12 Sep 2013

Who Can Lead Labor Back From The Wilderness?

By Ben Eltham

During Labor's first year in opposition it should achieve two things - save carbon pricing, and return to its members. Ben Eltham on who can best lead that process

Who should lead the Labor Party? That’s the question the federal ALP must now face up to as it grapples with life in opposition.

Under normal circumstances, Labor would appoint a new leader from within the party room and get on with the business of opposition. But the reforms pushed through by Kevin Rudd on re-taking the prime ministership mean that, unless someone stands unopposed, Labor’s rank and file membership will get to vote on the leader.

It’s characteristic of the modern Labor Party that some in the party are still coming to terms with this relatively modest experiment in party democracy.

The current front-runner is Bill Shorten. The former AWU boss and outgoing Education Minister has long been tipped as a future leader of the party. Shorten has considerable factional support, and is seen as a good negotiator and a solid, if often uninspiring, media performer.

The other candidate reportedly considering a tilt is the departing deputy Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese. Albo is a beloved figure in the party’s left, and would be expected to easily best Shorten in the popular vote – worth 50 per cent of the final outcome – should such a vote be held.

We don’t know whether Albo will run. He may bide his time, allowing Shorten the unenviable task of opposing a rampant Coalition government.

Meanwhile, there have been reports that current AWU figurehead Paul Howes will be parachuted into the New South Wales Senate spot to be vacated by Bob Carr, who is not expected to hang around doing the drudge work of opposition. To say this is not a good sign for ALP reform is something of an understatement.

All of a sudden, and rather sooner than might have been expected, Labor faces some important decisions. Party elders would probably rather lick their wounds in seclusion, but what the ALP does now will make a big difference to any recovery. Who leads Labor matters less than how he or she is chosen.

A genuine ballot for the federal leadership would show that Labor is serious about giving its long-suffering members a real say in who leads the party. It would mark the first step toward wresting internal power away from the factional fiefdoms that destroyed the last government and have so much damage to Labor’s brand.

But the road will be hard, as this week’s rather lukewarm embrace of the new rules demonstrates.

Factional leaders are already chafing at the restrictions imposed by the new rules. Just yesterday, Victorian factional leader Stephen Conroy was telling Sky News that the new system made Labor a “laughing stock”.

“A parliamentary Labor leader cannot sustain their leadership if they do not have the support of a majority of their colleagues,” Conroy said. “These rules that have been put in place will make us an absolute laughing stock.”

Close followers of Senator Conroy’s parliamentary career may be surprised at his newfound desire for decorum. Nonetheless, he makes a sound point regarding a potential conflict between the wishes of the party membership and the federal caucus.

The problem for Labor is that the modern ALP has very little internal democracy. As such, there is likely to be a wide gap between the wishes of factional bosses and the ordinary rank and file. Labor’s base is far to the left of the caucus on issues such as gay marriage and asylum seeker policy. The membership is also far less enamoured of the economic orthodoxy pursued by every Labor government since Bob Hawke’s. Resolving these conflicts calls for a long period of internal consultation, debate and, yes, conflict: real conflict over ideas and philosophical direction, not the factional horse trading that characterises the contemporary ALP.

In fact, choosing a new leader is just the beginning. Labor also needs to search its soul and decide what it still believes in. Should Labor move left, towards its base in the public sector and the remnants of the unionised workforce? Or should Labor recast itself in a new image, one that can win back the voters that demonstrably abandoned it on Saturday?

You can bet Tony Abbott and the new government will be taking every opportunity to press Labor to make up its mind. The government has been pressing Labor to vote for a repeal of the carbon tax, claiming that the election gives it a clear mandate to dismantle Australia’s carbon infrastructure.

So far, Labor has been resisting, with senior figures such as Mark Butler and Penny Wong stating that Labor will continue to back action against climate change. But there have already been dissenters from the backbench, with South Australian MP Nick Champion arguing that Tony Abbott and the government should be a given a chance to implement an unworkable policy.

“If the majority of people voted for bad policy, they simply need to see that experiment fulfilled,” he told the ABC yesterday. “If the Liberal Party want to hang themselves, we should give them as much rope as they need.”

