Wake in fright. What another election loss would do to Labor

by | Apr 27, 2022 | Government, Latest Posts

It’s time. Time to consider the unthinkable – another term in opposition for Labor. What would it look like? Mark Sawyer looks at a post-Albanese era as if one were fated to begin on May 22.

About this time in the 2007 campaign, it was clear Australians were responding to the nerdy frisson of Kevin Rudd. In 2022, the excitement is elsewhere. The party in service of the collective is being out-glammed, and in some cases outspent, by individuals in service of the individual. 

It’s possible a rogue result will sweep Anthony Albanese into The Lodge, based on a polling-day revulsion at the idea of more Scott and Barnaby, helped by the blitzkrieg being mounted by the teal brigade. Voters might move en masse to Labor as a way of avoiding a hung parliament (something Australians tend to like more in theory than in practice). It might happen. When it takes government, Labor doesn’t just fall over the line. 

But the polls, as hopeless as they can be, don’t suggest a Labor sweep. It’s hard to deliver a knockout blow from a primary vote of 34% (Ipsos poll, as quoted by AAP on Tuesday), even if the other guy is on 32%. Labor couldn’t win on 33% in 2019 and it might not win on 34% in 2022.

And there’s another rogue result on the cards. There is a chance that small-target Labor could lose in 2022, just as big-target Labor lost in 2019. It’s not just the unemployment rate that stumped Albo, or even his Covid diagnosis. It might simply be that lack of excitement.

In elections since World War II, Labor has come in on the back of a certain mania, a certain fervour for a messiah. Whitlam, Hawke, Rudd.  Albanese is certainly not a vote repellent like his predecessor Bill Shorten. It’s the blah factor. Julia Gillard garnered only 38% of the primary vote in 2010, but she generated excitement aplenty among Labor faithful. Albo? Good bloke? Rabbitohs instead of Sharks?

It would have seemed unthinkable at the start of the campaign, but Labor could be staring down the barrel of a fourth straight election loss.

Australians are looking at throwing out a tired old government on May 21. But what if it’s not the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison one, but the Rudd-Gillard one?

The last gasp of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era

 If Labor does the unthinkable and loses for a fourth time running, there should be a council throwout to challenge the Augean stables.

What would a fourth Labor defeat look like? The consequences would be seismic for the current frontbench, which has been, in part, a government in exile from the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years.

Certainly Albanese would step down immediately, unless Labor had a chance to form minority government.

Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers would be frontrunner for the leadership, although his status as a Queensland MP when Labor will hold few seats in that state could complicate matters for him. The role of Labor’s 2022 campaign spokesman gave Jason Clare a chance to shine, and he will be prominent. So as will thinker Andrew Leigh, Ed Husic and newbie Andrew Charlton, notwithstanding the controversy over the preselection of a white-bread economist for a western Sydney seat. 

More women would come to the fore: Anne Aly, Terri Butler, Linda Burney, Julie Collins, Katy Gallagher, Madeleine King, Clare O’Neill, Amanda Rishworth, Michelle Rowland.

But virtually everyone associated with the Rudd and Gillard governments would be well advised to take a walk. The clean-out will extend to national president Wayne Swan, treasurer under Rudd and Gillard.

Is teal the real deal? It’s not just the right facing a shake-up from independents on May 21

There is the odd exception, depending on their appetite for a second decade in opposition.

2022 would be the second time Penny Wong’s dream job of foreign minister was denied her. Wong’s record is strong enough to keep her viable for another term, assuming she can muster the enthusiasm for another three years of Senate Estimates.

Penny Wong has been in Parliament for 20 years, Labor’s Senate leader since 2013, foreign affairs spokeswoman since 2016. In 2007 she was appointed Australia’s first minister for climate change. Her place in history is secure. But she would be tempted to give it away instead of going into another second decade in opposition. Labor’s voice of experience for 2025, or somewhere far away from the madding crowd?

Too much of that losing feeling

Who else might hang around?

Chris Bowen (MP since 2004, minister 2007-13, treasurer for 83 days in 2013) is still in his 40s and has the look of a parliamentary lifer. Tanya Plibersek has been around a long time (MP 1998-, minister 2007-13; deputy leader 2013-19, shadow cabinet since 2013) but isn’t much older than Bowen. They might find the fire again.

But defeat on May 21 would make it time to lower the boom on some of Labor’s national figures, despite some proud records approaching that of Wong.

Judgment Day: It’s the economy, and the environment, and a better deal for the low-paid

Shorten, who may have fancied his chances at a comeback, will be told firmly by colleagues and powerbrokers to forget it. To be fair, Shorten has been one of Labor’s better performers in the disability portfolio. He certainly cuts a far more appealing figure than he did as leader. But his time has surely passed.

The same may apply to these holdovers from Kevin Rudd’s 2013 frontbench: Richard Marles (MP 2007-, minister 2013; shadow cabinet since 2013, deputy leader since 2019), Mark Butler (MP 2007-, minister 2010-13; shadow cabinet since 2013), Mark Dreyfus (MP 2007-, attorney-general 2013 and shadow attorney-general since 2013), Brendan O’Connor (minister 2007-13; shadow cabinet since 2013), Tony Burke (minister 2007-13; manager opposition business; shadow cabinet since 2013), Catherine King (MP 2001-, minister 2013; shadow minister since 2013). Outer ministry: Jason Clare (MP 2007-, minister 2010-13; shadow minister since 2013).

In that lot, Kristina Keneally is a special case. Assuming she makes a successful transition from the Senate to a western Sydney seat (a manoeuvre that hasn’t thrilled everyone in the party) the former NSW Premier will have won voter endorsement for the first time in a decade. 

Then there’s Don Farrell (senator 2008-14 and 2017-, minister 2010-13; shadow minister 2016-). Farrell is the ultimate backroom factional player. He lost his Senate spot and inveigled his way back. How he has attained No.6 ranking in shadow cabinet, political achievement wasn’t part of it.

Not since the Whitlam era has Labor persisted with such a bunch of electoral losers.

Another factor pointing to a mass turnover is age. Many of these shadows are in their early 50s. They have time to get another career going, but maybe not another three years to waste.

A fantasy, and a plan

When Labor lost its fourth straight election in 2004, it didn’t mark the final shakeout of the ancien regime, the one led by Hawke and Keating. In fact, Mark Latham’s flameout made experience cool again, and Kim Beazley was reinstated as leader, with Simon Crean and John Faulkner serving as the old hands. 

Then Rudd and Gillard deposed Beazley, and the rest is history.

It could have been so different for Labor. Imagine for a moment an alternative universe, where Beazley led Labor to victory in 2007 and served as a chairman-of-the-board style PM a la Hawke. Turnbull wins it back for the Coalition in 2013 and beds down the carbon tax. Gillard brings Labor back in 2016, and looks for another term in 2022, boasting of Australia’s remarkable transition to clean energy.

Back to earth

In its fourth term of opposition, Labor would need to promote more Anne Alys, more Ed Husics, more Linda Burneys, more Pat Dodsons. And drill into Australians, the ones who don’t read MWM and don’t realise that the Coalition really aren’t the superior economic managers.

Messiah optional.

Mark Sawyer is a journalist with Michael West Media. He has extensive experience in print and digital media in Sydney, Melbourne and rural Australia.

Don't pay so you can read it.

Pay so everyone can.

Michael West headshot

Get our newsletter

Once a week.

Unsubscribe anytime.

Thank you! We'll also confirm via email.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This