The pulp fiction of a Labor leadership challenge

A fascinating dynamic was created by the mainstream media last week, when they created a flurry of Labor leadership speculation. The cause of it? A speech titled ‘Gough Whitlam and the Party of the Fair Go’ delivered at the Shellharbour Workers’ Club by Anthony Albanese, the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development.

The conservative media went into overdrive to create the impression there was trouble in Labor land and for the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten. Over at Channel 7, Weekend Sunrise won the prize for the most over-the-top and shrill reporting, declaring ‘Labor Leadership Pains: Is Albanese preparing to challenge Shorten?’, and stating the Labor leadership is up for grabs, all because Albanese had released his ‘manifesto’ for a return to government.

 

Channel 7 led the chorus, soon joined by ABC News, where they constantly referred to Albanese as ‘the leadership aspirant’, incorrectly announcing he was differentiating himself from Shorten by calling for a closer link with business, and questioning the ties the Labor Party has with unions.

Others in the media dove-tailed into the messaging as well – Katharine Murphy, serial offender at The Guardian, who often reports fictional factional issues in Victoria Labor from undisclosed sources, declared the leadership rules implemented by former leader Kevin Rudd in 2013 should be no impediment to removing Bill Shorten, because the rules are in “the sole control of the Labor caucus”.

David Crowe at the Sydney Morning Herald also pitched in, running interference for the government, declaring he was “not surprised some Labor loyalists don’t like this story. But let’s get real. This was a big speech by Albanese setting out his vision. He is the obvious leadership rival”. Maybe a big speech for those cocooned in the luxurious Fairfax headquarters in Pyrmont Bay.

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The talk of a Labor leadership challenge was the talk of the entire news weekend, and made another neat segue into ABC Insiders on Sunday morning. Journalist Laura Tingle decided to open up the program with a report on “Labor caught up in an internal brawl”, which she claimed was a test of factional alliances for shadow ministry positions.

Wow. What a way to head up a political affairs program.

But no mention of the biggest brawl of all, a Liberal Party branch meeting in the Sydney suburb of Arncliffe last week? The story had it all: faceless men, blood on the streets, one man was hospitalised, a grandmother was bashed, the brawl started in a café before flooding onto the street, police were called, people attempting to record the incident had their phones smashed, there are allegations of branch stacking, which have caused an “internal power play”.

That was a real brawl, but perhaps Tingle was focussed on other matters while she sipped her tax-payer funded coffee on the Insiders couch.

There were other snippets of the Albanese non-story throughout Insiders, commencing with a weak interview between the host, Annabel Crabb, and the Minister for Finance, Mathias Cormann, who said “Anthony Albanese is absolutely spot on when he says that Bill Shorten’s anti-business agenda is bad for Australia”… “Bill Shorten should listen to what Anthony Albanese has to say”.

No follow up from Crabb, no other context was provided, just a free run for the Liberal Party to add pressure onto the Labor Party. Perhaps one simple follow up question to Cormann would have been sufficient, asking him what this Labor anti-business agenda is and if he could point to evidence outlining how Albanese and Shorten differ in policy outcomes?

Crabb then invited discussion with her guests – Tingle, Peter Van Onselen and Mark Riley – about “Albanese’s Whitlam oration” by stating that he talked about “civility and a better relationship with business … several mentions of aspiration”. Well, yes he did, but here are the some other quotes Crabb ignored from Albanese’s speech:

