Who Can Lead Labor Back From The Wilderness?


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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