ALLAN PATIENCE. W(h)ither Labor?

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.


Dr Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in Political Science at the University of Melbourne.

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12 Responses to ALLAN PATIENCE. W(h)ither Labor?

  1. Avatar Charles Lowe says:

    Wong is a stand-out politician and I’ve been saying so publicly for some months.

    It’s her judgement that her personal life and/or her political assessment of her career possibilities which primarily concerns me. Another is her lack of advocacy of her Faction’s policy differences within the Party, And a third is her willingness to be part of the ‘alternative Government’ team – as opposed to an oppositional Opposition!

    But none of the other potential contenders have done differently!

    I urge P&I readers to keep an enthusiastic pair of eyes on the youthful (and Leftist) Rose Jackson (NSW) MLC. Anyone who’s heard her speak will not forget her.

  2. Avatar Joe Jones says:

    Unfortunately, Penny Wong has already tipped her hand with her barking bulldog approach to anyone who points out the myriad failings of all of the corporate racketeering and extortion arrangements masquerading as “free trade” agreements.

  3. The best place to look for leadership now is the Parliament itself where greater use can be made of Senate committees. A current example is the referral of the Government’s Currency (Restriction on the use of Cash) Bill to the Senate Economics Legislation Committee.

    In this way the general public has more time to grasp what is happening in Canberra and expertise from outside the Parliament can examine the details. If this process delays the passage of legislation for six months or kills the Bill altogether it is likely to be a good thing.

    The country is divided. Penny and Tanya have worked in the factory long enough to know they are no more likely to weld the pieces together than is anybody else in the Parliament.

    Labor’s internal squabbles, conducted as usual on the front page of The Australian, can be summarised in a single sentence. How far should the Party go in accommodating the Greens, who are in effect Labor’s left wing? It is too early to ask this question, let alone try to answer it.

    A better policy now for Honourable Labor Members is to shine the spotlight on the Government, not on themselves.

  4. Avatar Rosemary O'Grady says:

    This plays the game of personalities and leadership-speculation.
    None of that can rescue Labor, which is fatally-flawed (I nearly wrote: ‘infected’) by the Sussex Street codes of conduct and misbehaviour. When I say ‘Sussex Street’ you know I mean all the machines, not only the big one in Sydney.
    The recent history of the ALP’s disorganization and mismanagement gives no hope of change or rehabilitation. There is no discipline in the interests of the rank and file and hyperbolizing in the name of certain nicely- dressed gals does not amount to A Kevin Rudd-style ‘hill of beans’ – They ought to be nicely-dressed: their salaries are astronomical. V. Gordon Childe killed himself 60+ years ago, in part because of what Labour (sic) had become/was becoming. It has not improved.

  5. We have, already, the example of how News Corp treats female Labor in Julia Gillard though, admittedly, the context was different. Nevertheless, Kevin Rudd’s recent par suggests that News now operates as a political party so context is probably irrelevant. Add the report that 85% have zero interest in politics and it is difficult to see Labor “cutting through” on any issue while the current media paradigm prevails.

  6. Avatar Jason Hayes says:

    Well its a pretty good idea to have those two ladies as leaders of the labor party, and i agree at the moment labor just looks stale and uninteresting, but I’m pretty sure they are both on record as saying they don’t want to be leader. So any more ideas? We certainly need some.

  7. Avatar Evan Hadkins says:

    Putting the competent in may change some people.

    I think people dislike the policies. Unless these change I don’t think Labor will get a following. Esp. among the young who care about the future of the planet.

    At the last election they didn’t even support raising the dole. A multi-national accounting corporate is now more progressive than Labor.

    Also, stop torturing children.

  8. Avatar Andrew Glikson says:

    Penny Wong appears to be equivocal about climate change:
    “Labor Senator Penny Wong Slammed For Her “Seriously Disappointing” Comments About Coal” … “But on the plus side, it turns out Labor wouldn’t have been that much better” … “But on Sunday, Wong went on ABC’s Insiders and conceded that Labor wouldn’t have signed up to the plan to ditch coal either.” ( – the definitive issue of our times.

  9. Thanks for good article.
    Are there any among P&I readers who have personal relationships with Albanese or Marles – and could bring to them some understanding that they have no chance of “winning” by tossing aside the social and environmental protections fundamental to progressive 21st-century politics? Caving in to fear – and to the toxic protectionism of neo-liberal, hyper-capitalism – is itself an unforgivable defeat.
    Their greatest “win” now – and they are not “cutting through” in any way at all – would be to step aside. They’d be heroes, both of them, if they could silence those within their own party who might as well be Liberals, and support the kind of leadership and renewal that Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong and Linda Burney and Kristina Keneally could bring. And others.
    But to have women across the top row would signal a profound readiness to move forward in a new way, ideally with some genuine co-operation with the Greens, and certainly with a fresh band of media/social media/local organiser advisers.
    Too much to ask? The alternative is appalling.
    Also worth noting, ALP lost the election by 0.43 of a million. Overall vote: 7.3 million LNP (many still waiting for franking credits even though they have no shares…) and 6.9 million votes for ALP.
    Heed this, despite Palmer’s, Murdoch’s, Reinhart’s MILLIONS, their puppets won by the most slender margin: 1.17% “decided government”. (Those figures from Ash Leahy @AshleyLeahy for those of you following #auspol on Twitter.)
    With a leadership shake-up, and the progress and hope and vision that Allan Patience describes, ALP could win and wisely use their power. But playing Liberal-lite is death.

  10. Avatar Philip Bond says:

    “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.”

    Absolutely agree!

  11. Avatar Stephen Saunders says:

    ABA (Anyone But Albo) is a given. Wong is better presented and better at policy, the standout of the Shadow Ministry. I’m not even convinced being gay Asian female totally rules her out. The general electorate is not as 1950s bigoted as Morrison is.

    But here’s a test. When one reconsiders the Coal Quexit, and the fiasco of the Migrant Parent Visa in Sydney, the simple reality is that Shorten failed to put the locals first. Would Wong have exited the “beltway” and got those ones right?

  12. Ramesh Thakur Ramesh Thakur says:

    How interesting. My wife (who is South Australian) and I were thinking exactly the same thing just two days ago – that Senator Wong is the standout politician in the entire Parliament and we’d love to have her as party leader and then PM. She is bright, intelligent, sharp and quick witted on her feet, and has deep policy smarts.

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