Labor Senate leader and cabinet minister Chris Evans will tomorrow announce he is quitting his leadership post and the ministry, with his exit from Parliament to follow; the development swells the ranks of a growing exodus of Labor MPs ahead of the looming federal election.
For the second time in four days, the ALP is faced with the loss of a long-term key player from the past two decades of its history, with former cabinet minister Robert McClelland –a key backer of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in the Labor Party leadership stakes — having also called it quits this week.
The departure brings the tally of serving Labor MPs either jumping ship before the election or being pushed close to double figures, with several others opting not to contest again this year (the most notable of these being former Speaker Harry Jenkins) or being pushed in the wake of disendorsements (think the recently-shafted NT Senator Trish Crossin) or scandals (such as the ubiquitous Craig Thomson in Dobell).
It is interesting to note that once again, it’s a Rudd supporter leaving; and it is especially interesting to note that of those Labor MPs already announced as leaving Parliament for one reason or another, the overwhelming majority of them are known supporters of the former PM.
The group is also a little heavy on the number of people whose ministerial careers have been terminated during Gillard’s tenure as Labor leader.
It comes as little surprise, therefore, that the two names most widely being discussed as likely successors to Evans’ leadership position in the Senate — Finance minister Penny Wong and Communications minister Stephen Conroy — are both died-in-the-wool Gillard loyalists.
One Labor source, quoted in the Fairfax press, said that Evans had decided to get out of politics and that the timing was appropriate. “He’d just had enough,” the source said.
Senator Evans will relinquish the Labor Senate leadership and his portfolio of Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research immediately; the exact timing of his departure from Parliament altogether seems unclear tonight, although it is generally expected he will remain in the Senate for somewhere between two months and the date of the coming election, purportedly to be held in September.
I would like to correct one mistake that seems to be common to the mainstream media outlets’ coverage: contrary to reports indicating otherwise, Evans’ Senate term does not expire on 30 June next year; as a Senator elected in 2010 at a half-Senate election from WA, his term will expire on 30 June 2017.
This means that in addition to the vacancies in the leadership group and the ministry, there will also be a casual Senate vacancy via which the ALP can parachute somebody into Parliament.
(If I were Crossin, I’d be a bit angry tonight; Nova could have had the Evans vacancy).
I sincerely wish Senator Evans well in his retirement, and having spent decades around Australian politics, I understand of course that parties need to regenerate and renew.
Even so, the list of departing pollies on the Labor side is growing, and is beginning to look suspiciously like a mass exodus ahead of the expected slaughter.
Whilst it’s not yet in the proportions of the 21 retirements (from a total party room of 70) that NSW Labor posted prior to its belting in 2011 — by my count, it’s 8 out of 103 so far — it’s certainly a tally that, with seven months left to go, could become just as much as an embarrassment for the ALP in its own right.
For a second-term government still relatively young in electoral terms, it’s hardly a vote of confidence in the future or in the prospects of the Labor Party by those leaving.
But it’s an opportunity for Gillard to continue to stack her ministry with adherents, and to recruit into the vacant seats of the departed fresh candidates who will back her over Kevin Rudd or — God forbid — someone newer and with a bit of spark, like Bill Shorten.
So here we are…again…calling time on a third Labor MP in the space of less than a fortnight.
Something tells me there will be many more such announcements in the next few months.
But once again, this column wishes the departing Senator Evans well in his life beyond the Houses on the hill.