Australian Workers Union leader Bill Shorten surprised no-one on Friday with his confirmation
that he would stand for ALP preselection for the federal seat of
Maribyrnong, opposing sitting member Bob Sercombe. A party ballot is
scheduled for 5 March, which Shorten is heavily favoured to win.

Shorten has real talents, and will clearly be a valuable addition to
the parliamentary ALP. But the hype with which he has been surrounded
in recent months suggests that Labor is suffering from a degree of
desperation.

For one thing, leadership just isn’t that important. Yes, a poor leader
can drag a party down, but even the best of leaders can’t work
miracles.
Back in the 1990s, Gerard Henderson assailed the “Messiah complex,” as
he called it, that led the Liberal Party to hail every hot new
leadership prospect as the answer to all its woes, and thereby avoid
facing up to more deep-seated problems. Now, after a similarly long
period in opposition, the Labor Party could be catching the
disease.

But even if better leadership is the answer, putting more union
secretaries into parliament might not be the best way to promote it. A
look at the occupational statistics in the federal Parliamentary
Handbook, now available online,
is instructive. Labor already has 23 former “Party and union
administrators,” not to mention another seven who were “Party and union
officials” plus nine “Researchers, research assistants, electoral and
project officers.” The Coalition has only five members from those three
categories combined. (See Michelle Grattan’s summary of the figures here.)

Twenty-odd years ago, Michael Kroger pointed out that the Liberal Party
suffered because Labor recruited much better from the political class:
researchers, teachers, journalists and union officials were better
prepared for parliament than farmers, accountants and businesspeople.

But the pendulum has now swung so far that Labor’s talent base is too
narrow for its own good. Shorten is indeed a skilled political
operator, but what Labor most obviously lacks is a broader set of
skills.

Peter Fray

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