No one is more important than the opposition leader in our parliamentary democracies. We should celebrate them.
They are only remembered if they are successful, most disappear from public view, and they perform the hardest job in the political world. Yet without them, Westminster-style democracies would fail because governments must be held to account. This applies to Anthony Albanese at the Commonwealth level, Elizabeth Lee in the ACT and all the state and territory opposition leaders around Australia.
Most of them are now new and inexperienced, because of the terrible election record of opposition parties since the pandemic began. Most would be new anyway, because that is the fate of opposition leaders. You are usually given one go and then you are out.
Not only is that their usual fate, but some, like outgoing NSW opposition leader Jodi McKay, do not even get to contest an election before their party decides their time is up. Some depart humiliated or entirely gutted by the experience. A few even lose their own seat, as happened in the last Western Australian state election.
The job is hard and unrewarding because it is merely a parliamentary position, in which you cannot actually do anything, rather than a government position. Opposition leaders have no power at all other than the power to criticise the government, the power to represent their electorate and the power to offer an alternative. They play no role in the national cabinet, and they are often criticised for being too negative. Striking the balance between providing an alternative view and carping criticism is hard to achieve.
Yet if an opposition leader stays silent, or chooses to support the government, they do not escape criticism either. They become the invisible woman or man, a jibe which can be reinforced by public opinion surveys looking to determine the most popular or preferred leader. Almost always the opposition leader lags behind. They are often in a no-win situation.
The job can clearly be a nightmare, but it is still highly sought after. Reading between the lines, that was certainly the case with the newest opposition leader, the recently elected Chris Minns in NSW. Minns, the 41-year old MP for Kogarah, had stood for the position once before against McKay, and his main opponent, Michael Daley, had led Labor unsuccessfully to the 2019 state election. The contest was bitterly fought, including accusations of dirt files circulating within the party and factional lobbying, before Daley eventually withdrew.
The job of the opposition leader is not one anyone wants to be in for too long. Ideally, like Gladys Berejiklian, the NSW Premier, and Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, the leader takes over government office from one of their own, without ever serving as opposition leader. The same was true of former Labor prime minister Julia Gillard.
Among those who serve as opposition leader, a few have the misfortune, like Bill Shorten, of serving two whole parliamentary terms. Some, like Malcolm Fraser, serve less than a full term, as did John Howard the second time around in 1995. Bob Hawke hardly served at all as opposition leader because he ascended to the position on the day Fraser called the 1983 federal election.
That means that there is little downside to Minns serving just half a parliamentary term. McKay has done the hard yards. Minns has a huge challenge ahead of him, as he admits, but it is not made any harder for him by entering the fray mid-term. Two years is plenty of time for an opposition leader to do what needs to be done in terms of personal popularity and policy development. There is also time for a government to disintegrate as sometimes happens.
In the Australian system, the major parties generally elect their leaders by a vote of their MPs. There is a move towards extending the vote to ordinary party members, as occurs in the UK and Canada. This is the case for federal and NSW Labor, and was the type of vote used when Shorten defeated Albanese in 2013. But that depends upon there being a contest, and many reasons are given for avoiding one.
Competitive contests should be encouraged, but increasingly the Labor Party has come to the view that they should be avoided if possible. Albanese was elected unopposed after other potential leaders dropped out, and now Daley has withdrawn for what he described as the good of the party. That is unfortunate, and misreads the wishes of the electorate. The parties prefer the coronation of an unopposed opposition leader, rather than a democratic internal election, to avoid hardening internal divisions. It has little to do with public opinion.
There is an element of altruistic service to the party in taking on the job of opposition leader - especially at a time when opposition prospects look grim and the government is rock solid - but the person still must believe that they can win the next election. That hope is what keeps them from falling into deep despair.
The good news for them all is that sometimes there are changes of government in Australia, though parties go through long dry spells. Federal Labor has won from opposition just three times since World War Two. State governments more often than not rule for a decade, rather than just one term.
The even better news for opposition leaders is that changes of government can be unpredictable. There are some examples of opposition parties winning when they didn't expect to. Scott Morrison also held government against the odds in 2019. All opposition leaders must believe in similar miracles too.
- John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.