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As Labor attempts to understand how it lost the unloseable election, old divisions have been reopened by the party’s search for a new identity to win back voters. By Karen Middleton.

Shorten loses again, trying to undermine Albanese leadership

Labor’s feted unity, so central to its election pitch, showed cracks this week as the battle over who will succeed outgoing leader Bill Shorten played out in public.

Shorten failed in his bid to install an alternative successor to his long-time rival Anthony Albanese, with the New South Wales left-winger now certain to take over.

Albanese is already seeking to put his stamp on the party with talk of greater inclusiveness and respect, a backhander at the way Labor’s campaign was run.

Victorian frontbencher Richard Marles, from Labor’s Right faction, was firming late this week as Albanese’s likely new deputy, after a contest in which Shorten backed Queenslander Jim Chalmers and also encouraged Victorian Clare O’Neil to run.

When leadership positions are settled, Chalmers will be a contender to take over the shadow treasurer’s role from Chris Bowen, who could move to a different economic portfolio.

Both men joined deputy Tanya Plibersek this week in considering and then abandoning a leadership bid.

When Plibersek confirmed last Sunday that she was weighing up a run, Bill Shorten began ringing around, urging his colleagues to support her.

Shorten and Labor Party president and former treasurer Wayne Swan have been champions of Plibersek’s future leadership ambitions since she became Shorten’s number two after the 2013 election.

Their support was not only an endorsement of Plibersek’s obvious talents, but also part of a determined strategy to ensure that Anthony Albanese never got there.

By week’s end though, Albanese was left as the sole nominee for the party’s top job, likely to ascend unopposed, having won the popular vote against Shorten in 2013 but not a caucus majority.

Labor figures say that even if an alternative candidate emerged, it would be a brave party that ignored the rank and file again, especially after the crushing loss of the 2019 election.

In reality, nobody has the numbers to defeat Albanese, a fact that became clear as high-profile figures publicly endorsed him, from the Left’s Penny Wong, the senate leader, to the Right’s Joel Fitzgibbon, who also sits on the frontbench.

Albanese’s elevation will be a further blow for Shorten, and others who saw Albanese as a constant threat to the now-acting leader.

For all the public insistence that he led a united Labor team, Shorten has long believed Albanese was undermining him, with Albanese supporters threatening a challenge at least twice.

Albanese has consistently denied this, and his backers say Shorten’s leadership problems were all his own.

But the animosity remains, and the unification challenge will not necessarily be overcome with a simple baton transfer to the inner-city Sydney MP known as “Albo”.

 

Albanese will take the helm as Labor begins raking through last weekend’s scorching defeat to determine exactly what went wrong and set a new course.

A general post-election consensus has emerged, which lays out problems always easier to see once public judgement has been passed.

They include some of Labor’s key policies and how they were explained, the structure and execution of the campaign, the unpopularity of the leader and a skilful Coalition scare – modelled on Labor’s 2016 “Mediscare” campaign – led by a good everyman campaigner in Scott Morrison.

Religious communities were mobilised by Morrison’s public professions of faith. Multilingual misinformation was spread on social media. Persistently inaccurate opinion polls and the subsequent assumption of victory for Labor worked against the party.

The convoy of anti-Adani campaigners, which former Greens leader Bob Brown led from southern Australia to central Queensland, also appears to have hardened Queenslanders’ resolve in favour of the resources giant’s Carmichael mine proposal in the Galilee Basin – and against Labor.

Coverage of the convoy turned an issue that didn’t galvanise voters nearly as much during the 2017 Queensland state election into one about city-based southerners telling regional northerners what to do. Brown strenuously defends the action.

Manager of opposition business Tony Burke, who is from Labor’s NSW Right, has also endorsed the Left’s Albanese, saying the Grayndler MP is best placed to lead Labor in addressing the combined issues that led to the disastrous result.

“Some people saw it coming,” he tells The Saturday Paper of last Saturday’s defeat. “I never did.”

Burke says he wrongly interpreted support on the street around Australia – backed in by the polls – as representing a national mood. Rather, it turned out to be enthusiasm from voters Labor had persuaded before.

“We’d won the same voters 30 times over,” Burke says. “So what we were feeling on the street was deceptive compared to what was happening on the street.”

The Right’s shift to support Albanese is significant but indicative of the shift Albanese himself has made in recent years.

Since 2015, when he voted at Labor’s national conference against turning back asylum-seeker boats, his position on asylum seekers has changed.

In the past year, his rhetoric in favour of border protection has hardened, though this is one of the issues on which he will face strong pressure from both colleagues and the Coalition.

With nominations for the leadership closing on Monday, Albanese has said he would welcome a contest but would be equally pleased to be elected unopposed.

Under his leadership, Labor looks set to overhaul its economic pitch – particularly its negative gearing and franking credits policies.

“Our regions and our outer suburbs are falling behind our inner suburbs, when it comes to wealth, when it comes to jobs, and when it comes to services,” Albanese said.

“What we need to do is have a government that deals with the big challenges by bringing people together. We need unions and businesses, people who live in our cities, our outer suburbs, or in our regions, to come together and recognise that what unites us as a nation is far greater than what divides us.”

