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While the government continues to plot the demise of Bill Shorten, fresh threats may be again smouldering within his own party. By Karen Middleton.

Getting Shorten

Bill Shorten during question time on Tuesday.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

Last Saturday, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten telephoned Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese for what he later called an “amicable” conversation about Albanese’s speech the night before, which the weekend newspapers called a rival “manifesto”.

In fact, that fleeting conversation was only to arrange for another conversation this week, a further, apparently benign, exchange in which they agreed the whole thing was a beat-up and there was nothing to see.

That’s because there is nothing to see – no one leaning on or lobbying colleagues, no one counting numbers, no flickering evidence of insurrection.

The smouldering unrest about Bill Shorten’s leadership isn’t readily visible, because it’s being kept carefully in check.

But even when there’s nothing to see, the air can carry the threat of combustion.

With Labor campaigning against “the top end of town”, Albanese’s speech advocating better relations with business was kindling, delivered at the annual Well May We Say dinner in the electorate of Whitlam, held by his factional colleague Stephen Jones.

Shorten’s comments on rolling back company tax cuts followed, and for the first time in three years there was the smell of smoke.

Among the cross-factional critics of Labor’s current direction, the so-called Super Saturday of byelections on July 28 is now being called the deadline for Shorten to prove he has Labor on a trajectory to government at the federal election.

“We are not going to sleepwalk to defeat,” one MP said. “No Opposition in their right mind would ever do that.”

Senior figures told The Saturday Paper they believe a challenge to Shorten is likely if both the Tasmanian seat of Braddon and the Queensland seat of Longman fall to the Liberals.

Some are speculating that the bar may not even be set that high.

They suggest that losing one seat badly – Braddon is looking dire for Labor – and just marginally winning the other could precipitate a move against the leader. Even scraping back in both but with a significantly reduced vote might be enough.

Labor insiders, including several federal MPs, say if both vulnerable seats were lost on July 28, it would not only be Albanese’s Left faction colleagues supporting change.

Some of those in Shorten’s own Right faction – in both New South Wales and his home state of Victoria – would shift in behind them. With its NSW state party conference being held in Sydney this weekend, more conversations are being had.

Labor members considering a shift believe that Braddon, a largely rural electorate covering Tasmania’s north-west and west coast, and Longman, covering the Moreton Bay region north of Brisbane, are the kinds of seats Labor must retain if it’s to have a shot at unseating the increasingly confident Coalition government.

As another senior Labor MP said: “Certainly it’s hard to say you’re on track to win an election when we’re losing seats we already hold.”

Labor’s defiant victory against the Greens in the inner-city Melbourne seat of Batman earlier this year was promoted as a sign of ascendancy. But, as one senator warns, “We can’t be saying that and then start losing seats in the regions.”

In a deliberate signal to Shorten this week, the still-influential former Keating government minister Graham Richardson was more explicit.

Writing in The Australian, he reflected an emerging view within the Labor caucus. While not yet held by a majority, enough members share it for Shorten to recognise the danger.

“If Labor were to lose both Braddon and Longman, there would be a race between the Labor caucus trying to vote to change its rules and quickly install Anthony Albanese as leader on the one hand, while the PM tries to break through his world-class dithering and hop into the limo and go to Yarralumla to tell the governor-general that an election will be held in September,” Richardson wrote on Monday. He also said opposing tax cuts was “like embracing a suicide bomber”.

On Tuesday, an uncharacteristically rattled Shorten made what was apparently a misstep when asked at an unscheduled news conference whether Labor would repeal the already-legislated tax cuts for businesses with turnovers between $10 million and $50 million.

“Yes,” he said.

The move had been discussed briefly – but not endorsed – by Labor’s leadership group. It hadn’t been through shadow cabinet or caucus, and no strategy to announce it had been devised.

Shorten’s comment shocked some colleagues and seemed to further contrast his approach with what Albanese advocated in a speech that the former challenger knew would cause a stir. With the damage done, Shorten then reversed his position on Friday, saying, “It has become clear in recent days that after lengthy consultation that any proposition [to change] already implemented tax rates would create great uncertainty.”  

Elevating Albanese would have implications for the deputy Labor leader, Tanya Plibersek. The party would not accept a leader and deputy both from the Left and, along with a Treasury spokesman, from NSW.

