the same columnists who have just campaigned successfully for the return of the Morrison government. They were buzzing with excitement and hubris. News Corps’s Miranda Devine saw an omen in the news that arrived from Paris as the polls opened in Australia:
Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstructionism, died in Paris of pancreatic cancer, bringing to a symbolic end a destructive era of postmodern truth-twisting.
While no one else seemed to draw a bow quite so long, almost everyone could agree that John Howard’s victory was “historic” and that Labor was in “crisis”.
But The Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen’s response to that election brings us closest to the present. Howard’s very lack of a grand vision was precisely what had attracted voters to him, she claimed:
While the Left aches for a top-down vision imposed from above by some Whitlamite, Keatingesque leader, the rest of us prefer the bottom-up Howard version where we get to choose our own vision.
With Scott Morrison, we also have little choice but to choose our own vision if we want one. But Howard, it turned out, had plans if not a vision. He would use the Senate majority voters had sent his way to deal with Australia’s unions once and for all, through WorkChoices. At the 2007 election, Howard lost government as well as his own seat.
Labor supporters despairing of the result of Saturday’s election would do well to recall 2004. It is, to my mind, the closest parallel with what we have just seen. Labor took bold policies to the voters in 2004 and 2019. A Coalition leader managed to persuade enough voters that Labor couldn’t be trusted in economic matters.
Resources industries mattered for both elections, Tasmanian forests in 2004, and Queensland coal in 2019. Labor fumbled each, just as housing – interest rates in 2004, and property values and rents in 2019 – caused Labor grief on each occasion.
Shorten is no Latham, but there were question marks hanging over both leaders that told against their party. Shorten made his mistakes but ran a solid campaign in 2019, gradually hitting his stride.
Latham was no slouch in 2004, either; there has been a conflation of his behaviour after the campaign with that during its course. Writing straight after the election in The Australian, Paul Kelly had many criticisms of both Labor and Latham. But he also thought Latham had campaigned “very well” personally.
The more common comparison of 2019 has been with 1993, John Hewson’s “unlosable election”. There is, of course, something in that and, again, some hope for Labor.
There were reasons to imagine after the 1993 election that Labor was in for the long haul – that it would be the modern equivalent of the post-war Coalition with its 23-year run. The Liberals continued with a broken Hewson, had a brief and disastrous experiment with Alexander Downer, and then settled on a failed leader from the previous decade, Howard.
Few saw the Coalition’s future as bright after Keating’s win. But Labor fumbled its post-1993 election budget and, for all of Keating’s bravado in the house and all of his “big picture” hobnobbing with world leaders such as Clinton and Suharto outside it, the foundations of Labor rule were crumbling.
Is Labor’s “crisis”, if it is a crisis, worse than that faced by the Coalition in 1993 and Labor in 2004? If the ultimate test is electoral success, only the next election will allow us to answer that question.
But there are some alarming indicators. Labor seems to have lost votes to the far right in Queensland and preferences then flowed helpfully to the Coalition. Morrison was able to have his cake – getting the Liberals to put One Nation last south of the Tweed – while eating it north of the Tweed, where he had no sway over LNP preferencing and the Coalition reaped the rewards.
There is an emerging narrative that Adani mattered in key Queensland seats, not so much in its own right but for its wider symbolic significance for the future of coal mining in Queensland and Labor’s commitment to traditional blue-collar jobs.
If so, Labor has a lot of work to do to clarify its policy and messaging, in a state where coal has formed one of the foundations of the economy since the 1960s.
And it needs to do so without damaging its prospects elsewhere by equivocating on commitments to renewable energy and vigorous action on climate change. The old calculation that alienated Greens votes will come back to Labor might still be largely correct, but Labor has never won from opposition when the electorate votes for it only grudgingly.
It was ironic, in view of Labor’s problems in some regions and outer suburbs, that the two front-runners who initially emerged as Labor leadership contenders were members of the Left faction representing neighbouring seats in oh-so-hip inner Sydney. With Tanya Plibersek withdrawing – and another Sydneysider, Chris Bowen, also bowing out – the leadership is now likely to fall to the Left’s Anthony Albanese. Queenslander Jim Chalmers, from the Right, is considering whether to run.
The terms in which the post-election debate about Labor’s future has been carried on could have occurred after any election defeat in the last 50 years. But the foundational issue for Labor is not where it places itself on the political spectrum, or even whether it can win back voters in the regions, but whether it has any capacity to grapple with the inequalities and frailties that lax, opportunistic and unsustainable policy – much of it dating back to the Howard era – has embedded.
At the 2019 election, Labor proposed chasing revenue by winding back tax concessions to some categories of shareholder, property investor and superannuant. This approach was rejected at the polls. But economic growth and productivity seem unlikely to provide an alternative pathway for a future Labor government, unless there is a miraculous turn-around in the global economy.
