History is strongly against whoever takes over the leadership of the federal ALP becoming prime minister this decade — but the new leader might get another chance in the 2020s.
Only three federal and state first-term opposition leaders have won office in Australia in the last 20 years after uninterrupted stints in the job, and two of those (Bob Carr and Mike Rann) needed two elections before winning (and, technically, Rann had replaced former premier Lynn Arnold, rather than leading from the election). Only Peter Beattie has managed the feat of leading his party from a change of government to victory in his first go, and he had the help of One Nation.
Most first-term leaders do manage to make it to the end of their term intact — the experience of Brendan Nelson, who didn’t even make it to the end of his term in his seat, is atypical. But few make it to the end of their second terms as leaders: only Kim Beazley, Bob Carr, Jeff Kennett and Mike Rann managed that.
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Given federal governments are virtually never one-term governments, that suggests Bill Shorten or Anthony Albanese has only a small chance of making it to the end of his second term as leader, and an even smaller chance of winning that election.
That’s not to say it’s permanently fatal to their chances of becoming prime minister. Several failed first-term leaders went on to have another go: Beazley (two-time loser, though he won the vote in 1998), Andrew Peacock (lost one, lost the leadership, returned and lost second time, though he won the vote in 1990), and Jeff Kennett lost twice, lost the leadership, then came back for a win. Dennis Napthine also did a Lazarus — indeed, it’s more common than you might think — but from the comfort of government.
A different question is whether the next Labor prime minister is even in Parliament. In 17 changes of government since 1992, five of the winners weren’t in Parliament when their party went into opposition; a further two were were first elected when they went into opposition.
All of which is to say, it probably doesn’t matter a great deal for the moment who gets the Labor leadership. What probably matters more is the process by which Labor selects its leader. If Bill Shorten is the only nominee, he’ll be targeted as the product of a factional deal. If there’s a genuine contest with, say, Anthony Albanese, Labor will get to put its newly democratised leadership process on display in a manner that will confer greater legitimacy on whoever wins and signal a definite change from the leadership circus that characterised Labor from the time of Simon Crean onwards.
Being first-term opposition leader is definitely taking one for the team — but in Labor’s case, it will be even better if two volunteer for it.