Undermining leader is no challenge at all for Albanese
The ALP leader’s chief rival plays a cunning game
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
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten with his frontbench this week; below, Anthony Albanese and Shorten in parliament