No prospective Labor leader should be taken seriously unless he – and it seems it will indeed be a “he” – is at least able to articulate this dilemma.
Labor has taken a major gamble by appointing Anthony Albanese unopposed as party leader. His speedy elevation came because he was not tarred with the Bill Shorten-Chris Bowen brush that failed so spectacularly on May 18. So a cross-factional deal for a unity ticket held sway.
“Albo” has carefully crafted his image as a knockabout but likeable scallywag. He mixes easily with ordinary folks, “does” the local pubs and community centres, volunteers his services as an occasional DJ. He is a rugby league fanatic who regularly marches in the Sydney Mardi Gras and has a beer named in his honour. He’s an impish politician with a nose for a pithy or humorous riposte; an iconoclastic puncturer of hyperbole and bunkum (remember his throwaway dismissal of the “convoy of no consequence” when a pitiful truck convoy descended on Canberra).
Albanese was also Labor’s smartest parliamentary tactician as the Leader of the House in the Gillard government. He sees himself as a “commonsense guy” who is prepared to “stand up for what [he] thinks is commonsense propositions”.
He also has the distinction of remaining loyal to both former Labor PMs Kevin Rudd and then Julia Gillard, and has earned respect for this among his colleagues, unlike Shorten.
Of more significance, he is from the left wing of the party, which could be a political millstone around his neck as leader.
He regards high office not simply as a vocation but as a messianic obligation. Given his advocacy of radical policies in his recent past, including death duties and redistributive taxes, his promotion to the leadership provides him with ample opportunities to shape the party’s policy agendas. He is, in reality, only the second left-wing leader of the ALP after the troubled H.V. “Doc” Evatt in the 1950s (Julia Gillard was nominally from the left, but more conservative than most of her party colleagues).
Similarly, his political opponents have described him as “too left wing” to become prime minister. And some of his Labor colleagues from Victoria have argued that he is “too old and tired” to win an election.
In the Labor Party, the only real difference between the right and left factions is that the right don’t believe in anything much except that power is an end in itself. By contrast, the left are ideological, believe in social engineering and consider power as a means to pursue transformational agendas.
So, coming from the left may be Albanese’s Achilles’ heel, a vulnerability to his leadership. He has the opportunity in the immediate term to defuse many issues that bedevilled Labor over the past parliamentary term. These include: passing the Coalition’s full income tax cuts; agreeing to a bipartisan emissions target; working with the government on a joint policy towards Indigenous Australians; advocating a moratorium on further changes to superannuation; abolishing the symbolic medevac policy that feigns assistance to offshore detainees; and helping resolve some glaring disparities in welfare benefits.
But such concessions to the government would likely infuriate Labor’s tribal adversarial spear-throwers and its throng of left-Labor lawyers. An initial consensual approach, however, may make sections of the right-wing media look more closely at Albanese’s qualities as leader. Others might argue that “leopards cannot change their spots” and that Albanese will be confrontational and fight for redistributive agendas – making him a prime target for conservative media attacks that he remains a dangerous leftie.
Albanese now has two important imperatives – unify the party behind a refreshed policy agenda, and increase the party’s appeal to the community in order to rebuild the vote. Neither of these tasks is particularly easy, especially as Labor is likely to engage in a bout of recrimination after its recent disappointing electoral tilt.
He also has to work out tactically how to deal with the Morrison government basking in the afterglow of victory – so far, he has promised not to be an opposition leader like Tony Abbott, who opted for outright confrontational tactics.
Albanese’s immediate problems are to construct a shadow ministry on talent, not seniority or factional standing, with the right mix of skills to hold the government to account. He needs to match up his best performers against the high-profile or difficult portfolios (treasury, Indigenous affairs, water, NDIS) and the weaker government ministers (Stuart Robert, Sussan Ley, Ken Wyatt, Bridget McKenzie, Michaelia Cash and Greg Hunt). He will have to work out whether to give Shorten a significant shadow portfolio or find something else for him to do.
There are many in Labor’s caucus who demand more responsibility, especially women of ambition including Kristina Keneally, Katy Gallagher, Linda Burney, Jenny McAllister, Clare O’Neil, Ged Kearney, Terri Butler and Kimberley Kitching, as well as the likes of Jim Chalmers, Ed Husic, Stephen Jones, Murray Watt, Nick Champion and Andrew Leigh. Many of Labor’s previous front bench under Shorten failed to cut through and should be demoted.
Albanese’s Labor must address a series of debilitating and contentious policy areas – most of which should be either settled or defused. It needs to clarify where it stands on the big versus smaller government debate and whether increased federal involvement in multitudes of policy areas is prudent and responsible.
