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Labor awaits Albanese’s decision

Anthony Albanese is said to be weighing up his leadership options. AAP/Dan Peled

History will treat the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Labor government harshly, not for what it did or didn’t do, but for how it conducted itself. It came in with a convincing mandate in 2007 and, through bad leadership and appalling infighting, it squandered its opportunities.

Credit is due – but part of it must go to China and the mining boom - for managing to keep the country out of recession during the GFC. And there are legacy policies including the disability insurance scheme and the schools funding reforms.

Carbon pricing was a good thing too - but now, one way or another, that is set to be dismantled.

How much more could Labor have done (and entrenched) if Kevin Rudd had been a disciplined leader initially? If his cabinet colleagues had pulled him into line when he was not? If the party power brokers had stayed their hand in June 2010 – or Julia Gillard had declined their offer of the leadership?

If Rudd had not been disloyal in the 2010 campaign and regularly through the following three years? If Gillard had been tougher with the Greens, and with Craig Thomson, so Labor was less compromised? If the party had decided to return to Rudd earlier?

Admittedly, the last point is problematic. There is no doubt that Rudd contained the swing against Labor. But, given his personal popularity declined during the campaign, if voters had seen him for longer they might have gone off him to a greater extent.

The story of Kevin Rudd is one of the strangest of modern politics. He’s the classic “street angel, house devil”. The smiling vote winner of 2007 who by 2010 had so alienated colleagues that they were willing to go to the extreme of ambushing him and tossing him out. A man never willing to give up, whatever damage he caused the party, who then persuaded his colleagues to re-embrace him to protect them in a dire situation for which he had to bear a good deal of the blame.

Now all the public talk on rebuilding Labor is about the need for unity and discipline. As if this is a new thought.

Labor has to get a leader able to command authority within the party as well as having appeal to the public. Not necessarily easy.

There are at the moment two options: Bill Shorten or Anthony Albanese. Late today, it was coming down to Albanese’s call.

Shorten has indicated he will seek the leadership if he doesn’t face a contest. In a head to head, which would decided on a 50-50 basis by caucus and the ALP rank and file under the new rules Rudd introduced, Shorten probably would not have the numbers against Albanese, especially in the party at large.

A few months ago Shorten, from the right, was the default choice for opposition leader. But his last minute switch to support Rudd (after being one of those behind the Gillard coup) has cost him dearly. Senator Stephen Conroy, also from the Victorian right, ran a jihad against Shorten in the last-minute Victorian preselections. Shorten and Paul Howes, the boss of his former union, the Australian Workers’ Union, fell out.

Shorten has the advantage, in terms of the community albeit not the party, of being a consensus figure. He has contacts in business and is a skilled negotiator – for example, as education minister he managed to get the Victorian government, and the Catholic and independent sectors across the line on the Gonski reforms. He also has a good policy head. He was the one who, from a very junior position, got rolling the first moves for the disability insurance scheme.

Albanese, from the left, has been one of the political performers in the Labor government. He’s carried a hefty work load as Leader of the House, as well as big ministerial responsibilities and, in the last days, the deputy prime ministership. Behind the scenes he managed the remarkable feat of walking both sides of the leadership street, a Gillard lieutenant while backing and organising for Rudd.

Albanese is at his best as an attacker. One Labor source says his image would not appeal sufficiently to the “aspirational” voters Labor needs to recapture. Those who favour him believe, as one put it, “that he would do to Abbott what Abbott did to us”.

Outgoing treasurer Chris Bowen is not likely to put his hand up. He’s been through a near death experience, surviving in his western Sydney seat after not one of three ALP polls showed him winning.

The ALP rank and file might see some irony if the leadership is sorted in a consensus fix – after all the “Rudd” rules were supposed to give them a say. But it would enable the new opposition to get its act together sooner than having a protracted contest within the party.

Some argue that this is not a good time to take the ALP leadership because that person is unlikely to be the next Labor prime minister. But from an aspirant’s point of view, it is always better to seize the opportunity when it comes. To stand back and let someone else wear the early pain could be too clever by half. Also, you never know what turns up.

Anyway, trying to grab the job during a term could be difficult. The party would be intolerant of destabilisation. And the new rules provide another complication – basically, an opposition leader can only be removed during the term if there is 60% support for a spill. (Whether these rules for choosing a leader end up modified by the next ALP national conference is another question.)

Being opposition leader is in some ways the hardest job in politics, especially in the early days of a new government. But the period ahead will present all sorts of opportunities, not least in the Senate. Labor and the Greens might have lost their balance of power, but a plethora of micro parties and independents will have sway.

Age electoral expert Tim Colebatch writes that from July “As the numbers stand, eight minor party senators from separate groups, some of them virtually unknown entities with no track record and no known policies, will be given the power to decide whether or not each government bill should be passed.”

The red chamber will be well and truly “hung”, in a manner that will be a challenge to the government and an opening for the opposition.

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