ALLAN PATIENCE. W(h)ither Labor?

Oct 10, 2019

The election loss in May devastated the ALP. The loss was made worse as the party realised that those voters who were heartily fed up with the shenanigans of the Liberal-National Coalition had nonetheless avoided turning to Labor. Since then, Labor MPs and the administrative machine of the party have been licking their wounds while trying to work out what went so horribly wrong.

Many commentators are blaming much of the election loss on Bill Shorten’s wooden leadership style, stiff presentations and clumsiness as a public spokesman for the party. He acknowledges this himself. He was simply unable to connect to voters, failing to inspire them to take his leadership and the Labor party seriously. Meanwhile the victims of the Coalition’s dismal economic and social policies seemed to be of little concern to the Labor leadership throughout the campaign. This turned too many people off from voting Labor.

As the party peers though the entrails of the election defeat, it needs to understand that a paradigm shift in its leadership is urgently needed. The current leaders, Anthony Albanese and Richard Marles, are politicians whose time has passed. They are too stale, pale and male, too narrowly focused on winning factional battles and claiming their entitlements. All they are offering is more of the same. They are failing dismally to connect with the electorate which is fed up with politicians blatantly practising the tired old practice of ducking difficult questions while toeing a self-serving party line. They are forever missing the point that too many people have lost faith in them and in what the party stands for. It needs to be faced that it’s time for the old guard to step aside for a new generation of Labor MPs. It’s time for fresh faces and new ideas.

Voters need to be given hope. They need leaders who can speak to, and for, them with authority and empathy – leaders who show they truly understand their everyday struggles and who have the necessary policies to help them overcome the stiff challenges they are regularly facing.

Most voters today are good people doing it hard ­– often very hard. When they look to government for help, all they see is a huge chasm opening between them and their parliamentary representatives. This is occurring on all sides of politics. Too often all they see are politicians with a grossly inflated sense of entitlement that is way out of proportion to the frequently deluded contributions they claim to be making to public life. (Barnaby Joyce is a standout example – although he certainly is not alone.)

The urgently needed paradigm shift in Labor’s leadership can be achieved by a seamless transition to two female leaders, Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong. This will necessitate Penny Wong’s move to the House of Representatives. While this might once have been thought to be a problem, because of Wong’s Asian background and gender identity, that is no longer the case. As Margaret Simons’ new biography of the Senator makes clear, she is widely ­– and increasingly – recognised for her skills as a formidable policy thinker and as a rare political visionary in the otherwise choking fog of Australian politics. Finding her a seat in the lower house should be a matter of urgency.

The appointment of two female leaders in the parliamentary Labor party will snap alienated voters out of the lethargy and disillusionment they have towards Labor and what its old leaders are struggling to offer them. It will electrify the public’s attention and provide a dramatic contrast to the ideological blindness, policy complacency, and bumbling incompetence of the Morrison government.

Once Penny Wong is safely seated in the House of Representatives, the big choice Labor will have to make will be to decide between Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong as leader and deputy. There are very strong cases to be made for each of them. Each would bring profound but different leadership strengths to the role.

Tanya Plibersek’s record as deputy to Shorten has both positive and negative aspects to it. She showed immense grace, loyalty and policy astuteness in that role. However, she was part of the team that put together the blitzkrieg of policies that bamboozled and scared voters throughout the election, aiding the Coalition to grab victory from the jaws of what should have been a certain and well-deserved defeat. This is not the time for her to become leader.

In interesting ways Penny Wong can be compared to South Australia’s most successful reforming Premier, the late Don Dunstan. (See the brilliant biography by Angela Woollacott, insightfully reviewed in Pearls and Irritations by Lionel Orchard.) Like all creative political reformers, Dunstan stood at the margins of conventional society, inviting, persuading and cajoling its obdurate stalwarts and fusty institutions to share his view that society and the economy should work for everyone, not just the privileged few. Though personally vulnerable, and often very lonely and aloof, Dunstan’s politics were motivated by a deep moral courage and high intelligence. Voters responded positively to that courage and intelligence.

Penny Wong shares many of Dunstan’s attributes – and more. There is no one in the federal parliament who can equal her policy thinking skills, her ability as a forensic and focused critic of her opponents, and as a passionate and informed debater. She is a very rare politician in the “Canberra bubble” – a politician of searing integrity.

The conservative voters of South Australia saw in Don Dunstan a leader they could believe in, even though he was not “one of them.” It is probable that Penny Wong is not viewed by some conservative Australians as “one of us.” However, in a leadership role she would quickly be recognised by the wider community of voters as a political leader for our time.

Labor can win government with Penny Wong at the helm. If it stays with its present leadership, it will surely wither on the political vine.

Allan Patience is a political scientist in the University of Melbourne.

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