A REPORT in The Australian shows that despite denials, Anthony Albanese remains in ALP plans as a possible leader at this year’s election; the revelation comes after Coalition scandals stayed the execution of incumbent Bill Shorten late last year, and shows that as recently as February, Labor was ready to dump him. With his rank unpopularity and the Liberals’ declining poll position, Labor will junk Shorten if it thinks change will seal victory.
It’s a powerful pointer to the periodic potency of spin over substance, but one of the facts that was lost on average punters in the hype about the ALP’s “democratic” and “inclusive” leadership selection rules — unilaterally introduced by Kevin Rudd to insulate himself from coup attempts by the colleagues who hated the sight of him, lest he won the 2013 election — is that despite the posturing and positioning of this cynical measure as an internal Labor “reform,” those leadership rules can be set aside by a simple majority vote of ALP MPs.
And late last year — if present “leader” Bill Shorten refused to resign, as he was set to do in November — the Labor caucus was prepared to do precisely that, as the fallout from the Royal Commission into the union movement and a raft of other scandals had seemingly rendered Shorten’s position untenable and, combined with the change in the leadership of the Liberal Party, looked set to invite the slaughter of the ALP if new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull took the government to an early election.
As I have said before, the story I broke in this column that Shorten was set to resign was grounded entirely in factual information gleaned from (and cross-checked with) multiple sources, and it is a stark illustration of the infinitely shifting nature of political life that he was able to dig in and survive in his post.
Personally, it was enormously satisfying to see Shorten spend a good deal of time in the couple of weeks following our article denying he was about to quit or be dumped; forced to confront the inevitable consequence of lacklustre performance combined with the eventual effects of a string of poorly handled issues and bad headlines — most deriving from Shorten himself — it seemed likely that the vapid, vacuous “leader” who has made no secret of the delusion that he is “destined” to be Prime Minister would instead be forced onto his sword in an ignominious humiliation and denial of that dream.
But politics is a ceaselessly changing business; the question of who would replace Shorten if he was squeezed out was quickly resolved by a public revolt against deputy leader Tanya Plibersek’s (successful) campaign to deny Labor MPs a conscience vote on the fraught issue of gay marriage: in a characteristically illiberal piece of handiwork, Plibersek saw to it that ALP members would be forced to support the change whether they liked it or not, and disqualified herself as the heir-presumptive in the process.
From that point, Anthony Albanese — who had carried more than 60% of the members’ vote against Shorten in the post-2013 leadership contest, only to be overruled by the party room — became the only potential replacement during this term of Parliament.
And the raid conducted on the home of former Special Minister of State Mal Brough, in relation to the ongoing investigation into the tawdry Peter Slipper affair sealed, for the time being, Shorten’s undeserved survival in the Labor leadership, as a united opposition assault on the government over the alleged misconduct of its ministers was launched.
Of course, it would quickly emerge that Brough was not the only target available to the ALP on this front, and five ministerial departures and a major reshuffle later, there are still signs this attack may continue to bear fruit.
2016 has been marked by the decline of the Coalition’s standing across the contingent of reputable opinion polls that are regularly conducted, a movement that has been accompanied by the collapse of Turnbull’s once-stellar personal popularity ratings, and whilst Shorten’s own numbers have correspondingly recovered to some degree, he continues to trail Turnbull by some 20 points on the “preferred PM” measure, and continues to record net personal approval figures in the -20% cohort even as Labor’s average standing across the polls, after preferences, is beginning to indicate a winning position once more.
It is fairly obvious Shorten is depressing support for the ALP, and probably acting to suppress its overall position, which could well see the party further ahead of the government on the two-party measure.
And whilst former Prime Minister Tony Abbott may indeed have won an election with the kind of entrenched deep unpopularity now endured by Shorten, the precedent of Abbott being chopped down as PM after a protracted period of poor polling for the government probably mitigates any comfort or claim to be entitled to contest an election that Shorten might seek to draw from it.
A very unpopular Prime Minister has no store of public goodwill to draw on when the numbers go sour: so as it happened to Abbott, so too it would to Shorten in the same situation.
The Australian today is carrying a story that, whilst ostensibly noting denials of the claim that Labor was moving to replace Shorten with Albanese, sets out many of the same pieces of information that underpinned my own story on this matter back in October: the NSW Right looking to switch its allegiance to Albanese; the broader ALP Right reconciled to the prospect of another leader from the Left; and significantly in this case, the “mutterings” it alludes to are dated to February: before the Royal Commission/Brough fiascos had fully died down, but after the slide in Coalition (and Turnbull) poll numbers had commenced.
And today’s story in The Australian also provides a link to a piece detailing internal research conducted by the ALP in February which concluded Shorten was a “dead weight” on the party’s electoral prospects; at the time, Labor was facing the loss of perhaps a dozen seats as the Coalition continued to ride high on the honeymoon effect of its own leadership change. But today, as support for the government and the Prime Minister continues to slip, even the mainstream polling undertaken since then is sufficient to validate that internal assessment of Shorten, and to reinforce the notion he is a handbrake on the party’s ability to build support.
I have thought for most of this year that whilst the risk Shorten could become Prime Minister is real — and, if he is allowed to remain in his post, growing — that the likeliest outcome would be that if Labor thought it would lose against Turnbull, it would allow Shorten to lead it into battle: and to allow him to be destroyed by the ensuing defeat.
But as readers have also heard me suggest several times, if Labor moves on Shorten, then all bets are off: replacing Shorten would be a sign the ALP seriously thinks it can win an election, and if that situation eventuates, the last thing it needs is an unmitigated liability trashing its ability to maximise the number of extra seats it might snatch from the government.
Albanese’s insistence that The Australian‘s journalists did not ring him to check the story are a red herring and should be ignored: for one thing, there are plenty of people in Canberra who are able to provide authentic information about subterranean goings-on without the need to speak to the potential beneficiaries of those activities, and for another, Albanese wouldn’t be the first leader-in-waiting in politics to be deliberately kept in the dark about the grubby details by coup plotters to ensure he could don the cloak of denying any involvement in the act of assassination.
I don’t think Albanese’s is a particularly formidable policy mind, or that he’s a messianic figure around whom the Left and the swinging voters it might attract can coalesce.
But he is more substantial than Shorten, less given to tacky stunts and excruciating dishonesty and hyperbole, and is, in the general sense, infinitely more likeable than the man who is rightly ridiculed and pilloried by many these days as “Billy Bullshit.”
Clearly, this will remain a fluid process until or unless a change is initiated and/or the formal election campaign commences with Shorten still at the helm.
But the fact this has surfaced yet again — just as Labor moves toward a commanding position in the polls despite its liability of a “leader” — suggests a leadership change remains very much a live option.
As soon as Labor is certain dumping Shorten will seal an election win, it will immediately move to do exactly that: and whilst any such judgement about its electoral prospects should be taken with a dose of salt, the smart money remains on the ALP confronting Turnbull with a fresh face of its own: bolstered, ironically, by the effects of a leadership honeymoon period that carried Turnbull himself to the highest heights of public esteem, but on which he failed to capitalise — perhaps, ultimately, to his terminal detriment.
Time will tell. It always does.