Un­der­min­ing leader is no chal­lenge at all for Al­banese

The ALP leader’s chief ri­val plays a cun­ning game

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER - DEN­NIS SHANA­HAN PO­LIT­I­CAL ED­I­TOR

Bill Shorten is fac­ing the gravest test of his lead­er­ship since he was elected as La­bor leader in Oc­to­ber 2013 af­ter the de­feat of the Rudd gov­ern­ment.

A per­fect storm of po­lit­i­cal mis­cal­cu­la­tions, fac­tional fights, pol­icy in­de­ci­sion, a lack of con­sis­tency, at least one by-elec­tion, a Greens surge, an in­abil­ity to close the gap per­son­ally on Malcolm Turn­bull, a be­lated Coali­tion recog­ni­tion of the need to put sus­tained pres­sure on the Op­po­si­tion Leader and, fi­nally, a clear cam­paign from An­thony Al­banese to “po­si­tion” him­self for lead­er­ship, is com­bin­ing to cre­ate the first cred­i­ble threat to Shorten’s lead­er­ship.

Al­banese’s chal­lenge is all in code, per­sonal or cul­tural, and isn’t breach­ing La­bor pol­icy or di­rectly crit­i­cis­ing the leader.

Yet the in­ner-Syd­ney leader of the left in NSW, known for be­ing a bat­tler, a dyed green-and-red sup­porter of the South Syd­ney Rab­bitohs rugby league team, work­ing class to his hous­ing com­mis­sion boot­straps, is us­ing his back­ground, sup­port for craft beer, love of foot­ball, school sports grounds, pol­icy con­sis­tency, stand­ing up for Aus­tralia Day, po­lit­i­cal prag­ma­tism, loy­alty, me­dia savvy and un­prece­dented fo­cus of Aus­tralian rules foot­ball to run a chal­lenge by os­mo­sis that is im­pos­si­ble to call out as dis­loy­alty and equally im­pos­si­ble to counter.

Last week on a small Mel­bourne ra­dio sta­tion Al­banese wove all the threads to­gether as he de­fended keep­ing Aus­tralia Day on Jan­u­ary 26, talked of his long sup­port for indige­nous rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and con­sti­tu­tional re­form and ended up with a Syd­neysider’s ex­pla­na­tion to a Vic­to­rian au­di­ence about his AFL af­fil­i­a­tions.

At a “very young age” — when it was still the VFL — he came to sup­port Hawthorn by a process of elim­i­na­tion, and nat­u­rally backed the Swans when the South Mel­bourne team vir­tu­ally came into his elec­torate in Syd­ney. Then he said: “But you can’t change your team. So the Hawks re­main my team.”

It’s got every­thing, an ap­peal to a Vic­to­rian au­di­ence, con­sis­tency of long-term sup­port, con­struc­tive ideas about Aus­tralia Day, per­sonal his­tory and, of course, loy­alty — “you can’t change your team”. Noth­ing there to iden­tify as a con­tra­dic­tion of La­bor pol­icy or shadow cab­i­net de­ci­sions, although one of the dead­li­est al­le­ga­tions made against the Mel­bourne-based Shorten was that he “changed teams quite late”.

Over­all, Shorten still has enor­mous ad­van­tages of in­cum­bency, struc­tural pro­tec­tion, party polling, some prece­dent, a deep re­flex­ive fear within La­bor about chang­ing the leader and the fact that his pro­tag­o­nist in the 2013 bal­lot — “the peo­ple’s choice” — is not for­mally mount­ing a chal­lenge, all in his favour.

The view within La­bor, and the Coali­tion for that mat­ter, is that Shorten will lead the ALP to the next elec­tion.

But there is an equal view that Shorten has been found want­ing in some po­lit­i­cal judg­ments, is be­ing caught out for in­con­sis­tent pol­icy and po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions, is too con­trol­ling of his col­leagues, lacks a longer-term view, has been forced too far to the left by pres­sure from some unions and the Greens, and should be closer to Turn­bull as pre­ferred prime min­is­ter in Newspoll.

Shorten also faces a se­ries of trip­wires with near-term dead­lines over which he could stum­ble and start a panic that over­whelms La­bor’s deep-seated aver­sion to lead­er­ship change aris­ing from the catas­tro­phes fol­low­ing the re­moval of Kevin Rudd and Ju­lia Gil­lard in 2010 and 2013, in which Shorten played a piv­otal role.

The pub­li­ca­tion in The Aus­tralian last Mon­day of the first Newspoll sur­vey for 2018 was the first ob­jec­tive test or trip­wire Shorten faced since his lead­er­ship came un­der no­tice­able pres­sure to­wards the end of last year.

Over­all it was a good poll for Turn­bull and a bad one for Shorten. But in essence not much changed since the end of the year and La­bor held a clear elec­tion­win­ning lead on a two-party pre­ferred ba­sis over the Coali­tion of 52 to 48 per cent, the ALP’s pri­mary vote, while still far too low, did not change from 37 per cent and sat­is­fac­tion with Shorten’s per­for­mance as Op­po­si­tion Leader rose two points to 34 per cent while dis­sat­is­fac­tion fell four per­cent­age points to 52.