Just as some of Albanese’s supporters think he should now go quiet or risk overplaying his hand, some of Shorten’s key supporters in the union movement say Shorten “should have kept his captain’s call to himself”, though they dismiss talk of a challenge.

Nationally, the published opinion polls have had Labor consistently ahead, most recently level-pegging with the Coalition on the primary vote – albeit down at levels that would have sent previous generations into a blind panic – and ahead after preferences.

It is Shorten’s personal dissatisfaction rating, and the suggestion many voters don’t trust him, that has some powerbrokers worried.

Conventional wisdom says the personal vote matters less than that of the party. But some say Shorten’s unpopularity is suppressing Labor’s vote and fear the overall poll figures may not tell the whole story – that its national vote may have been strengthening in safe seats, not those it needs to wrest back.

Liberal Party research is understood to reflect this. The Saturday Paper has been told voters rank economic management first among their doubts about Labor. They rank Shorten second.

This is contributing to the government’s highly personal anti-Shorten campaign. Along with their success in legislating personal income tax cuts, it is putting a spring in the step of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his ministers.

As things stand, Shorten commands majority support within the Labor caucus and, if Braddon and Longman are retained, that probably won’t change.

One member still in that camp, albeit with concern, says to those contemplating a challenge: “Bill will outfox you all.”

Trying unsuccessfully to unseat Shorten would be disastrous for Labor in the lead-up to an election. But replacing Shorten is not without its risks.

The public appetite for leadership changes is in question, though there is arguably less anger when they occur in opposition than in government. By definition, voters have more invested in a government because they chose it for office.

Even then, an ousted leader’s unpopularity also seems to be a factor in how well a change is accepted, along with whether the leader – and voters – were warned things must improve.

Those proposing a switch believe Albanese’s popularity would outweigh any public disquiet.

According to the most recent Newspoll last month, Albanese’s personal rating is at 26 per cent, ahead of Shorten on 23 per cent. Another 28 per cent of respondents are uncommitted.

This personal rating means Albanese is the only one being discussed as a serious alternative at this point. But installing him doesn’t guarantee victory.

As one Shorten supporter in the wider party notes, the Liberals will be armed with research on the left-wing inner-Sydney MP and ready to attack him on asylum-seeker policy and whatever else they can find.

Speaking to The Saturday Paper, a senior Liberal insider does not disagree.

There is also the question of how to get to a challenge, given the rules then prime minister Kevin Rudd secured in 2013 to make removing an incumbent more difficult.

Under those rules, a petition from 60 per cent of the Labor caucus in opposition – 75 per cent if in government – is required to bring on a spill. The leader can also initiate it – but that is hardly going to happen voluntarily.

While 60 per cent is a deliberately significant threshold, advocates believe they could achieve it by starting a petition, securing a substantial proportion of that number and then leaking it, hoping momentum from the ensuing media frenzy does the rest.

Of course, after working towards the prime ministership for five years, Shorten and his key supporters would not go without a fight. It could be very messy.

Some within Labor doubt there is even time to change, given there is now a six-week parliamentary winter break before MPs gather back in Canberra, and although Liberals insist the prime minister still intends to hold the election next year, he could always change his mind and go early.

These kinds of threats to Shorten have been made before – particularly in late 2015 – but fell away when the leader recovered. He ran such an effective 2016 campaign that he almost snatched victory, landing just one seat shy of government and giving his critics much less cause to complain.

But there remain some within Labor whose concern about electability masks another about Shorten’s choice of friends and allies, in the form of the powerful, controversial Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) and others.

These concerns relate both to their impact on Labor’s reputation in the public square and the methods they employ to gain and exercise power.

There is a factional dimension, too, with the CFMMEU – powerbrokers in the Industrial Left – now backing Shorten and his right-wing Australian Workers’ Union against others in the Right and Albanese’s Left faction.

Those concerns did not dissipate with Shorten’s near-victory in 2016.

One Labor figure, strongly critical of Shorten’s connections, remarked privately last year: “We are not concerned about what happens if he loses; we are concerned about what happens if he wins.”

In recent months, government ministers have revelled in what’s been dubbed their “Kill Bill strategy”.

What they may not realise is that it wasn’t Coalition MPs who invented the term.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 30, 2018 as "Bill’s exigent adventure". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.