Champion’s intervention shows some rather courageous optimism. He seems to be assuming that getting rid of the carbon tax will be unpopular – by no means a sure bet. He is also assuming that yet another backflip by Labor on carbon policy won’t further undermine the party’s standing.

As we’ve argued here many times before, there is no doubt that Direct Action is an unworkable policy. That doesn’t mean Labor should wave it through. Some policy issues are more important that Parliamentary tactics. Could we imagine Labor voting for the abolition of Medicare? Or to bring back WorkChoices? If a newly-installed opposition leader asked Labor members what they thought, I’d wager the answer that would come back is fairly clear: try and save carbon pricing.

Direct Action is a terrible policy for many reasons. It won’t work: it can’t meaningfully lower emissions. But the key reason is that, by doing nothing to stop climate change, it will damage the interests of all Australians. Labor has an opportunity to combat the destructive individualism of the carbon scare by explaining why a collective response is the only way to protect our future from devastating warming.

In fact, “save carbon” and “consult the members” is a pretty decent mud map for the first year of a new Labor opposition. The ALP should go back to its membership base and engage in a genuine conversation about policy, free of the backroom manipulation that normally accompanies the development of its platform. By doing so, it might find that new ideas and new unities emerge.

Standing up for carbon pricing not only saves the party from a humiliating capitulation. It also allows Labor to start to frame the critical differences between a progressive politics for the common good, and the politics of envy, greed and selfishness so effortlessly mastered by Tony Abbott.

Abbott began his journey to the Lodge by getting closer to his base. He embraced the climate sceptics and threw out the Liberal’s half-hearted negotiations with the first Rudd government over a bipartisan approach to carbon pricing. He promised ruthless opposition – and delivered. He framed his attacks in moral terms, in contrast to the technocratic wonk-speak of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

Labor should begin its journey back to government in the same way: by getting closer to its base, and by mapping out a strategy of opposition that shifts the public dialogue in favour of the moral superiority of collective action, and away from the empty materialism that makes ordinary people so unhappy.

For all of these reasons, Tanya Plibersek is the best person to lead the ALP back from the wilderness. She is the perfect candidate to take over after Bill Shorten’s inevitable failure.

As for Paul Howes: he should be made to enter parliament in the most effective possible way: by winning a marginal seat off the Coalition in the lower house. 

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Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 13:06

I agree with so many points in this article, especially the sentiment that Paul Howes must 'earn his stripes.' If he doesn't earn his place then that is just future ammunition for the opposing side. The othe point I strongly support is the mention of Tanya Plibersek as a leader, but what angers/hurts/worries you is the already reference to her as 'the junkies wife.' It is distasteful and irrelevant but perhaps an indication of the brutal future that awaits another female leader in this country.

Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 13:26


While not unimpressed by your suggestion for ALP leader, I would propose an alternative. I hadn't previously understood the depth of resentment towards Shorten for his role in the Rudd/Gillard ructions, but a number of friends have expressed their contempt for him at present. He will forever carry this stain until he proves otherwise, and becoming leader will not help him & would be fodder for Abbott. Therefore I would like to see Albo as leader with Shorten as deputy - no slight to Tanya. If Shorten can prove himself a loyal and hardworking deputy in Opposition (a position he has never been in) and improve his parliamentary performance in particular, he may be forgiven for past sins and one day be able to have a tilt at the leadership.

An Albo/Shorten team would have factional balance, geograhical (Syd-Melb) balance, but miss out on gender balance.

Todd Slater
Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 13:27

Tanya Plibersek & Penny Wong all the way.

Howes, is not worth the effort, one only has to look at Greg Combet & the esteem in which he was held then look at Howes to see how far the yawning chasm is.

Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 13:38

Abbott isnt on his way to the Lodge. He is on his way to Kirribilli and like the Howards will need a miracle to prise them out of there. My bet is he'll never move into the Lodge...like his mentor he will stay there.

Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 13:38

As a Liberal, I think it's an excellent idea that Labor install a "Hard Left" faction boss called "Albo" with credentials including forming the Parliamentary Friends of Palestine as its Leader for the next 3 years. Good luck with that.

Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 13:47

As a Liberal, I also welcome the "Hard Left" Tania Plibersek as an excellent choice. Your first lady leader worked out so well for us, as did her escort. Your second offers all that and so much more. Her husband is a very interesting chap.

Please make her Deputy to Albo or vice versa. That'd work quite well, they might argue bout who gets the first trip to Palestine but everyone should get a go.

Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 13:51

Hear hear ! Couldn't agree more Ben.

Some general strategy to work together with the Greens would also help and would probably match the party base sentiment!

The Greens generally talk about the real issues: the  real threat that BUA poses to the environment, the emptiness of consumer materialism, the superiority of collective action, the pointlessness of growing the economy forever...

On the other hand, Labor has a solid experience of running a government and a solid popular base ( even if it has eroded in the last twenty years). The road from here might be to work together towards a common strategic platform while acknowledging differences. The Liberals and the Nationals were once poles apart on many issues: e.g. unfettered free market vs agrarian "socialism"; they are now working in coalition to our worst detrriment.

Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 13:55

And please give more attention to the Greens. This will help create a stable conservative government for the next decade.

Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 13:57

Dear Felixenger, nice troll but if a failed catholic priest can lead the Liberal party, there is no reason why someone who is an advocate for Palestine cannot lead Labor.

As for the substance of Ben's article, it is refreshing to see someone speak candidly about how the political face of Labor, the members of parliament, have abandoned the aspirations of the left wing rank and file. Despite moving right Labor's share of the popular vote continues to decline. The courage to stand for left wing ideas seems to have deserted Labor, perhaps politicians of the left have been corrupted by the privileges of parliamentary life or the allure of a "career" in politics. Whatever the explanation or justification, few if any inspire a belief in progressive politics that advances the notion of the common good. In short, they don't seem to believe it so why should the rest of us?

Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 13:59

Forget marginal seats. Makes Howes stand as the Labor candidate for Murray. At least if he wins he would have done something positive for the party.

Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 14:14

Yes DavidH, I welcome more very left wing ideas being adopted by Labor too. Anything popular with your left wing "rank and file" would be appropriate, especially de-privatisation, increased taxes on carbon and electricity prices, increased taxes on anything at all really, denouncing Israel/the US. All good.

Our thinking is very aligned.

Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 14:49

How about Tanya Plibersek as Leader and Bill Shorten as deputy

This would align the NSW and Vic problem and the left/Right  situation

It is clear from the polls that women deserted the Labor party==almost every woman I know hated both  Abbott and Rudd. They clearly went Green or to Clive palmer

However I think the labels of Left/Right are so 1900's in this day and age--Get over them!!

Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 14:49

I agree with your choice of Tanya Plibersek as the new Labor leader. She is competent, articulate and a cogent advocate for tradtional Labor values. Albo would be a fine Deputy.

Despite his articulatioin skills and intelligence, Shorten would be a disaster for Labor and ensure its permanent non-electability for the following reasons:

(1) Shorten  carries the significant baggage of having been a major figure  in the pro-Zionist-led Coup that ousted PM Kevin Rudd and crippled Labor from 24 June 2010  to the present. (for an excellent account by outstanding anti-racist Jewish Australian writer Antony Loewenstein's “Does the Zionist Lobby have blood on its hands in Australia?": http://antonyloewenstein.com/2010/07/02/does-the-zionist-lobby-have-blood-on-its-hands-in-australia/ ); also see Gideon Polya, “Pro-Zionist-led coup ousts Australian PM Rudd”, MWC News: http://mwcnews.net/focus/politics/3488-pro-zionist-led-coup.html ; Gideon Polya, “50 ways racist Zionists (RZs) and Israeli state terrorism (IST) threaten Australia and your country too”, Bellaciao: http://bellaciao.org/en/spip.php?article19618 ;  “I've been to Israel too”, Middle East Reality Check: http://middleeastrealitycheck.blogspot.com.au/2009/03/ive-been-to-israel-too.html ); and Gideon Polya, "Mainstream Media Lying Hides Corporate, US And Zionist Subversion Of Australian Democracy" , Countercurrents: http://www.countercurrents.org/polya110212.htm ).

