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Labor should replace Shorten with Bowen to get a fighting chance

3 January 2015 165 views No Comment

BELIEVE me: despite recent polls, unless Bill Shorten changes from being a faceless man who seems to stand for little, he will not win the next federal election. His media appearances have been uniformly bland and uninspiring, largely comprising negative words with little positive substance. However, because of Kevin Rudd’s “reforms to the method of choosing federal Labor leaders, unless Shorten resigns it will be extremely difficult to replace him as Labor leader.

To roll Shorten would require the support of at least 60 per cent of federal caucus. This would then be followed by a general vote being split between a 50 per cent weighting for the general ALP membership and the other 50 per cent for the caucus. However, in such a situation there would be nothing to stop Shorten renominating for the federal Labor leadership — which would make things messy.

As it happens, the four most talented federal Labor parliamentarians are Anthony Albanese, Tony Burke, Tanya Plibersek and Chris Bowen — all from Sydney.

While realising that it might be difficult for the federal Labor Party leader and the deputy leader to come from the same state, it would not be unprecedented.

For example, after Paul Keating went to the backbench after failing to oust Bob Hawke as the Labor leader and hence as prime minister, Hawke and deputy PM Brian Howe both came from Victoria. Moreover, the Labor leader of the Senate, John Button, and deputy leader, Robert Ray, both came from Victoria. In terms of balance, there is much to be said for a new federal Labor leadership duo taken from Albanese (the oldest of the four), Burke, Plibersek or Bowen (the youngest).

Albanese and Plibersek come from inner Sydney, while Burke and Bowen hail from suburban Sydney. Moreover, Burke and Bowen are from the Labor Right, while Albanese and Plibersek are from the Labor Left.

In my opinion, a federal Labor leadership team of Bowen, the highly talented opposition treasury spokesman, and Plibersek, the well-performing deputy leader and opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman, would make a formidable combination.

At the next federal election, it is at least possible that a Bowen-­Plibersek team could bring about an overthrow of the conservative Coalition. This could be the case if the Liberal-Nationals federal government were still led by Tony Abbott, or — in the unlikely event of Abbott being removed as Liberal leader — by his replacement.

A key issue for Labor regaining office at the next federal election is winning seats in Queensland. This is because, in the northern state, Labor has had a poor federal electoral record since the long-term governments of Bob Hawke.

In recent years, the Brisbane-based Kevin Rudd did best in 2007 — but unless the ALP improves its vote in Queensland it cannot hope to be a long-term party of government. Indeed, in recent federal elections, Queensland has become a wasteland for Labor.

Hawke and former long-­serving Labor premier Peter Beattie have been the ALP’s best vote-winners in Queensland, winning four elections each. Their electoral appeal was not only centred on their personalities but was also based on carefully crafted policies that were communicating effectively to the citizenry and to the voters at large.

If it is to win Queensland and take power nationally from the conservatives, who have been struggling politically, the best hope is for the ALP to find a Hawke or Beattie-style campaigner. However, this could prove a huge challenge, as there is no current federal Labor representative from Queensland who fits the bill.

This is a consequence of the Queensland factions for decades having put their talentless mates into parliament. That is with the conspicuous exception of Wayne Swan who, if he were handled and treated properly, might well have made an efficient and able national leader.

The unpleasant truth for the ALP is that politicians such as Hawke and Beattie are increas­ingly rare. Queenslanders prefer larger-than-life politicians who are in touch with ordinary Australians. At the moment in the northern state they have none.

In the wider electorate there is a great deal of disenchantment with the major political parties, which explains why independents and the Palmer United Party (which is increasingly on the nose) did so well in the Senate. If Labor is to win the next federal election it needs to attract these disillusioned voters, many of whom seem strongly reminiscent of the supporters of One Nation.

For the ALP to achieve victory at the next federal election, attracting votes from the Greens, PUP and the independents will be just as important as winning over voters who supported the Abbott government in 2013.

Although neither of them are Queenslanders, it strikes me that a Bowen-Plibersek team may have what it takes to give the 2016 federal contest a real shake.

One thing is for sure: the incumbent federal Labor leader is not delivering much other than negative blandness. Staying with Shorten will increase rather than decrease the Abbott government’s chances of re-election.

Ross Fitzgerald, emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, is the author of 36 books, including his memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey.’

The Weekend Australian, January 3-4, 2015, Inquirer, p 18

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