Grattan on Friday: If Labor loses, what happens to Bill Shorten?

If Bill Shorten fell just short of victory, he would have a substantial case to hang onto his post. Mick Tsikas/AAP

As election day nears – well, only a fortnight away – speculation within each side is already turning to what happens after July 2.

In Labor the interest is on the leadership if it remains in opposition; with the Liberals, it’s on the ministry of a re-elected Turnbull government.

Three-quarters of the way through the campaign, Malcolm Turnbull is favourite to win the election, though remember favourites can be beaten, and there’s that gap – a hung parliament – between a clear Turnbull victory and a majority Shorten win.

But assuming a Labor loss, what happens to Bill Shorten? Much would depend on the margin of the defeat. If he fell just short of victory, he would have a substantial case to hang onto his post. A poor result would, most likely, see him replaced. Precisely where the dividing line was would be a matter of judgement, depending to an extent on how people interpreted the outcome and the reasons for it.

Under the Labor rules that are Kevin Rudd’s legacy, the leadership is thrown open following an election, with the caucus and the rank-and-file each having 50% of the vote.

A key player after a defeat would be the left’s Anthony Albanese. It’s no secret that he hankers for the leadership. Late last year, when Shorten was in the doldrums, there was chatter about a possible move against him, difficult though that would have been. Albanese would have been the replacement.

One would think that next term would be Albanese’s last practical chance at the job. If he put up his hand, he could expect strong support in the rank-and-file – which he received when he ran after the 2013 election (only to fall down in the caucus part of the vote). The complication for Albanese would be if Tanya Plibersek, also from the left and, like him, very popular with the party rank-and-file, wanted to have a go. One or other would presumably have to back off.

Another unknown is whether the NSW right, a shadow of its glory days but still powerful, would stick with Shorten, who has his base in Victoria, or would push Chris Bowen, who’s been impressive as shadow treasurer. After the 2013 election Bowen sensibly ruled himself out of the leadership race, but a run this time would have to be tempting if the ALP was in a relatively winnable position for 2019.

But a senior NSW right source, while reluctant to contemplate the loss scenario, says “no-one is envisaging a situation where Bill Shorten wouldn’t be running for leader and have the NSW right’s support”.

If Shorten did remain in place, the experience of this term would tell him there would be no certainty he would lead to the 2019 election. The flirtation by some with replacing him last year, when he’d had only a limited time in the job, indicates the party would be willing to change during the term if it believed another candidate would be a better bet. In other words, his survival would depend absolutely on performance.

On the other side, also assuming a Turnbull victory, it was reported this week there would be pressure on Turnbull to put Tony Abbott on the frontbench. The Australian Financial Review quoted an unnamed Abbott backer suggesting defence would be a worthy role for the former prime minister. This was in the context of Turnbull needing to reach out to the Liberal party’s conservatives.

This seems like some mischief making. Abbott in defence? Replacing Marise Payne? Under Turnbull? Never, and not just because as defence minister Abbott would be, let’s be frank, scary. It’s only a modest exaggeration to say he would want to have Australia intervening almost anywhere, almost any time.

Asked about the proposition of bringing Abbott back into the ministry, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, an Abbott supporter, said on Thursday: “I think some people will push for that”. Abbott himself said: “I am not expecting to go back into the ministry”. That may or may not be his true view but hopefully it is, or else he will be very disappointed. Turnbull has no intention of having Abbott on his frontbench.

Turnbull has made it clear more than once that he does not want to go back to the past in appointments to his ministry. Least of all for Abbott.

Responding to questioning on Thursday, Turnbull said that if he won “the ministry I’m taking to the election will be the ministry after the election … it will be the ministry as it is today”. Is he saying no one will change their portfolio? One example of someone who should be moved is Dutton. If Turnbull is to deal with those who are currently on Nauru and Manus Island in the next term, Dutton is not the best person to do it.

Admittedly, Turnbull’s ministry is a quite recent one – he reshuffled in February – but even so, he should not be so dogmatic (or does he think it doesn’t matter what he says?). After an election is a good occasion for changes and it would be wise for Turnbull to take that opportunity for some tinkering. The chance doesn’t come often.

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