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629 words

The better part of valour

22 May 2019

For Labor leadership aspirants, this might be a good contest to sit out

Right:

Long-distance runner? Shadow finance minister Jim Chalmers (right) with leadership contender and shadow treasurer Chris Bowen earlier this month. Rohan Thomson/AAP Image

Long-distance runner? Shadow finance minister Jim Chalmers (right) with leadership contender and shadow treasurer Chris Bowen earlier this month. Rohan Thomson/AAP Image


The most important question for any Labor MP contemplating joining the leadership race is this: will Kevin’s Rules hold for another three years?

These are the changes Kevin Rudd rammed through caucus and the national executive in 2013 to placate voters’ fears of continuing instability under a re-elected Labor government. It didn’t save him, but it immensely assisted his successor as party leader, Bill Shorten.

Under the rules, an opposition leader can only be toppled by a petition signed by 60 per cent of caucus members (for a prime minister it’s 75 per cent). This is followed by a membership vote and, eventually, a caucus vote, with the results of both counted equally.

Such a difficult, drawn-out process meant a quick, clean execution was no longer possible, even if the requisite signatures could be collected. With no incentive for his enemies to generate instability in the media, Shorten could prioritise long-term strategy. (Off-the-record briefings to the media are the main way of building momentum for a political ambush, the best-known exception being the Liberal Party’s 1989 toppling of John Howard, organised in total secret.) And so he became the longest-serving federal opposition leader on either side since Kim Beazley held the job from 1996 to 2001.

This allowed Labor to present itself as a paragon of stability against a government ripping itself apart — just as Tony Abbott did from 2009 to 2013. It seemed to work splendidly until around 7.15pm Australian eastern time last Saturday.

There’s a temptation after every election to believe the winners have discovered the cure for electoral mortality, particularly if they do better than generally expected (Daniel Andrews in Victoria last year) and triply so if they win against the election-day odds, as Scott Morrison has done (and you have to go back to 1993 for the last time this happened).

This government, this prime minister, just can’t be beaten (seasoned politics watchers agree) and the opposition will be out of office for at least two terms.

Morrison will enjoy a level of authority in his party room not seen since at least Tony Abbott’s early months. Never underestimate old Scott (they’ll say), he’s the guy who comes from behind, the guy who’s best with his back against the wall. We’re behind in the polls? So what, remember what happened last time.

The Labor leader will suffer the inverse: unmeetable expectations. Labor insiders will insist (wrongly) that if 2019 taught us anything it’s that we need a leader with high approval ratings.

But even the most highly regarded opposition leaders lose their gloss after a couple of years. With a shopsoiled leader in 2021, and the next election due a year later, desperation will creep in.

Kevin’s Rules should keep the wolves at bay. In theory. But they can be overturned by a simple majority of caucus. Yes, that would be messy, and hard to explain, which is a strong disincentive to act. But with so much at stake, perhaps not strong enough.

This government will be approaching nine years of age at the 2022 election, and there is no reason to believe running this country will be any easier. The Senate will continue its logjam, inducing a degree of policy paralysis.

For the last few years Labor has operated under the misapprehension that a virtuous platform, in which policies are stated and costed and fully paid for, would reap its own rewards. It won’t make that mistake again. It will go to the next contest with a lighter policy load.

Whoever is Labor leader at the next election should, all things being equal, have a better than even chance of becoming prime minister. But three years is a long time to survive.

Perhaps a wise, ambitious aspirant would sit this one out. •

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Lessons learnt? Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen talking to journalists outside his childhood home in Smithfield, Sydney, yesterday. Bianca De Marchi/AAP Image

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