The Australian Labor Party doesn’t have to change leaders. It just has to change.
As someone who has consistently defended Anthony Albanese as a decent, sensible and cautious leader for these uncertain times, I was heartened to see him claw the Opposition back to level pegging in the latest Newspoll.
But we all know how slippery polls can be and anyone who thinks this means everything is hunky dory is a fool.
One man definitely not a fool is John Della Bosca, a wise old guru of the NSW Right and factional nemesis of Albo, who perfectly dismantled the argument for a change of leadership in an op-ed piece for The Guardian this week.
Della’s key role in keeping NSW Labor in power for a decade under Bob Carr, followed by a further six years of gradual unravelling, has been sadly overshadowed by his unbecoming fall from grace due to some poor personal decisions. Some might argue that writing for The Guardian constitutes another one.
But he is a brilliant political thinker and as usual he is right. The case for leadership change is flimsy and shortsighted.
Scott Morrison will almost certainly call an election later this year, probably around October, and he will do so because he wants to capitalise on his government’s legitimate success in ameliorating the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our national economy.
While the states have gone their separate ways in attempting to suppress or eliminate the virus through varied public health measures, the commonwealth has smashed the piggy bank to make sure the country still functions without the crippling unemployment and economic collapse that has beset other nations.
Mr Morrison did this by adopting fundamental Labor or Keynesian policies of public stimulus instead of purist neoliberal austerity measures. It worked and he deserves great credit for forsaking his default ideology for a practical and pragmatic response.
It also now looks like he will pivot on climate change and join the rest of the world in embracing a zero emissions target by 2050. Even the hard right of his own party will struggle to fight him on this, given he both won the unwinnable election and, after the horrorshow of his bushfire handling, managed to reclaim ascendancy on the back of an even greater crisis.
Leaving aside the catastrophic human cost of both of these, it is impossible not to say that political fate has been good to ScoMo, a man who entered the 2019 election with hardly a policy or party to his name.
And that is what makes him so dangerous to Labor. Unlike John Howard, the great post-Menzies godfather of the Liberal party who died on a lonely ideological hill called WorkChoices, Mr Morrison is a man who believes in nothing. He will change allegiances, alliances and ideologies if that is what is needed for either the job at hand or his job in particular.
The result of all this is that the Coalition has recaptured the political centre on both the practical matter of jobs and jabs and the political matter of climate change. Labor’s hand-wringing on the fringes has allowed the Liberals to creep into the middle.
But still they worry, which is why the PM will almost certainly call an election at the tail end of a crisis rather than at the dawn of a national rebuild that must surely follow. ScoMo needs to go to the polls as the leader who saved the country instead of one of two options as to what to do next.
The problem for the Coalition is that they don’t have much of a plan for what to do next. The problem for Labor is that they don’t have one either.
The argument over extending JobKeeper or JobSeeker is a fool’s errand. Inevitably JobKeeper must end and JobSeeker will result in a permanent increase for the dole that will be welcome and necessary, albeit well below current levels.
These are both blunt instruments. The next election will come down to who has the most believable strategy for pulling Australia out of an economic hit that might be less violent than what the rest of the world is facing but still massively savage.
Tanya Plibersek says that it’s all about jobs and she’s right – she’s been saying all the right things. But there’s no point talking about jobs unless you have a plan to deliver them. And there’s no point having a plan to deliver them unless you get elected.
If Scott Morrison goes to the polls this year he will almost certainly win but Albo will give him a run for his money. At all times, and even more so in times of change, Australians like known quantities. We like a safe pair of hands.
Mr Albanese will survive as leader if he actively casts loose left-wing lunacy and recaptures the middle ground that the Liberals now occupy. He instinctively gravitates towards the sensible centre but also needs to make clear that the Labor Party has no truck with radicals.
A somewhat infamous Twitter post attempted to malign a photo of our Prime Minister with then-US President Donald Trump with the words: “It’s the company you keep.”
Sometimes it’s the company you don’t keep that’s more important.