(2) . Shorten has the dubious distnction of having had a key role in the removal ot TWO democratically elected Australin Labor Prime Ministers, namely PM Kevin Rudd in 2010 and PM Julia Gillard in 2013 - in the last hour or so he delivered the last key 7 votes to ensure the latter removal.

(3) Shorten carries the additional significant baggage  of having trvaelled to grossly human rights-abusing Apartheid Israel to examine investment of Australian superannuation funds in the nuclear terrorist, democracy-by-genocide, racist Zionist-run rogue state. On 21 May 2012 I sent an Open Letter to MPs and media protesting such plans of the Labor Governemnt. My letter concluded "The seriously flawed, pro-Zionist Gillard Labor Government recently sent a delegation to Apartheid Israel to explore investment of Australian superannuation funds in this racism-, lying-, theft- and genocide-based, nuclear terrorist rogue state ruled by an “utterly unscrupulous set of leaders”. Decent, anti-racist Australians must finally find the courage to speak out in the national interest against not only the racism, terrorism and  genocide of nuclear terrorist Apartheid Israel but also against the sheer folly of investing Australian superannuation funds in a ruthless rogue state based on theft and mendacity " (see “Open Letter by Dr Gideon Polya to Australian MPs and Media protesting Labor Government moves to seek investment of Australian superannuation funds in Apartheid Israel” (21 May 2012), “Palestinian Genocide”: https://sites.google.com/site/palestiniangenocide/open-letter ).

(4) For anti-racist Jews and indeed all anti-racist humanitarians the core moral messages from the Jewish Holocaust (5-6 million dead, 1 in 6 dying from deprivation) and from the more general WW2 European Holocaust (30 million Slav, Jewish and Gypsy dead) are “zero tolerance for racism”, “never again to anyone”, “bear witness” and “zero tolerance for lying”. However these sacred injunctions are grossly violated by the anti-Arab anti-Semitic racist Zionists running Apartheid Israel and their Western backers (including the Australian Lib-Labs)  variously involved in the ongoing Palestinian Genocide, the Iraqi Genocide, and the Afghan Genocide (deaths from violence or violently imposed deprivation totaling   2 million, 4.6 million and 5.5 million, respectively; see “Muslim Holocaust Muslim Genocide”: https://sites.google.com/site/muslimholocaustmuslimgenocide/ ) . Accordingly  anti-racist Jews and anti-racist humanitarians in general simply cannot support a Labor Party that supports the nuclear terrorist, democracy-by-genocide, racist Zionist-run, grossly human rights-abusing rogue state, Apartheid Israel. Indeed Australia’s most eminent Jewish figure, Sir Isaac Isaacs, Australia’s first Australian-born Governor General stated (1946): “The honour of Jews throughout the world demands the renunciation of political Zionism" (see “Jews Against Racist Zionism”: https://sites.google.com/site/jewsagainstracistzionism/home   and “Non-Jews Against Racist Zionism”: https://sites.google.com/site/nonjewsagainstracistzionism/ ).

Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 14:50

"Her husband is a very interseting chap," [felixenger 13:47]. That's exactly what I was referring to in my first post`- nasty, irrelevant comments designed to play the person so the true game can be masked. How many members of parliament have, 'very interesting chaps, spouses, children, pets...?' Where do you want to take the discussion/politics?

Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 15:01

"BOB Carr, the outgoing foreign affairs minister, is likely to resign from the Senate when he returns from an overseas trip, according to reports."

but at news.com.au, seemingly from his own lips:

"When he was specifically asked whether he would remain in the Senate now for the full term which has more than a year to run, he said: 'I will be loyally in the Senate. You will all know my views on that, my desire to be regarded as the lion of the Senate is unchanged.'"

I wonder where the "reports" came from.  Best not to guess and cast aspersions!

I'm puzzled though by the above reference to "more than a year to run".  I thought that unless there's a double dissolution (keep on wanting to spell that disillusion) the current senate with just 4 seats ACT+NT changes runs for just under 10 months until June 30, then the recent electees take over from the retirees until the next reps election but one ie about 6 years.  Who's bad, mine or news?

Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 15:23

"[Abbott] framed his attacks in moral terms..."

Or immoral, depending on your point of view.

Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 15:23

I think Albo is the go now, with Tania deputy and next in line for leader. She seems to have difficulty making a clear point on occasions, and will improve with time. She also has a young child which will be a problem for her timewise.They are both genuineTory fighters.

Shorten is dead as a leader at this stage. Maybe in 10 yrs after the Rudd/Gillard/Shorten debacle has receded in the public conciousness. In the meantrime he would make a great shadow and minister.

The problem with him is he could do a Kevin if he doesn't get the job. If that occurs , he should be expelled from the Party.

Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 16:32

Thank you for a good and thoughtful article Ben. I also thank "Felixenger" for his/her contribution. The contrast between Ben and yourself is instructive, but this is the time for you to rejoice in victory. Frankly I've every confidence that Abbott, whom i consider mentally lazy and economically incompetent, plus the tattered lackeys who accompany him, will make a real mess of things and could well be given the 'order of the boot' in three years. Coming back to Ben's article I think Labor should take its time on appointing a new leader and do so democratically. Also, wouldn't it be nice if they could entice some non-professional politicians into their ranks, people with a real connection to real life like the rest of us. Though I like Tanya I wouldn't put a lady through the torment that Julia Gillard suffered because of her gender.

Dallas Beaufort
Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 17:39

Mark Dreyfus as the unions and their popular pushers are tainted fish.

Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 19:33

Unfortunatey what Abbott  has successfully done is paint the Labour Party as a hopeless manager of the economy.  With the backing of business, mining, the right wing press and shock jocks, every Australian now knows labour cannot manage a modern economy so Labour has no roots to go back to as more and more people are middle class and the only thing that matters in elections is the economy. You can appeal to altruism,to the environment ( although that has dropped off the radar) to better treatment of refugees, etc.  but if the voter thinks a Labour government will damage their hip pocket then forget it.  So this is the terrible tightrope they have to walk. between social and econmomical policies. .  What the country seems to prefer is a Coalition with a senate providing a bit of a break on excesses.


Janis W
Posted Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 20:43

Julia,a brilliant tough women, reduced to body parts on a menu!  How could Tanya P contemplate LOTO. Put up Albo 'in your guts you know he's nuts'. Yes!

Posted Friday, September 13, 2013 - 01:04

I think Albo might be the one with the best chance of sorting Abbott out.  Abbott needs keeping in line right from the start, before he has a chance to get a grip.

Gordon Comisari
Posted Friday, September 13, 2013 - 06:12

The incestious Canberra press gallery is at it again, Synchronisity? Michelle Grattan (TC) writes the same drivel as Ben! 


It is easy to get side tracked. In my mind someone like Ben Eltham (NM), Bernard Keane (Crikey) or Michelle Grattan (TC) for example have to my knowledge never ever covered important and essential issues free of subjective biased opinions.
I wonder if some journalist’s really comprehend the consequences of the election outcome. Do they know? Do the care?
Freedom of speech is one thing. The obligation to tell the truth is another!


Brad Farrant (TC) says and I wholeheartedly agree:

“If the media’s coverage of the federal election was the best that our current crop of journalists can produce then I think it is time that they retired and let a new crop have a go at actually doing the job that society and humanity desperately need them to do”.

I sincerely wish this author would take his well meaning advice. No more opinion based subliminal fact distortions or obfuscations please! These "fluff" pieces are so shallow it is not funny. No more of this, thank you! I feel it is high time for somebody else with a fresh outlook and the ability and willingness to tell the truth without fear or favour.


This is the issue of our time, Get it?


Posted Friday, September 13, 2013 - 07:06

Ten Point Plan to Restore Labor's Pride

1. Elect the Hard Left's Albo as Opposition Leader. For life.

2. Model his leadership on the inspiring past UK examples of Michael Foot and Ed Milliband.

3. Declare War on Israel and adopt foreign policy as initially outlined in the UK Guardian or by Vlad Putin

4. Restore Public Ownership of shamefully privatised assets including Telstra, Commonwealth Bank and Qantas and the airports.