In terms of net sat­is­fac­tion, the dif­fer­ence between sat­is­fac­tion and dis­sat­is­fac­tion, that is mi­nus 18 com­pared with Turn­bull’s markedly im­proved mi­nus 13.

That is Shorten’s best fig­ure since the mid­dle of last year, but on the key ques­tion of pre­ferred prime min­is­ter Turn­bull dou­bled his lead over the sum­mer break from seven to 14 per­cent­age points — 45 to 31 per cent.

This is Shorten’s polling weak­ness, an in­abil­ity to close the gap on the Prime Min­is­ter.

For La­bor the next Newspoll sur­vey, to be pub­lished af­ter another par­lia­men­tary sit­ting week, will be an im­me­di­ate test for Shorten. Although the Coali­tion should have got a big­ger bounce in the poll, another slight im­prove­ment for Turn­bull on any mea­sure will ease pres­sure on his self-im­posed dead­line of 30 “los­ing Newspolls” and in­crease it on Shorten. The dan­ger for Shorten is that as time goes on the old po­lit­i­cal ques­tion will be asked: whether the leader is sup­press­ing the party vote, and whether a more pop­u­lar leader — Tanya Plibersek and Al­banese were more pop­u­lar than Shorten in the last Newspoll — would en­sure a La­bor vic­tory.

Since the late 1960s only two La­bor op­po­si­tion lead­ers, Gough Whit­lam and Kim Bea­z­ley, have been given the op­por­tu­nity to con­test suc­ces­sive elec­tions. Both Whit­lam and Bea­z­ley went close to vic­tory in their first at­tempts and were given a sec­ond chance; but Shorten went closer than both in terms of seats.

Added to this his­tor­i­cal case in Shorten’s favour is the trans­ac­tional cost for La­bor of re­mov­ing a leader in the par­ty­room and a de­ter­mi­na­tion not to re­peat mis­takes or fol­low the Lib­eral re­moval of Tony Ab­bott.

Ev­ery­one in La­bor talks about their unity com­pared with the Turn­bull-Ab­bott di­vi­sions and it is the ALP’s strong­est selling point.

The Coali­tion recog­nises the same dan­gers and se­nior min­is­ters are in­tent on driv­ing Shorten to the wall and scoff at any sug­ges­tion they should strate­gi­cally “go soft on Shorten” to pre­vent Al­banese tak­ing over. Cab­i­net min­is­ters know Shorten is un­der pres­sure be­cause of his own de­ci­sions and be­cause of the enor­mous dam­age another chal­lenge would do to La­bor.

Part of the dif­fi­culty Shorten is fac­ing is a re­sult of his own anx­ious­ness to force the Coali­tion — with a one-seat ma­jor­ity — back to the bal­lot box while La­bor is ahead in the polls.

The de­ter­mi­na­tion to cre­ate par­lia­men­tary chaos via the cit­i­zen­ship saga and force Coali­tion MPs to by-elec­tions while declar­ing there were no prob­lems for La­bor MPs has back­fired badly.

The dec­la­ra­tion this week of the March 17 by-elec­tion in the Mel­bourne seat of Bat­man af­ter La­bor MP David Feeney was forced to re­sign over fail­ure to re­nounce dual cit­i­zen­ship de­stroyed Shorten’s cred­i­bil­ity and ex­posed La­bor to po­ten­tial de­feat from the Greens.

If La­bor loses the Bat­man by­elec­tion, even if Turn­bull is still be­hind in Newspoll and hasn’t reached his los­ing 30 (due in April), Shorten’s po­lit­i­cal judg­ment, pol­icy in­con­sis­tency to ap­peal to Greens vot­ers, such as not en­dors­ing the Adani mine in Queens­land, and loss of po­lit­i­cal mo­men­tum will raise alarms in a party fac­ing fur­ther High Court em­bar­rass­ment over MPs’ cit­i­zen­ship, which Shorten vowed was not a prob­lem.

This week he said he was “blind­sided” and “did not know about” Feeney’s cit­i­zen­ship prob­lems as he an­nounced La­bor’s new can­di­date, for­mer ACTU pres­i­dent Ged Kear­ney.

But guess who pro­duced his own birth cer­tifi­cate to set­tle any doubt about his cit­i­zen­ship? Guess who has al­ways been con­sis­tent on Adani and fought the Greens tooth and nail in Syd­ney?

Yep, Albo, the “peo­ple’s choice”.

Cab­i­net min­is­ters know Shorten is un­der pres­sure be­cause of his own de­ci­sions and of the enor­mous dam­age another chal­lenge would do to La­bor

AAP

Op­po­si­tion Leader Bill Shorten with his front­bench this week; be­low, An­thony Al­banese and Shorten in par­lia­ment

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