The shadow of Kevin Rudd hangs over the ALP as it starts to grapple with opposition, complicating its choice of a new leader and prompting dire warnings that the former prime minister will be a disruptive force if he doesn’t quit parliament.
Bill Shorten, after initially indicating he would only seek the Labor leadership if he had a clear run, is now actively pursuing the post even if that requires entering a contest with current deputy Anthony Albanese.
Such a ballot would not be just within the caucus but involve the rank and file, under the new rules Rudd initiated. The membership vote would be worth 50 per cent of the result and would favour Albanese, who is from the left.
The ALP’s right is mobilising behind Shorten, while the party waits on whether Albanese chooses to make it a fight or stays out.
An 'Anthony Albanese for Labor Leader' campaign has been launched by some New South Wales rank and file members. The group’s Facebook page had 600 'likes' late yesterday.
Co-convenor Luke Whitington said if reports of the right faction holding a phone hook-up to stitch up a deal were correct, “it is yet more evidence of why we need a principled leader like Albo. The anger among party members would be palpable if Bill Shorten were installed without a ballot”.
Albanese is said not to be afraid of a contest but is considering whether he is willing to commit himself to such a demanding position after the recent exhausting years.
Unlike Shorten, who entered parliament determined to lead the party, Albanese has not been considered, or considered himself, as a potential leader until now.
Even some on the right say Albanese would be hard to beat if he stood. He is very popular among branch members and has met a lot of them going around the country as infrastructure and transport minister.
Under the new rules – assuming they are not modified by the next ALP national conference – the leader chosen now is relatively safe to see out the whole term because it would require 60 per cent of the caucus to bring on a spill.
If there were a contest, nominations would be opened when caucus meets on Friday. A candidate requires 20 per cent caucus support to stand.
A ballot of the party membership would be held, which would take at least two weeks. Caucus would then reconvene and hold a vote, not knowing the results of the rank and file ballot.
Party opinion is divided about whether a contest would be desirable or divisive. Some MPs believe the party needs to finalise the leadership as soon as possible. The alternative view is that a Shorten-Albanese ballot, if conducted in a civilised manner with a discussion of ideas, could be a circuit breaker to put the old Rudd-Gillard division behind the party.
One MP said Shorten and Albanese would represent very different brands of leadership. Shorten would be in the Hawke tradition of charismatic leadership and pragmatic decision-making, managed by a right majority with the left bought off with seats at the table. An Albanese leadership would be centre left within the party, with more socially liberal views, which would be more representative of the rank and file. This would “not necessarily be a good thing, but it would be a new thing”, the MP said.
As they wait for the leadership to unfold, senior Labor figures continue to call for Rudd to quit his seat, with outgoing minister Brendan O'Connor (who was a strong Gillard supporter) saying: “If you have a former prime minister sitting in your party room, on the backbench, that spectre looms large. It’s in the best interests of whoever is the leader for him [Rudd] to contemplate leaving.”
On election night, Stephen Smith and Greg Combet (who both retired at the election) urged Rudd to leave parliament. On Monday Craig Emerson (also now out of parliament), said in a ferocious attack that Rudd’s presence in the parliamentary Labor party “will see him do what he has always done, and that is willingly, wilfully, recklessly destabilise Labor leaders”.
Rudd, who will be in Canberra late this week or early next to hand over The Lodge to the Abbotts, is not commenting on the calls to quit.
But a source in the Rudd camp said these were a bit rich after he had “saved the furniture”, and also warned that Labor would be likely to lose the seat of Griffith if Rudd left soon. Liberal candidate Bill Glasson, who substantially cut back Rudd’s margin in Griffith, said he would keep his options open about standing, if a byelection came up.
In the campaign Rudd did not give a firm commitment to stay a full term, although he said he planned to continue to serve the people of Griffith.
Julia Gillard, who has kept silent, will make public appearances in Sydney and Melbourne on September 30 and October 1 with feminist writer Anne Summers (author of the recent book The Misogyny Factor). The sessions will take the form of an hour’s interview by Summers and 30 minutes of questions from the audience.
Meanwhile, the first public act of the Abbott government has been the very political decision to quash Labor’s appointment of former Victorian premier Steve Bracks as consul-general in New York.
Although not sworn in to the foreign affairs portfolio, Julie Bishop moved when it became clear that Bracks was about to depart for the post. The Coalition said at the time that it should have been consulted, although the announcement was in May, months before the caretaker period.
Labor reacted with outrage. Outgoing special minister of state Mark Dreyfus described the Coalition action as “vindictive and petty”. But Coalition sources said the whole point of political appointments was that the person was seen by the host country to have the ear of the government.
The day before Saturday’s election Tony Abbott distinguished between an opposition leader being head of a tribe and a prime minister governing for all Australians. The decision about Bracks seems distinctly tribal.