Labor's Hard Work Begins


Bill Shorten has won the Labor Party's first leadership primary, taking the opposition leader's role (peacefully) from Chris Bowen. Like him or loathe him, plenty in the Labor caucus and membership will be hoping that Shorten will end the party's three-year leadership soap opera.

Unfortunately, like any good soap opera, the plot doesn't end when there's a change of cast. The nation's journalists are doubling down in true TV Week style, foreshadowing how they will develop the story next.

Mark Kenny, at the SMH, went straight to the factional warlord script. "While it can be persuasively argued that he acted in good conscience in the interests of the party, there's no avoiding the appearance that [Shorten] has been rewarded for his role in the instability which has shred Labor's reputation," he wrote.

"Shorten's first crucial test is already upon him," Kenny continued, ramping up the drama. "Caucus will elect the frontbench but he must use his authority to back merit over other considerations such as factional allegiance."

Andrew Bolt went in hard on the legitimacy of the process. Shorten took 55 caucus votes compared to Albanese's 31, but only 40.1 per cent of the membership's vote. "So what did Labor members get from this first leadership ballot — this new 'democratic process'?" Bolt asked. "Zero. MPs overruled the members’ clear choice."

"And what did the MPs get? The same result as a simple party-room ballot, with this one difference: everyone now knows the leader isn’t wanted by most members."

Katharine Murphy, at The Guardian Australia, wrote about the "inevitability of Bill". While some might see him as the legitimate "next generation" Labor candidate, Murphy wrote, "There's a more shaded internal view, and it's this. Shorten is a candidate who cannot be avoided … leading the Labor party has been squarely in his sights from the moment he set foot in the parliament, so best let him have it."

Troy Bramston, at The Australian, delivered a classic News Corp genre piece. Disunity is one thing, but unless Shorten deals with Labor's "policies on asylum-seekers, the carbon tax and economic management" the party won't be electable, he wrote. "Second, Labor needs to return to the mainstream centre of Australian politics."

It's little wonder that Michelle Grattan wrote on Friday that:

"The job of the new leader announced on Sunday – Bill Shorten or Anthony Albanese – will be to preserve as much as possible of the unity and positive thinking now that the ALP has to move to the real business of opposition. In the inevitable letdown, it won’t be easy."

In the swirl of commentary it's worth returning to the reasons why Labor embarked on this process to begin with and to whom it will matter, and ask whether or not they achieved their aim.

The ballot for the leadership was meant to achieve two things in the short term: to legitimise and secure the leadership after six years of infighting, both for the sake of a working parliamentary party, and to quell dissatisfaction in the membership and public; and to make membership more meaningful for the party's grassroots activists, upon whom the party relies.

Did they achieve these things? Broadly, yes. Given the two-thirds supermajority needed to remove the leader (the rule instituted by Kevin Rudd before he lost the election) Shorten will be able to lead the party without a bullet-proof vest, and because he won around two-thirds of the caucus vote, he can claim the confidence of his colleagues. That means he can focus on getting Labor back to where it needs to be: reclaiming its heritage as a party that builds consensus around well-made policy, instead of ramming it through the media funnel a la Kevin 24/7.

Can Shorten lead that process? Does he have the experience? Does he have the backing? Well, as Marcus Aurelius said, "Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be." Labor will find out for better or worse.

Whether the party faithful are satisfied with Shorten, given most of them didn't vote for him, will be thrashed out in the sub-branches for a while. Many will have been grateful to have a say for once. That Labor's critics would automatically shriek about disunity and illegitimacy shows how out of touch with actual human behaviour they are. For the ideologues of the right, who have no capacity to prefer anything, the idea that ALP members might have voted for the better of two satisfactory candidates is inconceivable.

To return to the world of soaps, will the drama of the leadership spill be enough to renew members' interest in another two or three seasons of Labor of Our Lives? This is the much more important question because, as Ian McAuley wrote last month in New Matilda, it's not clear why Labor's primary vote has been steadily and inexorably decreasing, year on year, since 1940.

If the general feel inside the party is that the primary worked, reformers would do well to keep the momentum going. They could start by bringing the 2010 Bracks-Carr-Faulkner review back into the discussion. The 26th recommendation in the report was:

"That the Party nationally implement a tiered system of Party primaries for the selection of candidates. That this commence in open and non-held lower house seats and be considered for held seats in the future. That a system with three weighted components be established comprising a 60 per cent component drawn from local Party members, 20 per cent from members participating from affiliated trade unions, and 20 per cent from registered Labor supporters in the community."

This could be a great place to start — and a great place for those lay Labor sympathisers to begin considering engaging more formally, if they truly care about the success of the party.

The report's recommendation to create bridging organisations in civil society is the right one; it speaks to Labor's historic role of fostering social life, not just refining the dark art of parliamentary politics. It would be a shame to see this burst of energy dissipate before the inertia of time-servers and plodders.

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