Australian Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese could be facing a leadership contest. Albanese’s record has been unimpressive, but changing leaders won’t be enough to turn the party’s fortunes around. Real party democracy and a break with neoliberal dogma are the only remedies for Labor’s malaise.
The establishment wings of center-left parties know how to fight when confronting left-wing challenges from within their own ranks. But they rarely show the same capacity or willpower when turning to face their conservative opponents.
Hillary Clinton pulled out all the stops to beat Bernie Sanders in 2016, only to be bested by a candidate who proved the most unpopular president since the advent of modern polling. Four years later, Joe Biden rallied the Democratic establishment against Sanders once again, but his narrow victory over Donald Trump probably would not have happened without a disastrous pandemic that should have buried Trump altogether.
In Britain, Keir Starmer has concentrated on waging a factional war against the Labour Party’s left wing, including his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile, Starmer still lags behind Boris Johnson and the Conservatives in most opinion polls, even after their incompetent handling of the pandemic has led to one hundred thousand deaths and counting.
The Australian Labor Party (ALP) follows the same pattern. The ALP’s right faction likes to mythologize itself as the embodiment of ruthless pragmatism, willing to do “Whatever it Takes” to win power — a motto most famously associated with the brutal bashing of a left-wing branch activist in the 1980s. But Labor Right’s last candidate, Bill Shorten, was Labor’s most unpopular leader in thirty years, losing two consecutive elections in 2016 and 2019.
Since Shorten’s second defeat, Labor Left’s Anthony Albanese has led the party. Albanese has been an uninspiring leader, whose inadequate attempts at organizational reform have done nothing to challenge a coterie of right-wing bureaucrats who dominate the party machine. Few people in the ALP think he can win a national election against Liberal PM Scott Morrison, and there’s mounting speculation that he’ll soon face a leadership challenge.
This would be the ninth time the ALP has changed its leader in just twenty years. But a change of personality at the top that leaves the ALP’s organizational culture and policy platform unchanged will do nothing to address its problems. And most of the candidates to replace Albanese would represent a clear step backwards.
Jim Chalmers, Queensland Right
The nicest thing you could say about Jim Chalmers is that he’s a nonentity. Right Labor presents him as a sensationally popular shadow treasurer, but 82 percent of Australians can’t even recognize his name. Among those who follow politics closely, Chalmers is probably best remembered for having tearfully begged then Labor PM Kevin Rudd to support his preselection as an ALP candidate.
Chalmers’s supporters insist that he is the right man to lead Labor because he hails from Queensland, which has a reputation as Australia’s most conservative state — ignoring the fact that Chalmers has worked full-time in Canberra and Sydney since 2001.
Chalmers penned a hero-worshipping PhD thesis on former Labor prime minister Paul Keating, the man who first introduced Australia’s policy of indefinitely detaining asylum seekers. Keating’s time in office revealed a staunch commitment to neoliberal economics: he referred to one economic downturn as “the recession we had to have,” and his stewardship of the Australian economy locked in a model characterized by spiraling inequality, privatization, and declining union membership.
Fans of Chalmers prefer to focus on his literary magnum opus, the bizarrely titled Glory Daze, which expresses his bafflement at the ingratitude of the Australian public toward the last Labor government. After all, Chalmers points out, former treasurer Wayne Swan — for whom he worked as chief of staff — delivered economic growth. Perhaps the lack of appreciation has something to do with the fact that for young Australians, the most realistic pathway to home ownership is waiting for their parents to die.
Chris Bowen, New South Wales Right
As immigration minister under Julia Gillard, Chris Bowen ensured that asylum seekers, including children, remained imprisoned in offshore camps. Some of those refugees sewed their lips shut in protest. He bears more responsibility than most for Australia’s illegal and inhumane asylum policy of indefinitely detaining refugees. When the history books are written, his name will be marked with shame.
While Labor Right members claim to be expert political tacticians, Bowen’s track record suggests otherwise. As shadow treasurer, he championed a reform to franking credits — tax refunds paid to shareowners that are equivalent to the value of tax already paid by the companies whose shares they own. Even though Bowen’s policy would only have affected the wealthiest 10 percent of households, the Liberals still managed to present it as Labor’s “death tax.”
Bowen seemed helpless in the face of this bad-faith campaign, which presented franking credits as something that ordinary people could expect to benefit from. After the Liberals won the election, there were reports of pensioners ringing up the authorities to ask when their franking credits would come through, only to discover that the refunds were only available for the minority of people who actually own shares.
Albanese has just reshuffled the ALP’s shadow cabinet, giving Bowen the climate change portfolio — most likely in an attempt to appease Labor’s coal lobby representative, Joel Fitzgibbon. Fitzgibbon recently quit the shadow cabinet in protest against his party’s “confusing and scary” climate change targets. Bowen’s promotion has brought Labor one step closer to abandoning those targets, leaving the planet to go to hell on a handcart.
