Opinion

Rachel Withers
Has Albanese lost Labor’s love?

The more certain a 2021 election becomes, the less certain the leadership of the Labor Party appears. Though the next poll may be any time from August 2021 to May 2022, there’s a distinct election-year feeling in the air – and an open-season vibe in the opposition.

Pundits expect the election to be called for the second half of the year, contrary to – and perhaps because of – the prime minister’s denials, with the government in an election-winning position and a conveniently long gap between the September and October parliamentary sitting periods.

Labor’s 2020 leadership chatter has grown to a steady thrum, with concerns over Anthony Albanese’s failure to get a look-in during the incumbent-favouring pandemic starting to feel critical. Frustrations that Albo hasn’t been aggressive or even present enough are bubbling over, even as he attempts to turn the ship around, aggravated by fears Labor won’t just lose the election but will also lose more seats.

Former leader Bill Shorten took the rumblings up a notch on Sunday with a “thinly veiled swipe” – or so at least six outlets described it – at the current one, declaring at a Labor Right book launch that a “tiny” policy agenda was not the way to go, while acknowledging that a “too large or too cluttered” agenda had not been the way to go either. “There is plenty of room between the party of too many ideas and the party that is such a small target that people may not know what it stands for,” he told the audience in comments previewed by the Nine papers, garnering plenty of free publicity for The Write Stuff, a collection of essays from the faction’s leaders.

Shorten has since denied he is planning to challenge Albanese’s leadership – a relief, no doubt, to Labor supporters everywhere – clarifying to the ABC he doesn’t think Labor has a “tiny agenda”. But it does raise questions over what he is planning. Is he simply pushing what he sees as the optimal strategy, concerned for the party’s electoral fortunes? Or is he publicly signalling, on behalf of the Right, that Albanese has lost support, a stalking horse for another challenger to come forward?

Leadership dig or not, Shorten would have known the buzz his comments would generate (Albanese did too apparently – as the Nine newspapers’ CBD noted on Wednesday morning, the speech transcript had yet to be released by Labor’s press machine, which is run out of the leader’s office). And though Shorten is the most high-profile boat-rocker thus far, he’s in good company. Fellow Labor Right MP Joel Fitzgibbon, who quit the frontbench in November over disagreements with Albanese on climate action and tax, has refused to let up, telling Sky News he agreed with Shorten’s “thoughtful” comments. Shorten echoed Fitzgibbon in arguing the party needed to appeal to its traditional blue-collar base, but it’s not clear whether he’s with the member for Hunter on demands for less ambitious climate goals.

More open calls have come from Albanese’s union nemeses in the CFMEU, with national organiser Elizabeth Doidge saying the leader must go. She, like Alan Jones, would prefer his NSW Left faction-mate Tanya Plibersek; many suspect Shorten may be angling for his former deputy too. The same set of MPs who stood aside for Albanese in 2019 are still waiting in the wings, but with the Right’s options – Treasury spokesman Jim Chalmers and Health spokesman Chris Bowen – requiring a change in factional line-ups, Plibersek looks to be the strongest contender. She appears to know it, with a strategically timed op-ed in Thursday’s Australian, laying out her vision for Labor, sure to keep tongues wagging. It’s not clear, however, that anyone wants the poisoned chalice, with Labor likely to lose the election no matter what it does.

While it’s no secret many would like Albanese gone and a unity (though not necessarily Unity) candidate in his place, removing him is easier said than done. Rule changes implemented by Kevin Rudd mean that a leadership challenge would require 60 per cent caucus support – therefore the New South Wales branch turning on Albanese. It’s more likely factional heads will try to pressure him – privately and publicly – to stand down. Should the leader, as Mark Kenny asked in The Canberra Times, fall on his sword, as Bill Hayden did for Bob Hawke? The problem may not go away until it is tackled, and with members heading back to parliament this week, things may begin to move more quickly.

