Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Labor Leadership and the Fire in the Belly of New Labor

Albo and Bill - Parliament House Canberra
Photo courtesy of enpassant.com.au
My ballot papers arrived yesterday in time for me to make my decision on the Labor Leadership next week.  Albo or Bill?

My wife and I collected the mail from the box as we were on the way out for a walk with the dog.  On confirming that it was, indeed, the ballot papers, my wife asked me who I was going to vote for: “Albo, no Bill, no Albo. I don’t know” was my decisive reply.  My wife’s response was to suggest paper, scissors, rock as a means of determining my voting intention.  She may have a point.

What does this really say about the leadership options for the party and, more importantly, with such a lack of clear distinction between the candidates, where does this leave Labor in Opposition?

Perhaps surprisingly, I actually see this as a rather encouraging situation.  Let me explain. 

Both Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten are widely considered (not least by each other) as outstanding candidates for the Labor leadership.  Notwithstanding the perception of “baggage” that both bring to the contest from the recent past, they both do stand for Chifley’s “light on the hill” values that Labor fundamentally holds dear.  Both are advocates for the underdog; champions of the workers; and guardians of the Labor cause.  Apart from some ”fiddling around the edges”, there’s not a great deal of differentiation.  On that basis, either will be excellent.

But a choice has to be made, so on what criterion should this decision be based?

Anthony Albanese
Photo courtesy of 3AW.com.au

Let me offer some thoughts: 

Labor has just entered perhaps one of the most crucial rebuilding phases of its long, proud existence.  Leadership during this period will require strong governance; team building skills of a high order; a captain who can encourage debate while weathering the inevitable storms of internal criticism; and steer the Labor ship towards common goals and ideals based on our traditional values. 

The new Labor leader must be able to do this while keeping an eye on new communications strategies and while developing the internal structures necessary for a modern Labor party that can be an effective and constructive opposition for the next three years.  And they must be able to do this in a manner that continues to engage and involve the broader membership – as Bill has so eloquently put it “the era of the messiah is over”.

Do our candidates have these attributes?  Well, yes, they probably do.

Bill Shorten
Photo courtesy of SBS.com.au
There is a school of thought that the next Labor leader may only be leader for the rebuilding of the party and will not lead the party to the next election and, with luck, back to power in 2016.  Historically, there is some substance to this theory, but, were it to happen, it raises a particular challenge for Labor in switching to the new leader post the re-building phase. 

A rebuilding leader would need to recognize (perhaps without admitting as much to the electorate) that they would have to voluntarily relinquish the leadership of the party after many months of sweat and toil to rebuild it and at a time that would give the new leader sufficient time to step in, establish themselves and take the party to the election.  To be ousted, as has been emphatically proven in the last 3 years, spells disaster.  So voluntarily it would have to be; and the broader party would again need to be involved in the election (assuming, of course, that there was more than one candidate) - immensely problematic but not impossible.

So do either of our candidates have these attributes?  Again, yes, they probably do, but would either of them sign up to the idea that they are not there for the long term and probably won’t be the next Labor Prime Minister?  I don’t imagine so, at least not publicly.

So, realistically, the choice we have is between two very well credentialed candidates with the best interests of the party at heart – couldn’t be simpler.

Paper, scissors, rock anyone?

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