Kristina Keneally, New South Wales Right
Kristina Keneally perfectly embodies the gulf between the ALP’s right-wing powerbrokers and Australian voters. Keneally oversaw the death throes of Labor’s last New South Wales (NSW) state government. She’s the apotheosis of the “NSW disease,” in which Labor frantically cycles through leaders in the hope of finding a popular one. Two Ministers in the former government have since been imprisoned, and one is currently facing a retrial. The NSW anti-corruption commission found that two more have been engaged in corrupt conduct.
Those corruption hearings were ultimately a sideshow compared to the social pain Keneally tried to inflict on the people of New South Wales with dogmatic neoliberal policies. In the teeth of entrenched opposition from unions and even her own right-wing faction, Keneally tried — but ultimately failed — to privatize the state’s monopoly on power generation, a move that would have raised electricity prices and led to cuts in pay and conditions for workers.
Labor’s right-wing bureaucrats may have forgotten about this, but voters haven’t. In 2011, Keneally led the most unpopular state government in NSW history to a record low vote share for the ALP of 25.5 percent — less than half of the right-wing coalition’s total. Six years later, she lost a federal by-election by 10 percent in Bennelong, a multicultural hub that should be one of Labor’s natural heartlands. That hasn’t stopped the Right from trying to force through her preselection in Parramatta, against the wishes of left-wing party members.
Having found her way into the federal senate, Keneally has continued two old Labor Right traditions: hostility to immigrants and sycophancy toward the Catholic Church. Although she is an American immigrant herself, Keneally has called for crackdowns on asylum seekers and dog whistled about cheap foreign workers taking Australian jobs. At the same time, she has pandered to the religious right, most recently by opposing laws that would make it mandatory for Catholic priests to report child sexual abuse disclosed in confession.
Bill Shorten, Victorian Right
Can a soufflé rise not once, not twice, but three times? “Faction man” Bill Shorten, the most unpopular Labor leader in thirty years, hopes the answer is yes. Despite having led Labor to one of its worst results in recent history in 2019, Shorten hasn’t had the grace to take a back seat in the ALP, seeking instead to undermine his successor Anthony Albanese.
The word voters most associate with Shorten is “untrustworthy.” Even his factional allies agree. As Samantha Maiden reports in Party Animals: The secret history of a Labor fiasco, ALP veteran Stephen Conroy told former general secretary Jamie Clements that he still wouldn’t call Shorten a friend, despite being the only person to have attended Shorten’s 18th, 21st, and 40th birthdays (not to mention his wedding).
Shorten has earned that reputation with his long record of destabilizing Labor leaders. He’s the power broker behind the right-wing “ShortCon” subfaction, immodestly named after himself, and orchestrated the downfall of both Labor prime ministers to have been elected this century.
The Right claims that Shorten lost in 2019 because his platform was too far to the left. In reality, it was a very mild set of policies, with a handful of progressive proposals like scrapping tax concessions for property investors and bringing fairer taxes on family trusts used by the superwealthy. The policies weren’t the problem — in fact, they were demonstrably more popular than either Shorten himself or the ALP.
Tanya Plibersek, New South Wales Left
Compared to the other contenders, Tanya Plibersek, from Labor Left, may seem like a distinct improvement. As health minister, she brought in plain cigarette packaging laws that were so effective big tobacco sued her twice in a bid to stop them. Plibersek also made the chemical abortion pill RU486 accessible to all women through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
Plibersek supported same-sex marriage at a time when Jim Chalmers’s hero Paul Keating was noisily insisting that “two blokes and a cocker spaniel don’t make a family.” At times, she’s even been willing to take controversial stands — for example, by condemning Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon for war crimes committed against the Palestinians.
However, we should still be wary. Even if the next Labor leader also hails from the Left, they will still have to face right-wing dominance over the party machine, which gives it massive influence over Labor candidates, caucuses, and policy. Even if Albanese’s replacement proves to be another leader of the NSW Left, it’s hard to see what this would achieve without a more drastic reorientation of the party and its organizational culture.
Plibersek’s personal record may not be as woeful as those of her potential rivals, but she has already shown signs of her willingness to capitulate to the Right in the interests of so-called party unity. She’s also been known to float conservative ideas like a pledge of allegiance for schoolkids — a proposal that even right-wing “talkback” radio thought was pretty weird.
Breaking up the Regime
The real problem doesn’t lie with the personnel at the top of the ALP — it’s the factional balance inside the party. Labor Right claims to be in the busines of building an electable party. In practice, the faction’s tired mix of social conservatism and neoliberal economics has never inspired the electorate, but its leaders don’t really care as long as they control the ALP itself.
This will only change if the ALP’s left wing can find leaders with the courage to break up the corrupt, gerrymandered regime that controls the party, and decisively repudiate a commitment to neoliberalism that dates back to the age of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. Until that happens, the only real leadership choice will be one between disappointment and despair.
This post was originally published on Jacobin.