It ought to focus on the economy and increased productivity, while being less opportunistic on taxation proposals. For all Australians, Labor ought to allow a coherent set of policies on climate change and emissions targets. It could then consolidate effective environmental policies, rather than engaging in the chopping and changing that has characterised this sector (unlike our nearest neighbours in New Zealand). Labor has to define its position in relation to mining and, in particular, the coal industry. There is also scope to advance Indigenous well-being and some form of constitutional recognition.
Some mainstream media have speculated that the deputy leader, Richard Marles from the Victorian right, will be able to moderate any leftward drift under Albanese. This is possible, but the right faction is divided and fractious.
Albanese’s leftism represents a potential debility in the opposition’s platform, which a conservative government with wind in its sails might easily exploit.
The battle for the hearts and minds of Australians is more likely to be fought over practical and pragmatic policies than any ideological lurch to either the left by Labor or to the right by the government.
Voters in Braddon and Longman probably aren’t even aware they could be pivotal to the future of Bill Shorten’s leadership and Anthony Albanese’s ambition.
Only the crazy brave would firmly predict how these knife edge ALP seats, in Tasmania and Queensland respectively, will fall out. And only those closely following politics would fully appreciate how carefully Anthony Albanese, Shorten’s bete noire, has been positioning in the event Labor tanks in them on Saturday.
Albanese’s long-odds chance to lead Labor now rests with circumstances beyond his control – in the first instance, with the decisions of voters more concerned with local health services than a tug of war within the opposition.
Weeks ago, the aspirant strutted his stuff in his Whitlam oration, arguing Labor needed a better relationship with business and should give more attention to non-unionised workers.
Interestingly Albanese, though from the left, was coming at Shorten from the right. The speech was cleverly drafted; the aim was to send a message but to deliver it subtly enough to minimise accusations he was undermining Shorten.
Albanese has been on the byelection trail and in the media, reminding people of his presence, but equally careful with his words. He’s visited twice each of the four seats Labor holds (the other two are safe contests in Western Australia) in Saturday’s five byelections.
Behind the scenes, there have been quiet preparations and assessments of potential support by the Albanese forces, in the event opportunity comes. Albanese backers – who include members of a divided NSW right faction – are confident the “anti-coup” protections Kevin Rudd put in place can be swept aside if the numbers are there for change.
But only a limited amount could be done. Albanese has had to avoid overstepping a line marked “disloyalty”. On Thursday he flatly ruled out challenging Shorten (a pledge to be regarded with scepticism – for example, would a delegation be regarded as a “challenge”?).
Caucus members don’t want a return to those horror days, in government, when Julia Gillard knifed Rudd and he speared her. Albanese supporters, however, look to an earlier precedent: Rudd’s overthrow of Kim Beazley when Labor was in opposition.
That was the ALP taking out “insurance” for a win. On the polls, Labor is headed for victory at next year’s election. But the numbers have tightened, Malcolm Turnbull’s performance has improved, and Shorten’s deep unpopularity has become an increasing concern for the party. Some in caucus would see a move to Albanese as today’s “insurance”. But the questions are: is this judgement correct, and how costly would the premium be?
Hardline advocates of a change would say that even if Shorten retains Braddon and Longman, the size of his margin will be important. On this argument, byelections normally see a solid anti-government swing, so wins by a sliver wouldn’t cut it.
This, in my view, is raising the bar ridiculously high, especially since Labor grabbed Longman in 2016 on One Nation preferences, which it isn’t getting this time. Two wins, whatever the margin, and those flirting with the thought of a leadership switch should recognise reality and get behind Shorten.
There’s little doubt a double loss would take Shorten into a period of upheaval that could end in his downfall. The alternative would be an impasse that saw Shorten survive with gaping wounds – a gift to Turnbull.
One byelection loss, and there would much instability.
In either event, Labor “talking heads” would be everywhere, division on display, and the party atmosphere tense ahead of parliament resuming mid-August.
In any consideration of a leadership change, Labor would have to weigh the “transactional” costs. Moving from Beazley to Rudd was helped by Beazley behaving well after he was ousted, and by Rudd (in those days) being a popular breath of fresh air.
A deposed Shorten, to say nothing of some of his union allies, could behave badly. And while the personable Albanese, with his laid-back style, looks good by comparison with Shorten at the moment, he could become vulnerable as the Liberals dug into his political past, with some tough left positions. The thing about putsches is that a party can never be sure beforehand whether it will ultimately be better or worse off.
Having such a long byelection campaign (more than two months) was initially seen as a strike against Labor, which also had to postpone its national conference. If the ALP holds Braddon and Longman, however, the time will have worked in its favour.
As of Thursday Shorten had made (from early May) seven visits over nine days to Longman and eight visits over 11 days to Braddon.
If Shorten comes out of Super Saturday unscathed, or even enhanced, he should temper his elation and relief with self-appraisal, because complacency would be a risk.