 

In the days since his shock defeat, Shorten has worked hard to try to find an alternative to Albanese. Plibersek was his first choice.

On the ABC’s Insiders program last Sunday, she was unequivocal about actively contemplating a run.

“I’ll talk to my colleagues today but, of course, I’m considering it,” she said, without hesitation.

But on Monday she issued a very different statement. She had support “from across the party”, she said, “But now is not my time.”

Shorten then encouraged both shadow finance minister Jim Chalmers and shadow treasurer Chris Bowen to run.

On Tuesday, Bowen stood outside his childhood fibro home in Smithfield, in Sydney’s west, to announce his candidacy. Despite Shorten’s canvassing, a day later he too was out of the race.

“I’ve been on the phone to colleagues,” Bowen said on Wednesday. “I’ve been very pleased with the response – it’s clear to me that I would have majority support in the actual caucus ballot … But it’s also clear to me – I’m a realist – that Albo would win the rank and file, for good reason. He’s a popular character.”

On Thursday, Jim Chalmers issued a statement explaining his decision to decline a tilt for the top job.

“I gave it very careful consideration and I didn’t take it lightly,” he said. “There were good reasons to run. But in the end I couldn’t be assured of winning, and if I did win the extra responsibilities of leadership would make it much harder to do my bit at home while the youngest of our three little kids is only five months old.”

Richard Marles has become the frontrunner for Albanese’s deputy, as the most senior Victorian and one with the support of NSW Labor. Late this week, Shorten was backing Chalmers against Marles.

The need to reflect factions and geography rules out an Albanese–Plibersek team, as both are from the NSW Left.

Penny Wong will retain the party’s senate leadership and NSW Right senator Kristina Keneally is likely to become her deputy – a counterbalance to an all-male lower house leadership.

 

Joel Fitzgibbon remains one of the few Labor MPs in a rural or regional seat. The Hunter Valley representative was so fed up he threatened – not terribly seriously – to contest the leadership himself.

He says Labor’s standing in the bush was severely hampered by the tax-related policies and an unclear position on the Adani coalmine, which he argues translated as a disregard for blue-collar workers.

“I did a written submission to Bill after 2013, in which I demonstrated that Labor had never won government in the past 30 years without holding at least a combination of 29 rural and regional seats,” Fitzgibbon tells The Saturday Paper.

That included 13 that were rural, such as his own seat in NSW’s Hunter Valley, and 16 in regional centres.

“In 2013, we held just five rural seats,” Fitzgibbon says. “None in Queensland, none in Western Australia, one in South Australia and none in Tasmania.”

Six years later, he despairs that Labor is still falling short.

“What a disgrace,” Fitzgibbon says. “The party which was arguably born out of the shearing shed of Queensland didn’t – and still don’t – have a rural seat there.”

Fitzgibbon experienced a 14 per cent swing against his primary vote in Hunter – with One Nation securing almost 22 per cent of the vote.

He is calling for Labor to more clearly back working Australians.

Others are saying the election result confirmed that pursuing class warfare and the politics of sneer was a mistake.

The party also suffered in seats with high populations of people of faith, especially in western Sydney, where religious issues – including religious freedom – had a potent impact.

Frustrated Labor insiders point to Scott Morrison’s clever wielding of his own faith as a political weapon to activate not only Christians but also members of other faith communities – particularly the socially conservative.

They point to Morrison inviting the television cameras into his Pentecostal church on Easter Sunday to see him singing, hand raised in praise. They also note his language, even his standard exclamatory question beginning “How good is…” which reflects a commonly used Pentecostal exclamation, “How good is God?”

More broadly, some in the party say there were too many big and complicated policies, that the campaign’s mixed messages confused people, including on whether or not proposed wage subsidies would be just for childcare workers or for aged-care workers and others too.

There is also an uncomfortable admission that such bold policies needed a more popular leader to sell them.

Deciding to lean on the politics of envy was dangerous, given the high-profile attack former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull had mounted against Shorten in parliament, back in February 2017, when Labor first began to roll out its “top end of town” campaign.

“We have just heard from that great sycophant of billionaires, the leader of the opposition,” Turnbull thundered in a withering tirade. “All the lectures, trying to run a politics of envy, when he was a regular dinner guest at Raheen, always there with Dick Pratt, sucking up to Dick Pratt. Did he knock back the Cristal? I don’t think so. There was never a union leader in Melbourne that tucked his knees under more billionaires’ tables than the leader of the opposition.”

Albanese’s greatest challenge now is to win over not only Labor voters, but also all the others, from Greens on the left to Liberals, Nationals, One Nation supporters and others stretching out to the right.

He is clearly conscious of it.

“We must work with the people of Australia, wherever and whoever they are, to build a blueprint for a better country,” he said on Thursday. “If I could sum up my approach in one word, to quote the late, great Aretha Franklin, it is this – respect. Respect for people wherever they live. Respect for people whatever their faith. Respect for people whatever their sexuality and lifestyle. Respect for each other.”

He now has a clear path to begin his task.

What is less certain is whether the extent of party support for Albanese will see his Labor detractors set aside their resentment of his past activities, or whether the new leader will also face simmering pressure from within.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 25, 2019 as "Shorten loses again, trying to undermine Albanese leadership". Subscribe here.

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