So what does the knocked-about leader intend to do about all this chatter? After he’s done denying any frustration at Shorten’s comments – “Bill Shorten launched a book. Labor Party people write books” – Albanese looks primed to move into a more offensive position in 2021. In an interview with Sky News on Sunday, Albanese “made no apologies” for his constructive approach last year, but continued to signal that approach was coming to an end, taking shots at the government for its lack of reform, policies or plan.

On Wednesday, he took to the ABC’s 7.30 program to dismiss leadership speculation. In reality the uncomfortable interview with Laura Tingle may have had the opposite effect, with Albanese’s lacklustre responses amplifying concerns about his ineffectiveness. The opposition leader also used the interview to confirm a shadow cabinet reshuffle, which saw long-time Climate spokesman and strong action advocate Mark Butler swapped out for Bowen, easing tensions by appeasing the Fitzgibbons of the party.

Albanese also intends to take a “good Labor agenda” to the next election, as he told a press conference on Monday, though he’s still staying mum on many elements of that, including whether Labor will adopt emissions targets for 2030 or 2035 – seemingly less likely now – or continue with negative-gearing reforms. He vowed that the full policy suite would come “well before polling day”, and that policies would be announced once, rather than announced and then changed. But he may want to move a little faster to get in front of his critics.

Albanese also may want to consult his already muttering party a little more before making dubious “captain’s picks” – such as his suggestion of a referendum on constitutional recognition of First Nations Australians on January 26, which never went to shadow cabinet and was widely slammed by Labor voters and MPs. It “wasn’t a particularly flash day” for Albo, on what should have been a day to score points against Scott Morrison.

With people inside and outside Labor demanding Albanese put forward his election agenda now, he must be frustrated that no one is asking the current prime minister for his. If Labor’s goals are “small target”, the Coalition’s appear non-existent, with the government also split on where it’s headed. Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce looks even more keen to take back his old job, arguing in The Australian that the “marriage” is no longer working for his party, something a tougher leader would not put up with.

And if it’s a toss-up each week which side of parliament is more divided on climate policy, the Nationals have put in a good showing for the Coalition, with backbenchers braying for the construction of more coal-fired power stations. The junior Coalition partner is certainly not lining up with the senior’s subtle shift towards global co-operation. Environment Minister Sussan Ley will sign up Australia to two major climate agreements at 2021’s United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, including the Coalition for Climate Resilient Investment. It’s a move sure to inflame the Nationals, who criticise Australian banks for engaging in such practices already.

Though Morrison has ruled out taking a more ambitious 2030 emissions target to the summit, he’s acknowledged there is no longer any question about the need to work towards a carbon-neutral future – just not by 2050. With a new United States administration expected to put pressure on the Australian government to increase its ambitions, Energy Minister Angus Taylor has already agreed to a joint working group with the president’s climate envoy, John Kerry, welcoming America back into the Paris Agreement. Some may say it’s the blind leading the blind. Former prime minister and now Companion of the Order of Australia Malcolm Turnbull is using this week’s megaphone to suggest the government piggyback off Joe Biden’s agenda of net zero by 2050 and implement its own. It’s not exactly an original agenda at this stage, but at least it’s in line with the rest of the world. What a difference the Biden administration is already making on what is and isn’t reasonable.

Could that difference be enough to put Labor in with a fighting chance? Despite the feeling the opposition is doomed to remain just that through Covid-19, some Labor insiders believe the shine could still come off the government. There are plenty of challenges for the Coalition ahead, from the looming end of the JobKeeper and JobSeeker supplements, to concerns we’ve backed the wrong vaccine, to its industrial relations bill – something that could turn the Coalition into an easy Labor target, as WorkChoices did to John Howard. Is this really something Morrison wants front and centre in an election year?

The final Newspoll of 2020 was relatively close, at 51-49 to the Coalition. But it’s as preferred prime minister that Albanese dramatically trails Morrison – by a margin of 60-28. Albo claims he is still in with a fighting chance, though few seem to agree.

But perhaps someone else may be.

Paul Bongiorno is on leave and will return next week.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 30, 2021 as "Has Albanese lost Labor’s love?".

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Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Monthly Today.