After all, it was complacency – about Labor having proper citizenship checks in place – that led to the byelections in these two seats in the first place (as well as in its seat of Fremantle).
Meanwhile, post Saturday Shorten will have a big problem in another marginal seat that will need resolution. The scandal surrounding Emma Husar, Labor member for Lindsay (NSW), who is accused of misusing and bullying staff, is being investigated by the party. Claims of bad behaviour keep flowing into the media.
Lindsay is ultra-vulnerable. The party needs to wrap up its inquiry ASAP; if its findings are against Husar her preselection should be withdrawn. But the last thing the ALP would want is another byelection, so she’d have to stay until the election – a messy scenario with a replacement candidate campaigning. If the party verdict is in Husar’s favour and it sticks with her, she’d still go into the election with immense baggage.
While all the attention is on Shorten, what are the consequences for Turnbull if he does badly on Super Saturday – failing in Braddon and Longman as well as in Mayo (South Australia) where crossbencher Rebekha Sharkie (also a citizenship casualty) is expected to hold off the challenge from the Liberals’ Georgina Downer?
It would be a setback for him, reinforcing the polls’ message that Labor remains favourite for the 2019 election. The government’s noisy conservative wing would become more assertive. But the outcome would be unlikely to trouble his grip on the leadership. The Liberals do not have an alternative who is hungry for Turnbull’s job right now, in the way Albanese is for Shorten’s.
Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese has urged Labor to “engage constructively” with business, empower its party branches and make sure it avoids “allowing tactics to marginalise strategy”, in a speech that will be seen in the context of leadership.
Albanese’s Gough Whitlam Oration comes against a background of speculation that Bill Shorten’s leadership could come under pressure if Labor did badly in the Super Saturday byelections on July 28. Albanese is considered the only alternative to Shorten.
The address was carefully crafted to keep away from any direct criticism of Shorten, but it had a clear subtext. In saying what Labor’s approach should be, Albanese was also differentiating himself from Shorten who, for example, has been criticised for being too “tactical”.
Albanese’s tone on business contrasted with some of Shorten’s more strident attacks on the top end of town.
He noted that “successful Labor governments collaborate with unions, the business sector and civil society to achieve positive outcomes in the national interest”.
Criticising Malcolm Turnbull for setting business and unions against each other, he said a better course would be to encourage collaboration and compromise.
“That’s the approach of the best Labor governments. Our job is not to sow discord. It is to bring people together in the service of the national interest,” he said.
“Labor doesn’t have to agree with business on issues such as company tax rates, but we do have to engage constructively with business large and small.
“We respect and celebrate the importance of individual enterprise and the efforts and importance of the business community.”
Referring to his area of infrastructure and transport, he said he had maintained a close working relationship with the sector.
“Working with industry helps us to understand its perspective and also helps business to understand ours,” he said.
Albanese also confronted the issue of “aspiration”, which the government is using to attack Labor, especially on the back of its tax cuts legislation which passed this week. The government is claiming the ALP rejects or doesn’t understanding the aspirations of Australians.
Albanese conceded the importance of aspiration – but sought to cast it differently.
“The key to an effective plan for government is an understanding of the aspirations of our fellow Australians,” he said. “We in Labor must always ask ourselves, ‘what do Australians want out of life and how can we help them achieve it?’”
Malcolm Turnbull or Scott Morrison would say people wanted more money, Albanese said, but “I’ve got a different view. Australians do care about quality of life. But they define quality of life as something more than the value of their share portfolio or how much money they have in the bank”.
They wanted happy and productive lives and to build a society where their children had more opportunities than themselves, he said. “While Australians have personal aspirations, they extend beyond individual needs to family, community, environment and indeed, to encompass a fair nation.”
Albanese said Labor needed to recognise the importance of its branches to understanding what was happening in Australia.
“This is not 1950, when most Australians were members of trade unions. Indeed, many people from working class backgrounds are not members of unions because they were beneficiaries of Gough Whitlam’s education reforms,” he said.
“We cannot afford to ignore this demographic. We need the energy and ideas of our membership.
Labor must empower our membership by giving them more direct say in elections for public office and internal positions.
“Labor must also maintain our internal processes that emphasise policy making from the bottom up.
“Policy ideas that come from branch meetings or workplaces are gold. Sometimes they are ahead of their time. But they are always valuable,” he said, pointing to the push for marriage equality, that came from the community, up through the party and ultimately went through parliament.
Albanese trod carefully on refugee policy. “No mainstream politician believes in open borders, but a policy that uses its prolonged treatment of detained people as an ongoing deterrent to others has a deep flaw at its heart.
“Labor supports offshore detention and regional processing, in order to stop the people smuggling trade. But we call out the government’s failure to settle refugees in third countries, despite the clear offer of assistance from countries including New Zealand.
“You can be tough on people smugglers without being weak on humanity. You can protect our borders without losing our national soul.”