Letter To The Editor
Bill Shorten, always the man considered most likely to become Labor's next federal leader, encountered a small roadblock on Friday when Anthony Albanese announced that he would stand as a candidate. A 30-day campaign will follow before a ballot of ALP members is held. Then, under new rules introduced in July by former leader Kevin Rudd, caucus will vote, with both constituencies having an equal say in the leadership. While Mr Shorten remains favourite to take out the party room vote, many pundits believe Mr Albanese could prevail in the membership ballot. However, the word is Mr Shorten's right-wing union backers will mount a strong grass-roots campaign on his behalf. In the meantime, Labor will have an interim leader in outgoing treasurer Chris Bowen.
Senior Labor figure Stephen Conroy finds the new procedure so alien that he has warned Labor risks becoming ''a laughing stock''. The belief that voters might have a snicker at Labor's ''predicament'' is amusing in itself, since all indications are that they stopped watching and listening many months ago. Engaging their interest once again will be the new leader's most demanding task once his ascendancy has been endorsed.
Making his leadership pitch to colleagues and members this week, Mr Shorten adopted the time-honoured strategy of presenting himself as a fresh face able to appeal to Labor's traditional constituency while reaching out to new constituencies such as farmers and small-business people.
It will be recalled that Mr Shorten has extensive trade union links (which are the basis for his rapid rise in federal politics) and that he played a key role in the leadership ructions that so undermined Labor's re-election prospects in 2010 and again on September 7. However, just as former bankrupts enjoy the right to strike out anew in business with clean slates, so Mr Shorten can argue with some conviction that he is capable of a fresh beginning.
Those familiar with Mr Shorten's career speak of a man with a sizeable ego and a relentless ambition, and his claim this week that he can rebuild the party and defeat Tony Abbott in one term bear that out. He has also signalled Labor will stick with polices such as carbon pricing, ending speculation the party might not stand in the way of legislation scrapping the floating carbon price.
Bravado notwithstanding, what else might Mr Shorten bring to the leadership beside the significant backing of Labor's right. Steel for one thing. In this regard, he probably surpasses Mr Albanese. For all his effectiveness in managing government business over the past three difficult years, and his reputation as the stand-out performer in the theatre of question time, Mr Albanese frequently presents as an amiable, even old-fashioned politician. Someone in the vein of Kim Beazley - competent but lacking the mongrel instincts a Labor leader needs to be effective in opposition.
The dilemma facing the successful candidate is whether he engages the government in a contest of ideas and visions (as many traditional Labor voters might wish) or whether he adopts the tactics so successfully employed by John Howard and Tony Abbott while in opposition: maintain a small target, obstruct and denigrate wherever possible, and refuse to be pinned down on policy details - all without earning a reputation for carping negativity. In fact, what will be required is an approach governed by prevailing events and circumstances, recognising that no matter how well Labor might perform the Coalition may still be gifted a second term by the electorate.
Given it is now almost standard practice for major parties to jettison poorly performing leaders, the likelihood is that whoever wins next month will not be leading Labor when it eventually returns to government. In that sense, this could be a contest worth losing. If, however, Labor makes solid gains at the next election - as the Coalition did in 2010 - then expectations are that it will persevere with that leader.
Without a major organisational overhaul, however, including the imposition of limits on the influence that union bosses wield, it is hard to see Labor making quick or easy electoral gains. Mr Rudd took a baby step or two towards reform, and if Mr Shorten or Mr Albanese prove the pundits wrong, those tentative steps will need to become a long march.