A political cake that did rise twice
Party Animals: The Secret History of a Labor Fiasco
By Samantha Maiden.Viking, 314pp, $34.99
by ROSS FITZGERALD
Samantha Maiden is the latest of four journalists — the other three being Niki Savva, David Crowe and Aaron Patrick — who have written books about the 2019 federal election.
Like Bill Shorten and most of his frontbench, Savva and Crowe had assumed the ALP was a shoo-in. Hence after the May 18 result each had to change the title of their books.
Instead of ‘Highway to Hell: The Coup that Destroyed Malcolm Turnbull and Left the Liberal Party in Ruins’, Savva’s became ‘Plots and Prayers: Malcolm Turnbull’s Demise and Scott Morrison’s Ascension.’
Crowe’s shifted from ‘Venom: The Vendettas and Betrayals that Broke a Party’ to ‘Venom: Vendettas, Betrayals and the Price of Power.’ It’s often good to have a plan B.
In contrast, Patrick and Maiden seem to have only begun interviewing key participants after the election, so approached their projects without preconceptions.
Maiden, political editor for ‘The New Daily’, has covered federal politics from the Canberra press gallery for more than 20 years. In ‘Party Animals: The Secret History of the Labor Fiasco’ she provides well-argued, multi-layered answers to a fundamental question: “How did Shorten-led Labor lose the unlos-able 2019 election?”
She argues that, as with John Hewson versus Paul Keating, Shorten can claim the dubious honour of losing to another underestimated treasurer turned prime minister, Scott Morrison, who few pundits expected to win.
In 1993 Hewson campaigned hard for a GST, but when he couldn’t explain how the new tax would apply to a birthday cake, it sunk his chances. Keating’s effective message to voters was: “If you don’t understand it, don’t vote for it, and if you do understand it, you’d never vote for it.”
In 2019, Morrison used the same words to fight Shorten and shadow treasurer Chris Bowen over their controversial franking-credit and negative-gearing ‘‘reforms’’, which especially threatened superannuants and retirees. As Maiden puts it: “The Liberal prime minister campaigned parroting the actual words Keating had used to defeat Hewson.”
It worked a treat. Morrison was widely seen as politically and economically far less risky and radical than Shorten, who seems to have spent much of the final weeks of the campaign planning for the ALP’s first days in office.
As Maiden argues, in the main Australian voters “are risk averse, a tendency pronounced when the economy is in trouble”. As well as running with a climate policy that was perceived, especially in Queensland and Western Australia, as being anti-coal, anti-mining and hence anti-jobs, Shorten and his shadow ministers failed to present a clear, optimistic narrative of what Australia could become under Labor.
‘Party Animals’ usefully explains that the responsibility for Morrison’s “miracle” victory in 2019 and the fiasco of Labor’s defeat rests not only on Shorten’s unpopularity but on the collective weaknesses of his leadership group, especially Bowen, Penny Wong and Tanya Plibersek.
Some blame is apportioned to the ALPs federal campaign team, including its director Noah Carroll, as well as to Clive Palmer’s $60 million election spend. The latter included a series of anti-Labor advertisements that specifically targeted Shorten and his union background.
In the final chapter, ‘Albo’s Destiny Thing’, Maiden writes convincingly about the interactions between Anthony Albanese and Shorten, who confided to friends that he spent six years “looking over my shoulder”. As Maiden shows, the relationship between the two was “marinated in deep mistrust”.
Maiden also presses the assertion that Albanese’s self-identity rests on the notion that he is a reluctant conscript. The Labor leader has repeatedly insisted: “I have never had a sense of destiny.” According to Maiden, Albanese also regularly says: “I never sat around in high school telling people that I’d be a politician, let alone that I would lead the Labor Party.”
As Maiden argues, within these remarks “there is an implied criticism of Shorten’s ambition … that is completely obvious to anyone who knows both men”.
Whether Albanese will remain leader until the next election is a moot point. But tucked away in Maiden’s important book is a revealing statement from one of Australia’s most influential union leaders, Bill Ludwig, who thinks Albanese has little chance of defeating the Coalition.
The canny Ludwig predicts that Labor’s shadow treasurer, the relatively youthful and fiscally cautious Jim Chalmers, is a much better option: “I think he’s the only hope we’ve got, quite frankly. He comes across well. He’s got a presence on the television … and he’s from Queensland!”
For what it’s worth, I agree with Ludwig.
Ross Fitzgerald’s new book is the memoir ‘Fifty Years Sober’ (Hybrid Publishers: Melbourne)
The Weekend Australian, March 14-15, 2020, review, Books, p 22.