  • “The ‘Fair Go’ is an Australian phrase that is beautiful in its simplicity and where two words encapsulate a deep philosophic belief.”
  • “To many conservatives, then and now, individual disadvantage is just rotten luck, or even worse, self imposed. What a miserable and narrow view. It is held by those without empathy to understand poverty, disadvantage or inequality.”
  • “The overriding lesson is that Labor must always be in the ideas business. Our conservative opponents seek power for its own sake. They rarely think beyond tax cuts for the wealthy and slashing spending on education, health and essential services.”
  • “It’s not good enough to say: “Elect us because the other mob are useless’’. That is true of course. But from Bill Shorten right through Labor’s team, that is not our approach.”
  • “Australians do care about quality of life. But they define quality of life as something more than the value of their share portfolio or how much money they have in the bank.”
  • “Unions are our link to workplaces. And our workplaces link us to families. The conservatives will always wage war against organised labour. They can’t conceive of the idea people might work together towards a shared vision. Their creed is self-interest and the law of the jungle – the political philosophy of selfishness propagated by the likes of Friedrich Hayek.”
  • “Today, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison appear to be utterly convinced that Australians believe in trickle-down economics. They are just as wrong. And just last weekend, the Liberal Party showed how disconnected they are by voting to privatise the ABC.”
  • “For Aboriginal Australians to tell us what they need rather than for us to tell them what is in their interest.”

That’s a very solid selection of material Insiders decided to ignore, but the focus for Crabb and her guests was on the misconstrued notion that Albanese’s entire speech was based around sniping about building better relationships with business, and how the speech was going to be used as a launching pad for a leadership challenge. Van Onselen chimed in claiming “he’s obviously trailing his coat for the leadership”. Obviously.

Albanese’s speech was then psychoanalysed to the point where Crabb, Tingle, Van Onselen and Riley were reading issues into it that not even Freud or Jung would have considered.

Ironically, the next segment on Insiders outlined how the former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was threatening to cross the parliamentary floor on energy policy – I’d say this is where the real leadership challenge is taking place – but there was no mention of Abbott trailing Malcolm Turnbull’s coat for the leadership of the Liberal Party.

Let’s compare these two situations: on one side, we have Tony Abbott, the former Prime Minister who was replaced in a coup by Malcolm Turnbull, throwing pot-shots and right-wing time bombs from the sidelines since he was ousted in September 2015, threatening to cross the floor in a parliament where the government holds a one-seat majority.

There are also four other leadership contenders – Peter Dutton, Julie Bishop, Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg – who have all publicly stated they would ‘put their hand up’ if the Liberal leadership role becomes vacant.

Yet, the media wants the public to believe biggest leadership threat lies on the shoulder of Bill Shorten?

These so-called media insiders either lack the intellectual credibility and insight, or have too many ideological blind spots, to call out the obvious. This ideological blind spot was extended, when Crabb went into sit com mode and asked her guests: “who is the Shadow Immigration Minister”, resulting in great mirth on the couch, at the expense of Shayne Neumann (for the record, yes, he is the Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection).

Well, here are some identity questions: who is the Minister for Regional Development, Territories and Local Government? Or the Minister for Urban Infrastructure and Cities? Or the Minister of International Development and the Pacific? They’re not household names either, so why restrict the humour to a specific Labor MP?

Instead of the paucity of intellect displayed by Insiders and most of the mainstream media, here are some areas they could have concurrently discussed about Labor leadership, to better inform the public:

The Labor leadership rules set in 2013 make it difficult to remove the leader of the party – not impossible – but difficult nevertheless. 60 per cent of Caucus would need to vote to remove Bill Shorten as the leader, followed by a one-week nomination period and a two-week membership ballot. A much faster turnaround could be ensured if there was only one candidate – but there’s no prizes for guessing what the news headlines would be in the lead up the next federal election, if Labor replaced their leader at this stage.

All political parties war-game a number of scenarios, and both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party would have played out a series of ‘what ifs’ under different leaders: the Labor Party has developed strategies based on the possible leadership of Anthony Albanese or Tanya Plibersek. The Liberal Party also have strategies based around the leadership of Peter Dutton, Julie Bishop, Scott Morrison, Josh Frydenberg and Tony Abbott.

These strategies would be in the top secret cabinet files in the respective offices of the ALP National Secretary, Noah Carroll, and Liberal Party Federal Director, Andrew Hirst – but, it’s not outrageous, it’s what political parties do. And if they haven’t performed this task, they’re not doing their jobs.

