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Anthony Albanese

Grattan on Friday: Albanese’s reshuffle sharpens focus on ‘jobs’ but talk about his own job will continue

Overhype can be a dead giveaway of under-confidence. When Anthony Albanese on Thursday compared his situation to that of Joe Biden, it sounded rather desperate.

Some journalists, he said, had predicted a certain Trump win. But “a bloke who was a former deputy leader and an experienced politician who had held a wide range of portfolios and who was someone who was underestimated by some” was now US president.

“I will be the leader of this country after the next election,” Albanese declared as he ended the news conference where he announced his reshuffled frontbench.

It smacked of a message to himself.

The obvious rejoinder is that Joe Biden was up against an opponent who did everything to invite defeat. Scott Morrison presents a very different challenge.

Albanese has turned his reshuffle, earlier set to be minimal, into an attempt to protect his leadership.

Read more: Embattled Albanese uses reshuffle for a political reset

But there are two problems.

The less serious one is that changes can bring some negative fallout. For instance, shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers might be less than enthusiastic that deputy leader Richard Marles is moving into the economic area as shadow minister for “national reconstruction, employment, skills and small business”. Tanya Plibersek didn’t like losing training (although she was pleased to regain responsibility for women).

More serious is that Albanese’s problems are not driven by the performances of his frontbenchers, but by his own performance.

For the most part, it’s not the shadow ministers who’ve been coming under fire – leaving aside Joel Fitzgibbon’s attacks on climate spokesman Mark Butler. It’s Albanese’s failure to cut through that critics raise within and outside the Labor Party.

The most significant and controversial of the changes is moving Butler out of climate and energy, replacing him with Chris Bowen.

Albanese previously insisted he wouldn’t shift Butler. He casts the Bowen move in terms of greater emphasis on jobs. Bowen, with his treasury background, will bring a strong economic slant to the post. And he might be a better salesman; Butler has been hardly seen lately.

But some may reckon Labor has become spooked on climate policy just when it’s in tune with the times, as the Biden administration, labelling climate change an “existential crisis”, advances very robust policies.

While the change is a slap for Butler, his new job of health and ageing is high-profile. He’s a former minister for ageing and he’ll have plenty of political exposure after the royal commission reports soon.

The government is very vulnerable on aged care, where most of the COVID deaths occurred. Morrison knows this and elevated it to cabinet in his December reshuffle. Labor also needed extra frontbench heft for the coming debate.

Marles will be of more political use in employment and science than he was in defence. On Thursday he impressed with a strong speech at the news conference. Albanese described Marles as “shadow minister for jobs, jobs and more jobs”.

Ed Husic, the most recent recruit to the frontbench and a good retail politician, should go well in industry and innovation.

But attention will continue to focus on Albanese himself. Once colleagues and media have formed negative judgments, it’s very difficult for a leader to reverse them.

Albanese doesn’t have the problem Bill Shorten had – that so many voters intensely disliked him. Indeed people seem quite warm towards Albanese personally. But that doesn’t mean they’ll vote for him, and Labor’s primary vote remains low.

On the back foot, Albanese tries too hard to be visible. His impractical suggestion this week that the January 26 Australia Day holiday could be an appropriate date for a referendum on Indigenous recognition was a case in point.

The discontent with Albanese will continue. Whether it will blow up is impossible to predict.

Fitzgibbon has achieved the shift of Butler but he will go on stirring. Asked about Butler, he said: “A change of jockey alone will not be enough. We really do need to change the policy trajectory and to recalibrate.” Now he’s questioning the rule, product of the Rudd era, that Labor has in place to protect leaders from a challenge.

Read more: Politics with Michelle Grattan: Joel Fitzgibbon on Labor climate policy and leadership

Plibersek, from the left, is trailing her coat as an alternative to Albanese. She’s very active, recently edited a book of essays (titled Upturn: a better normal after COVID-19), and hers is usually the name first mentioned in leadership speculation.

She is popular and articulate. But, the sceptics say, when Labor needs to broaden its appeal in the middle ground, why would you substitute one inner-city leftie for another inner-city leftie?

Anyway, Plibersek faces a numbers hurdle. She’d need some support from the right, and there’s no sign of that.

The obvious candidate from the right is Chalmers, but it’s said he doesn’t have an interest at this stage.

Some Labor sources see the positioning by frontbenchers not so much in terms of a pre-election putsch as “branding” for the leadership battle after an election loss.

Albanese is an astute numbers man from way back and well aware his biggest protection lies in the arithmetic.

But equally he knows that’s not absolute protection – he must do better. He’ll step on the policy pedal in coming months, but even this is not easy when things remain so COVID-dominated, directly (with the coming vaccine rollout) or indirectly, as the economy recovers. Out-of-the-box fresh ideas are in short supply.

Labor started 2020 optimistic, because of the toll the bushfires took on Morrison’s support. Then the pandemic sucked the politics out of politics, infecting the opposition with a fever of despair.

On present polling Labor wouldn’t win an election, which could be later this year. But perhaps it should remember it did win 2020’s only real-life federal contest (the Eden-Monaro by-election). It should also remember the volatility of politics.

Labor is not in the situation it was in in the run-ups to the 1983 and 2007 elections, when the indications were a leadership change would produce a clear advantage.

Making a change in 2021 might involve a good deal of trauma for very little or no gain. Whether that would be the view of nervous holders of marginal seats is another matter.

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