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Anthony Albanese Labor leadership federal election
(Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

While Scott Morrison and the Coalition can get their feet back under the desk and get on with governing, Labor MPs have to settle for doing the only thing losers can do post-election — pick a new leader.

Except, after a tortuous process of foreshadowings, announcements, immediate withdrawals and, in Joel Fitzgibbon’s case, a confusing failure to explain exactly what he was doing, there won’t be a contest: Anthony Albanese will be elected unopposed. There will be no repeat of the 2013 party and caucus vote process that saw Labor members, for the first time, having a say in who would lead the parliamentary party.

Labor members back then strongly supported Albanese over Bill Shorten, only for caucus to reverse that and then some. More than one member of the Right pointed out at the time that Albanese would have won if he’d gotten all the votes of his Left caucus colleagues.

Chris Bowen knew he’d have to pull off the same trick to defeat Albanese, and as one of the authors of the platform the party just saw put to the torch by voters, it was always going to be tough, especially with senior figures like Penny Wong backing Albanese. Queensland’s Jim Chalmers, heir to the Labor tradition that the seat of Rankin must be held by a former senior staffer and ANU PhD holder, decided not to carry the standard of the Right into battle. Victoria’s Richard Marles, best known for starring in a WikiLeaks cable, will pursue the deputy’s job.

A restive Right looking to mobilise for an Anyone But Albo campaign doesn’t augur well for Labor unity in the next three years. They just did six years of discipline and look where it got them — running second to a mob that churned had three PMs and three deputy PMs. Stability, plainly, isn’t quite at the top of voter concerns despite what they might say. What’s the old political saw? If you can’t govern yourselves, you may as well govern the country. And Albanese will only be given one term. Failure in 2022 will usher in a new generation entirely.

Unlike Scott Morrison, or Malcolm Turnbull, or Bill Shorten, Albanese has at least done a long parliamentary apprenticeship, having been around since 1996. That’s no guarantee of success — Tony Abbott was a parliamentary veteran and the worst PM we ever had. What Albanese shares with Turnbull, however, is something rare in politics. “What you see is what you get,” Albanese said earlier in the week about himself, and he’s correct.

Along with Turnbull and the now long-retired Lindsay Tanner, Albanese is the only senior politician of recent years who speaks exactly the same way in public as he does in private. Nearly every politician adopts a persona when they speak in public, and usually go from charming, thoughtful and human in private to robotic, tedious and focused only on talking points. Julia Gillard didn’t do it until she became prime minister, but it removed in a moment one of the most compelling parts of her political identity. 

Albanese, who is open about his delight in “fighting Tories” is also happy to go anywhere, any time to do it, readily appearing in some the most fetid corners of Sky News to argue with reactionaries and fascists, or emerging from his office to confront a pack of far-right anti-climate-action extremists who’d trekked to Marrickville to abuse him (led, hilariously, by the shortly-to-lose-her-seat Sophia Mirabella).

All of that plain-spoken enthusiasm for the fray only goes so far, of course. Nationally, Labor and the Greens together managed only 43.5% of the national vote on Saturday. In Queensland, the total was 37%. The broad progressive vote in Australia got belted, mainly via the swing against Labor. When John Hewson lost in 1993, the media assumed Paul Keating had won a two-term victory, so there’s always a tendency to catastrophise unexpected losses, but Labor has a serious task of determining not merely why it repelled so many Labor voters, but why so many of them in Queensland (and the Hunter Valley) went not to the LNP but to fascist parties.

Particularly concerning is that for all the genius-of-hindsight criticism of Bill Shorten, his goal of making the election a referendum on wages was the right one, but the party of working Australians failed to achieve that. And Labor’s losses were particularly severe in seats and states with a strong mining industry.

Mining has, over the last three years, been the private sector industry with the lowest wages growth of all, even lower than construction — in the period since 2016, wages grew on average 0.37% per quarter in mining compared to 0.51% per quarter across the private sector. And yet mining communities turned their backs on the party wanting to increase wages.

This was a defeat that went to the very heart of Labor, which is from where Albanese will have to rebuild.

How can Albanese get Labor back on track? Send your comments to [email protected]. Please include your full name. 

Peter Fray

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