For the first time a woman will be just a heartbeat from The Lodge should Mark Latham win the Federal election later this year. Deputy Labor leader Jenny Macklin would assume the Labor reins should Latham suffer a lethal recurrence of his inflamed pancreas or some other fatal health problem. Macklin then would become Australia’s first woman Prime Minister.
Acting Labor leader since Tuesday last week when Latham’s pancreas became problematic, Macklin campaigned in that capacity in the marginal seats of Eden-Monaro and Richmond in New South Wales, then returned home on the weekend to local events in her own Victorian seat of Jagajaga. She pushed Labor’s youth guarantee ‘Learning or Earning’ policy, part of her own Employment, Education and Training portfolio. She covered for Latham in a rail transport announcement affecting northern NSW. She also attended a dinner honouring distinguished ANU economist Peter Drysdale, for whom she worked as research assistant in the mid 1970s. In a plethora of media engagements while on the road, she assured voters that Latham was returning to the pink and would be back at work soon.
The stint as acting leader showed off Macklin’s range to advantage. She’s a good grassroots campaigner, thriving in the boondock stops around which marginal seat work is built. She slipped naturally into the number one seat while Latham languished in hospital, possessing an authority so natural and unassuming no-one inside or outside the Labor Party or anywhere else thought twice about it. At the Drysdale dinner Macklin, with her econometrics background, held her own and more with the heavyweight economic brains in attendance.
If this was the USA and Macklin came to the number one job through an incumbent’s death or misadventure – like Lyndon Johnson succeeding John F. Kennedy – she would be expected to serve out the remaining term of government.
But given that we’re not the 51st state of the union “ at the time of going online that is, and despite that FTA – a Macklin leadership in such circumstances would most likely be fleeting. Like Frank Forde whose rule lasted just a week between John Curtin’s death and Ben Chifley’s ascension in the winter of 1945, Macklin would just be warming the seat until Caucus could meet.
The numerical edge the Right faction generally has over the Left and Centre factions, in the context of the factional system’s iron grip, makes it highly unlikely any member of the Left would ever be elected Labor leader “ at least in the foreseeable future. And Jenny Macklin is a leading Left faction member.
This is bad news for those who hanker after a progressive woman Prime Minister in The Lodge. Labor’s best woman MPs tend to cluster in the Left. Not just Macklin, but women like ALP national president Carmen Lawrence and Tanya Plibersek, the Member for Sydney.
Only culture change will alter this. Federal Labor MPs might one day put pure merit over factional rivalry and score-settling when voting on the leadership. This is likely to happen the same day hell freezes over. Or Left Labor women could one day decide to ditch their diffidence about power and do a Trojan horse operation on the Right. Their supporters are waiting.
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