Labor has taken a major gamble by appointing Anthony Albanese unopposed as party leader. His speedy elevation came because he was not tarred with the Bill Shorten-Chris Bowen brush that failed so spectacularly on May 18. So a cross-factional deal for a unity ticket held sway.
“Albo” has carefully crafted his image as a knockabout but likeable scallywag. He mixes easily with ordinary folks, “does” the local pubs and community centres, volunteers his services as an occasional DJ. He is a rugby league fanatic who regularly marches in the Sydney Mardi Gras and has a beer named in his honour. He’s an impish politician with a nose for a pithy or humorous riposte; an iconoclastic puncturer of hyperbole and bunkum (remember his throwaway dismissal of the “convoy of no consequence” when a pitiful truck convoy descended on Canberra).
Albanese was also Labor’s smartest parliamentary tactician as the Leader of the House in the Gillard government. He sees himself as a “commonsense guy” who is prepared to “stand up for what [he] thinks is commonsense propositions”.
He also has the distinction of remaining loyal to both former Labor PMs Kevin Rudd and then Julia Gillard, and has earned respect for this among his colleagues, unlike Shorten.
Of more significance, he is from the left wing of the party, which could be a political millstone around his neck as leader.
He regards high office not simply as a vocation but as a messianic obligation. Given his advocacy of radical policies in his recent past, including death duties and redistributive taxes, his promotion to the leadership provides him with ample opportunities to shape the party’s policy agendas. He is, in reality, only the second left-wing leader of the ALP after the troubled H.V. “Doc” Evatt in the 1950s (Julia Gillard was nominally from the left, but more conservative than most of her party colleagues).
Already, conservative media like The Australian have signalled a willingness to attack him along these lines.
Similarly, his political opponents have described him as “too left wing” to become prime minister. And some of his Labor colleagues from Victoria have argued that he is “too old and tired” to win an election.
In the Labor Party, the only real difference between the right and left factions is that the right don’t believe in anything much except that power is an end in itself. By contrast, the left are ideological, believe in social engineering and consider power as a means to pursue transformational agendas.
So, coming from the left may be Albanese’s Achilles’ heel, a vulnerability to his leadership. He has the opportunity in the immediate term to defuse many issues that bedevilled Labor over the past parliamentary term. These include: passing the Coalition’s full income tax cuts; agreeing to a bipartisan emissions target; working with the government on a joint policy towards Indigenous Australians; advocating a moratorium on further changes to superannuation; abolishing the symbolic medevac policy that feigns assistance to offshore detainees; and helping resolve some glaring disparities in welfare benefits.
But such concessions to the government would likely infuriate Labor’s tribal adversarial spear-throwers and its throng of left-Labor lawyers. An initial consensual approach, however, may make sections of the right-wing media look more closely at Albanese’s qualities as leader. Others might argue that “leopards cannot change their spots” and that Albanese will be confrontational and fight for redistributive agendas – making him a prime target for conservative media attacks that he remains a dangerous leftie.
Albanese now has two important imperatives – unify the party behind a refreshed policy agenda, and increase the party’s appeal to the community in order to rebuild the vote. Neither of these tasks is particularly easy, especially as Labor is likely to engage in a bout of recrimination after its recent disappointing electoral tilt.
He also has to work out tactically how to deal with the Morrison government basking in the afterglow of victory – so far, he has promised not to be an opposition leader like Tony Abbott, who opted for outright confrontational tactics.
Albanese’s immediate problems are to construct a shadow ministry on talent, not seniority or factional standing, with the right mix of skills to hold the government to account. He needs to match up his best performers against the high-profile or difficult portfolios (treasury, Indigenous affairs, water, NDIS) and the weaker government ministers (Stuart Robert, Sussan Ley, Ken Wyatt, Bridget McKenzie, Michaelia Cash and Greg Hunt). He will have to work out whether to give Shorten a significant shadow portfolio or find something else for him to do.
There are many in Labor’s caucus who demand more responsibility, especially women of ambition including Kristina Keneally, Katy Gallagher, Linda Burney, Jenny McAllister, Clare O’Neil, Ged Kearney, Terri Butler and Kimberley Kitching, as well as the likes of Jim Chalmers, Ed Husic, Stephen Jones, Murray Watt, Nick Champion and Andrew Leigh. Many of Labor’s previous front bench under Shorten failed to cut through and should be demoted.
Albanese’s Labor must address a series of debilitating and contentious policy areas – most of which should be either settled or defused. It needs to clarify where it stands on the big versus smaller government debate and whether increased federal involvement in multitudes of policy areas is prudent and responsible.
It ought to focus on the economy and increased productivity, while being less opportunistic on taxation proposals. For all Australians, Labor ought to allow a coherent set of policies on climate change and emissions targets. It could then consolidate effective environmental policies, rather than engaging in the chopping and changing that has characterised this sector (unlike our nearest neighbours in New Zealand). Labor has to define its position in relation to mining and, in particular, the coal industry. There is also scope to advance Indigenous well-being and some form of constitutional recognition.
Some mainstream media have speculated that the deputy leader, Richard Marles from the Victorian right, will be able to moderate any leftward drift under Albanese. This is possible, but the right faction is divided and fractious.
Albanese’s leftism represents a potential debility in the opposition’s platform, which a conservative government with wind in its sails might easily exploit.
The battle for the hearts and minds of Australians is more likely to be fought over practical and pragmatic policies than any ideological lurch to either the left by Labor or to the right by the government.