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Asylum-seeker policy may dominate debate at this weekend’s ALP conference, but an underlying theme is who’ll take the leadership reins post-Shorten. By Sophie Morris.

Asylum seekers and leadership head ALP National Conference

Bill Shorten talks with members of his frontbench.
Credit: AAP IMAGE

For some time, Bill Shorten has been working up to Labor’s breathtaking about-face on turning back asylum-seeker boats attempting to reach Australia.

As the government came under fire in mid-June over payments to people smugglers, Shorten told caucus that Labor would not cede the issue to the Coalition. “We made mistakes in this area and we have learned the difficult lessons of the past,” he told a meeting of Labor MPs on June 16.

He dropped another big hint in a speech in parliament during the final sitting week before the winter break. “Labor stands resolutely to make sure that the dangerous sea voyage from Java to Christmas Island remains closed,” he said. “As I have said before, Labor learnt lessons from its time in government.”

Even as some MPs on the Left refused to countenance that turn-backs could be an option, the deal was being done to shore up frontbench support. Immigration spokesman Richard Marles has made his case in conversations with senior frontbenchers, saying that pragmatism and politics dictate turn-backs must be on the table and that Labor could promise more transparency, even publicising turn-backs to send a message to people smugglers.

Shadow cabinet approved the shift in recent weeks and Shorten announced it on Wednesday, nine months after slapping down Marles for suggesting it.

Now Shorten is relying on his lieutenants to deliver the numbers on the floor of the ALP conference this weekend to avoid humiliating defeat. His goal is to leave the party’s platform blank on the issue, allowing future Labor governments room to adopt the controversial policy, which it has previously argued has risked lives and compromised Australia’s relationship with Indonesia.

Those lieutenants include the people who are positioning themselves to one day take his job: Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek from the party’s Left, Chris Bowen and Tony Burke from the Right. Unusually, neither the Right nor the Left faction controls the numbers among the 397 parliamentary, trade union and rank-and-file delegates at this conference, making outcomes less predictable.

For now, the frontbenchers are rallying around Shorten, insisting he will lead Labor to the next election. But no one in the party doubts each of these four Sydneysiders harbours leadership aspirations and has one eye on the top job post-Shorten. It’s the underlying theme that appears nowhere on the agenda of the three-yearly conference but is nonetheless on everyone’s lips. The conference will be a test for Shorten, but it is also a test for those who might one day succeed him, particularly for those on the Left, given the faction’s aversion to turn-backs.

Despite a damaging appearance at the trade union royal commission this month and poor personal approval ratings in the polls, Shorten is still likely to hold on until the election. He is saved by Abbott’s deep unpopularity, by the fact Labor leads the Coalition on a two-party preferred basis, at 53 to 47 in this week’s Newspoll, and by rules introduced by Kevin Rudd to prevent leaders being rolled.

These rules could be overturned by caucus – and the mechanics of this have been canvassed by some in the party – but the situation would need to be dire: there is a deep reluctance to extend the “Killing Season” antics that so blighted Labor’s time in power. The Rudd rules have not only bought Shorten time and stability; they have also established a hiatus in open leadership hostilities, which potential aspirants have used to build their brands.

Albanese is positioning as a party elder. Plibersek as more centrist than her progressive past. Bowen is trying to establish himself as a credible economic hardhead. And Burke is positioning as a tactician and strategist. 

When Shorten defeated Albanese in the leadership contest after the 2013 election, Albanese retreated to his role as infrastructure spokesman. Initially, it seemed he was just going through the motions. He was no longer involved in Labor’s tactics meetings or leadership group and deliberately kept a low profile. But in the second half of last year, Albo became more active, more vocal. And not just in his portfolio.

At the ALP conference in NSW in July, he argued for party reforms to give branch members a greater say in the election of delegates to national conference and in the preselection of upper house candidates. In October, he spoke out against national security laws that had just passed parliament with Labor’s support. “I don’t believe there’s been enough scrutiny,” Albanese said, referring to “draconian” jail terms for journalists who breach reporting restrictions.

Albanese honed his critique of the Abbott government in a speech in parliament in December. The renowned rabble-rouser and self-styled Tory-fighter kept his rhetorical fury in check, reaching for a calmer tone. “This is a government defined by disappointment, deceit and incompetence,” he said. “The opposition leader who promised so much has morphed into a confused prime minister – a man rapidly sinking into the quicksand of his own negativity.”