And it would be guaranteed then if the Labor national office felt they couldn’t win the next election with Bill Shorten as leader, he’d be pressured to resign – for family reasons, of course – and then manufacture a transition to a new leader (more than likely, Anthony Albanese or Tanya Plibersek). But then what? These people are relatively unknown quantities in the electorate, and would need to be ready for a barrage of new dirt gathering and mud-raking from conservative forces. Bill Shorten has had everything thrown at him for almost five years, and there is nothing new to throw.

Perhaps those in the media could put on their thinking caps – just for minute or two, it’s not a tough ask – and think about why Liberal MPs such as Cormann and Christopher Pyne would be agitating for a change of Labor leadership over to Anthony Albanese.

Would they prefer to face a Labor Party led by Albanese if they considered him to be a tougher opponent? No, they wouldn’t. These Liberals are agitating for a move from Bill Shorten to Albanese because they believe they can win an election against Albanese. That’s what their research is showing.

Why would a Labor Party that has led every poll since July 2016 – 126 consecutive polls from Newspoll, ReachTEL, Essential and Ipsos and at an average of a two-party preferred vote of 52.5 per cent – decide to remove its leader when a federal election could be called at any time after August 4, 2018?

The media proponents of the ‘Kill Bill’ strategy point out that Labor also removed a Leader of the Opposition back in 1983 – on the same day Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser announced the election date – when they replaced Bill Hayden with Bob Hawke. But Anthony Albanese is not Bob Hawke. And Bill Hayden was not a clear favourite to win the 1983 election: that’s why Labor powerbrokers installed Hawke, because they felt his public popularity would guarantee an election victory.

All of this information is readily available and would provide the electorate with a better context for current political affairs, but simple tasks like this seem to be beyond the media, who are satisfied to smooch up to conservative and wealthy benefactors. These feckless members of the fourth estate have badly let down the Australian electorate with their faux reporting, misleading headlines and conservative smugness.

Just the other day, The Daily Telegraph claimed it was the first to break the story about the Barnaby Joyce affairs and taxpayer rorts. The problem with this claim is many other media players were actually first (Independent Australia and True Crime News Weekly announced these problems during the New England byelection in late 2017). The Daily Telegraph released the story in March 2018, four months after the byelection, safe in the knowledge that anything they reported would have no bearing on the byelection result.

This is a constant pattern in the mainstream media. They report any semblance of negative news about Labor in minute detail – or just fabricate material and quote ‘unknown sources’ – and overlook indiscretions and poor political performance on the conservative side. They’re so far up their own fundaments, and those of the Coalition, that they don’t know where to find the real stories, and take every opportunity to downplay and diminish Labor politicians and the Labor Party.

Polling is a precise snapshot of current political fortunes and provides guidance for what the future may hold. But it doesn’t guarantee the future. Just ask Neil Kinnock. The leader of the British Labour Party in the 1992 election was told by every national poll over the preceding three years that he was going to be the next British Prime Minister, following 11 years of Maggie Thatcher’s rule and up against a gormless Conservative Party leader, John Major. But Kinnock lost the 1992 election by 21 seats, and Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun newspaper ran with the headline: “It’s The Sun Wot Won It”.

Bill Shorten is in a similar situation to Kinnock – a long period ahead in the polls, up against a hostile mainstream media – which increasingly includes the public broadcaster, the ABC – and up against an incompetent Prime Minister. He may still lose the next election, but a move to Anthony Albanese won’t guarantee victory for the Labor Party. It would repeat the political suicide the party performed in 2010, when they removed Kevin Rudd as leader, and again in 2013, when they removed Julie Gillard, on both occasions, three months before a federal election.

The players that were close to the action saw what a disaster this was for the Labor Party and how their indulgences at the time handed five years of government to the Liberal–National Party on a platter. Many of these players are still in Parliament – Shorten, Albanese, Tony Burke, Chris Bowen, Penny Wong, Tanya Plibersek, Kim Carr, Joel Fitzgibbon, Jason Clare – they will not be making that same leadership mistake again, despite the encouragement from the mainstream media.

It’s just not going to happen.

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Eddy Jokovich

Eddy Jokovich is a Sydney-based journalist and producer of many books, magazines and handbooks and has worked as a war correspondent, journalist, lecturer in media studies and production.