5. Block the repeal of the carbon tax because it worked so well for Labor the first time and get CFMEU thugs to attack internal carbon tax opponents as "muppets"

6. Propose Tania Plibersek's husband as Governor-General to show how much he's turned his life around.

7. Adopt Clive Palmer and Sarah Hanson Young's policies on boats .

8. Form closer ties to the Greens, possibly a coalition deal that allocates all inner city and Tasmania seats to them and makes Adam Bandt Deputy Coalition Leader because he has such strong personal appeal in the suburbs.

9. Fight hard for all ex-Labor politicians who've been appointed to cushy overseas postings.

10. Fight against sexism by rushing onto Twitter and elsewhere to call Sophie Mirabella all the hateful words you previously complained about when they were directed at Julia Gillard.

Posted Friday, September 13, 2013 - 10:52

On a side issue, all of this talk about the "new" leadership selection process for the ALP confuses me.

How have the rules of the organisation changed so radically without them going to some form of democratic ballot or vote. There hasn't been a national conference, or a membership vote. Apparently the rules can just be changed whenever the leader says s/he wants them to change.

How does that work? Can they just be changed back to another system? I honestly am confused.

Bob Bob Worth
Posted Friday, September 13, 2013 - 12:08

Perhaps a better question Ben might be; Who or what can lead the opinion obsessed media back to reporting the news and who or what will save that crtically endangered species called "the investigative reporter"?

Posted Friday, September 13, 2013 - 12:18

Go Albo!

Please elect him Labourheads, you know it makes sense. 

The nation needs a long-term conservative government and Albo offers us the best chance of achieving that ensuring Labor stays true to its hard left traditions.


Posted Friday, September 13, 2013 - 12:20

Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.


Posted Friday, September 13, 2013 - 16:44

Tanya - no. Fair performer, quite on top of her brief. However too bland and agreeable and no fire in her belly. No hate of the Tories and is it any wonder when her husband is a fantastically paid chief of a NSW Govt Department and add to that her healthy ministerial pay packet and they are Liberal demographic par excellence. That would be a combined household income in the last few years of say 650,000 dollars minimum. Is it possible to have someone leading the Labor Party who is not filthy rich? And then they wonder why the primary vote is falling. Because working people can't identify with leaders who are wealthy. Try using that as your starting point.

Posted Friday, September 13, 2013 - 18:53

"I will be satisfied if I can be remembered as someone who will stand up for the interests of my electorate, for working class people, for the labour movement, and for progressive advancement of our nation." Anthony Albanese


Working class people? Working class? When was the last time anyone ever heard a leader of the Labor Party mention the working class????? It's got to be Albanese.

Janis W
Posted Friday, September 13, 2013 - 19:00

I like Albo. Shorten seems pallid, without fire.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. RossC
Posted Saturday, September 14, 2013 - 19:42

Ben - Labor needs to to THREE things. The two you mention, and a much more important third. They need to kick Rudd out of the party. And they need to do it now.

While Kevin remains, all his efforts will be directed towards gaining his next opportunity to be PM. And that means trouble for any other prospective leader of the party.

"What, Kevin aspires to be PM again? That's just crazy -talk"... I hear you say.

And it is crazy talk......just like the rest of the Kevin Rudd narrative. And that's why it's not crazy talk.

Kevin was, and is, only ever there for Kevin, and only getting rid of him once and for all will break this miserable cycle.

Posted Tuesday, September 17, 2013 - 11:04

We could just go the shortcut, keep Rudd and kick the party out.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. RossC
Posted Wednesday, November 13, 2013 - 22:58

Stop the Presses!

Hallelujah? At last, Kevin is finally gone. True to form, his farewell speech to parliament tonight was as protracted, self-indulgent and self-pitying as Julia Gillards defeat speech last year was classy and succinct.

The content of those two speeches will be grist to the history mill as far as comparison of the relative merits of these two combatants - and their respective abilities to reciprocate credit where credit was due - is concerned.

Anyway, the good news is that finally, the Labor party is free of a big distraction, and can move on and rebuild. And they need to - the sooner this current coalition mob can be tossed into the dustbin of history the better.