Polls will narrow, especially as Morrison is open to attack on issues of probity

Feb 3, 2021

However, the position of deputy Labor leader requires a heavyweight. Richard Marles may be treasured by his faction, but he is virtually unknown and lacks the clout to make things happen. In Defence he couldn’t make an impression on a soft silk cushion.

In 2016, Trump received 63 million votes (three million fewer than Hillary Clinton, but he had an electoral college majority). In 2020, Trump received 11 million more votes (74 million). But the Democrats increased their 2016 haul from 66 million to 81 million – or 15 million more. That Trump was gobsmacked by his defeat is to a degree understandable given that his 2016 vote increased by 17 per cent. Alas for him, the Democrats found even more new constituencies, increasing its vote by 23 per cent.

It’s a reminder that the Trump machine still exists. But Australian politics is different, not least because of compulsory voting. At each new election, there are new voters, and statistics suggest that Labor captures more of them, in two-party preferred terms, particularly because Labor (and the Greens) are judged better than the Coalition on climate change policies.

But this is a long-term trend, not necessarily one that will alone tip the next election. If Albanese is to become prime minister, he must win votes that were cast for the Coalition in 2019. He would like to retrieve the votes of Queensland and Hunter River mining workers who fear that Labor is selling them out. It is doubtful, however, that these are enough. Labor badly needs converts in the outer suburbs and in semi-rural constituencies that could turn marginal Coalition seats into Labor ones.

It may be helpful if the message on climate were bundled in a package about Labor having a plan to create new economy post-pandemic jobs, particularly in areas that will be put under pressure as a result of the inexorable march away from hydrocarbon energy, polluting businesses and regions that are already suffering from climate change. But it is no mere matter of marketing, or slogans, or the cunning switching of messages according to the audience. Nor can it be a matter of de-emphasising the importance or significance of the climate change issue: that will only play into Morrison’s hands.

Two other points worth mentioning. Much of the talk of “cutting through” failures seems based on the idea that Labor is hopelessly behind in the polls. It is not. It lost the last election narrowly, and the government has a majority of only one.

Whatever credit voters give Morrison or the government for the pandemic or economic management, the gap between the parties seems to be one or two per cent. The circumstances may favour a presidential-style Prime Minister, but at an election, the leaders are on more equal terms. Morrison will then be open to attack, particularly on probity.

Second, there is a definite agenda, on the part of some in Labor, to be rid of Albanese, a member of the emotional left. At the moment it resembles the relentless undermining of Bill Hayden by Graham Richardson and others in 1982 who wanted Bob Hawke. There is no person of the calibre of Hawke in the current ranks, and the disloyalty can only hurt Labor in the short term.

Labor stands to gain more votes by being fair dinkum about climate action than it does by fudging the choices. Most of the voters they need to impress want clarity, not obfuscation, honesty, not slogans.

There’s another practical problem with the reshuffle. The last Labor minister able to develop an effective whole-of-government approach to jobs and industry, education, skills and infrastructure was Simon Crean, about 30 years ago.

His working nation and other policies, mostly under Paul Keating, were effective because of his strong union background and contacts, and because of bureaucratic structures and personalities experienced in labour market programs. Richard Marles, the Labor deputy leader, with the super shadow ministry designed to be all things, does not have Crean’s background, experience or political skills.

He is obviously treasured by the faction that put him into the deputy leadership. But he is virtually unknown to the electorate and lacks the reputation, clout or obvious strength of personality to make things happen. He may improve with experience, but putting him in his new place (from defence, where he couldn’t make an impression on a soft silk cushion, in spite of opportunities begging) is hardly putting a heavyweight, a professional, or a solid practical thinker into the job.

If Labor were firing with all its engines, or if Albanese had the self-confidence, he should be bending Bill Shorten to the task he has just given Marles. That has personal and political risks for Albanese, but he has little to lose and a Lodge to win.

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