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Labor should have had a ballot, not a coronation

By Tim O'Hare - posted Tuesday, 4 June 2019


When Labor changed the rules in 2013 to ensure that it's next leader would be elected with a 50% say to the party membership, there was a rush of support from the party's rank and file. When Labor went on to lose the election and then leader Kevin Rudd stepped down from the party leadership, there was a feeling of re-energisation amongst the party faithful as they participated in the party's first ever democratic leadership ballot. I know this because I was part of the Labor Party back then.

The changes to the leadership were designed to curb the influence of the factions and return power back to the grassroots of the party. Of course, factional power doesn't go away overnight and it was no surprise when the inaugural contenders in the first party-wide ballot for the Labor leadership were factional heavy-weights from the Right and Left factions – Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese respectively.

Still, democratising the Labor Party was a work-in process and there was every expectation that, in coming ballots, a range of candidates would nominate and usher in a contest of ideas. The resulting vacancy from the recent election loss was one such occasion.

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The 2019 election loss caught everybody by surprise. Bill Shorten, it's fair to say, woke up on election day expecting to be elected Prime Minister by day's end. Most of his frontbench expected to be sworn into Cabinet in the coming days. As the old adage goes, 'The worst day in government is better than the best day in Opposition.' In spite of any internal division, everyone would have been hoping for a win and the last thing anyone would having been doing was counting the numbers for a leadership ballot. Well almost everyone.

When Anthony Albanese ran against Bill Shorten in 2013, he won the rank and file support but lost the caucus vote. My sources in the Labor Party told me at the time that the loss affected him, and he was contemplating announcing his retirement. Whether or not that was true, it is hardly unlikely that one of the chief reasons Albanese chose to hang around these past six years, like Malcolm Turnbull from 2010-2015, was the glimmer of another tilt at the leadership.

After all, why else would he have hung around? The man had already been in parliament for seventeen years and was said to have been exhausted after being Leader of the House throughout the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd years. He had been a senior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. What else left was there for him to achieve except a go at attaining the top job?

Anthony Albanese's conduct in the past six years has been somewhere between Kevin Rudd's (actively destabilising the party) and Alexander Downer's (working actively with the new leader and holding no leadership ambitions of his own). Albanese hasn't had the knives out for Shorten, but he has never been afraid of going off message or taking shots at the party when it was safe to do so (see his comments about Labor's controversial ad).

In the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign, it was reported that Anthony Albanese had hatched a deal with the New South Wales Right to succeed Shorten Such a revelation wasn't helpful for a campaign that was still trying to win government. When Shorten defied the odds and got Labor within striking distance of forming government, Anthony Albanese had to abandon his push but, even then, he was slow to declare that he would not be a leadership contender.

In 2018, when Labor was tipped to lose the Longman by-election, Anthony Albanese was clearly positioning himself against Shorten (whether immediately after a predicted loss or simply floating the idea). This never eventuated because Labor once again defied the odds and won Longman and then the Coalition had a leadership contest of its own.

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I mention all this to show that, when Labor lost the so-called 'unloseable' election and the leadership suddenly became vacant, Albanese had a clear starting advantage as he had been preparing himself for another tilt for some time. It is therefore no surprise that he was first out of the blocks and the bookies' favourite to win the leadership.

What was surprising is that all the other candidates cleared the way. Tanya Plibersek flagged her interest in the leadership on Insiders, the Sunday after the election loss, only to rule herself out the next day. Chris Bowen's candidacy was active for a whole 24 hours before he pulled out. Joel Fitzgibbon was never a serious contender and Jim Chalmers exited without ever really entering, saying 'Not this time.' Tony Burke, Richard Marles and Jason Clare were nowhere to be seen.

Albanese is said to have won the backing of their faction, the New South Wales Left, over Tanya Plibersek while members of the Right deserted Bowen in order to strike a deal with Albanese. This is hardly what the proponents of the rule change would have intended when it comes to electing a new leader.

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About the Author

Tim O'Hare is a Brisbane-based, History graduate from the University of Queensland. He is a freelance commentator on political and cultural issues with specific reference to economics, education and free speech. Along with his commentary on social media, online publications and blogging he also finds creative expression in stand up comedy in a variety of bars in and around the Brisbane CBD.

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