He threw in some references to infrastructure, but mainly the speech was a chance for Albanese to present as a leader, entitled to talk beyond his portfolio, and someone who could channel widespread public distaste for Abbott. He was talking to an empty chamber. The 10-minute speech went largely unnoticed, but Albanese’s office stuck video of it on Facebook, where it generated a torrent of adulation from admirers, declaring he should be Labor leader and Australia’s next prime minister. 

That’s just social media, of course. But the views of branch members do matter now, thanks to Rudd’s move to give them a 50 per cent say in choosing the Labor leader. Theoretically, that’s an advantage to Albanese and Plibersek, as branch members typically are more left-leaning than the caucus. 

When Plibersek was confirmed as Shorten’s deputy in 2013, the former health minister said her new role was “beyond any ambition or dream I ever had”. Yet few doubted her own leadership potential would attract attention and comment. She has neither encouraged nor discouraged this, with several prominent profile pieces canvassing the inevitable question, her response being that she is more than content in her current job.

Nevertheless, her performance as deputy and foreign affairs spokeswoman is inevitably viewed through this prism. So it was that, when she said in April she would push at conference for Labor MPs to be bound to support same sex-marriage in parliament, some of her colleagues questioned her strategy, observing archly that she made this announcement while Shorten was out of the country and she was acting leader. To be fair, it was also on the eve of a scheduled appearance on Q&A, when the issue was likely to be raised. For Plibersek and her supporters it’s a totemic issue, but a binding vote puts her at odds with Shorten. Her public stance flushed out other senior Labor MPs who oppose a binding vote but have shifted to support same-sex marriage, shoring up Shorten’s position.

Plibersek’s fans say her charisma and authenticity mark her as a future leader. Julia Gillard described her as “a good communicator” and “a woman of achievement and vision, wit and warmth”. These are all attributes she will need to employ this weekend. As deputy leader, she has studiously avoided getting drawn into debate on asylum-seeker policy, where many members of her faction hold views that are at odds with the party’s support for offshore detention and the push now on boat turn-backs. There is pressure on her to deliver support for the leader’s position.

Her friendship with Wayne Swan has generated speculation she would attract support from the Queensland Right in any future leadership contest, but some in the NSW Right look more favourably on Albanese. A senior factional figure observes it is bizarre that, at this conference, Shorten has given Burke – rather than Plibersek – carriage of one of the more thorny issues in her portfolio, presenting a motion concerning the recognition of a Palestinian state.

If tough decisions are the test of a leader, Bowen – an acolyte of Paul Keating – has been trying to show he’s up to the task. He has outlined plans to cut superannuation tax concessions for the wealthy, declaring in April that, if the government wants an election on this, they should “bring it on”. He has also signalled a willingness to consider winding back negative gearing tax breaks, which have long been a sacred cow.

Bowen comes to the conference fresh from delivering the manuscript of his second book to Melbourne University Publishing. It’s a tome that charts and analyses the experiences of his top 12 treasurers. He has interviewed all those still alive: John Howard, Peter Costello, Keating, Swan, Bill Hayden. Bowen was briefly treasurer in the second Rudd government but would no doubt like another crack at the role. Or even at
the top job.

Conservative commentator Tom Switzer, who went to university with Bowen, wrote in The Spectator in November 2013 that it was a fair bet that, once Shorten’s leadership is finished, “Bowen will fill the leadership void and represent the most serious threat to Liberal hegemony”. “For another thing, Chris Bowen is a byword for boring. And that’s a political compliment,” wrote Switzer. “The people want boring; they want safe; they want the reliable bank manager, not the charismatic door-to-door salesman.”

As shadow treasurer, Bowen works closely with Burke, the finance spokesman, who also hails from Sydney’s west. Burke has made no secret of his eventual ambition, saying after the 2013 election: “I’m not in any rush. I know I’m not ready for leadership, but at some point it’s something that I’d aspire to.” His name is usually mentioned fourth among those in the frame post-Shorten, but he has built his profile as manager of opposition business in the lower house and the Palestinian issue will also give him some prominence this weekend.

Within Labor, MPs are quite happy to discuss post-Shorten options, though several observe that the level of apparent cohesion in shadow cabinet is remarkable, given his performance is underwhelming and there are at least four frontbenchers who are considered possible replacements. One senior figure who dismisses the premise of this article, confidently asserting Shorten will win the election and be prime minister, leaving no vacancy at the top for years, is an outlier.

These discussions about the leadership are still hypothetical. Yet they provide the backdrop to Labor’s tribal gathering this weekend. It is not just Labor’s asylum-seeker policy that will be thrashed out at the Melbourne talkfest, but also the prospects of its current and future leaders.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 25, 2015 as "On the way to the forum". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.