The Labor Leadership Race

Below is a ranking of sorts, of the potential Prime Ministers at the next election, each one briefly evaluated as a prospective leader. I don’t accept the theories often proffered that “so and so is the only viable alternative”, I believe that in a vacuum, leadership qualities materialize around individuals previously not thought to be leadership material and that these qualities consolidate around them after they assume the leadership.

A brief example is the modern Liberal Party, in mid 2007 John Howard was the leader, the serious alternative was Peter Costello and there was a little bit of conjecture about the exciting new kid Malcolm Turnbull. A year on from this point and the actual leader is Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull is well and truly perceived as the leadership rival while Peter Costello continues to generate speculation from the backbench. By late 2009 Malcolm Turnbull is the struggling leader, Joe Hockey is the popular alternative leader, Joe Hockey declines to challenge Turnbull, Andrew Robb is then encouraged by colleagues to challenge, Robb declines before Tony Abbott and Hockey both challenge and Abbott emerges as leader. If in late 2007 when Brendan Nelson first won the leadership of the Liberal Party you had put a dollar on Tony Abbott to be the leader at the next election, you would have made $38 for yourself. The point is of course that all these “serious leadership contenders” were in the parliament in 2007 when Peter Costello and John Howard were the only “serious leadership contenders”.

Stephen Smith
When Kevin Rudd decided to monopolize the execution of Foreign Affairs policy in his own office he created a monster of sorts. As Rudd went about scoring political debating points with his encyclopedic knowledge of Asia, his Foreign Minister was left with little to do but have meetings with high profile government leaders and calmly explain complicated policies to Tony Jones on Lateline. Contrast this with the behaviour of most of the party and Smith has fashioned himself an image of grown up maturity in a house of delinquents.

He became a household name earlier this year during the Australian Defense Force Academy scandal where by his calm yet concerned approach to a serious issue won him near universal plaudits in the press.

He’s been in parliament since 1993 and knows when to be the story and when to hide in the shadows (after the Labor leadership spill of 2010 for example). He is articulate, debonair, moderate and well connected; he is probably the party’s best candidate to lead them to the next election.

Kevin Rudd
The former Prime Minister wants his old job back, opinion polling suggests most people want him to have his old job back, when last he lead the party he mostly enjoyed comfortable leads over Tony Abbott in the polls, all of this is quite a cogent argument in favour of his return. Rudd exerts a public image of competence and intelligence tempered with an ingrained sense of compassion. He is guilty of trying to be all things to all people and squandering long term accomplishments in exchange for short term political popularity but generally he is close enough to the right balance to be an effective and formidable politician. His real weaknesses are apolitical.

Rudd’s relationship with his colleagues is uniformly poor, largely it would seem due to tyrannical egotism and a refusal to delegate. The temptation of keeping their seat would be enormous for the Labor backbenchers but most of his colleagues and the public service believe a return of Rudd would not be conducive to delivering the best quality of governance to the Australia people. That is unless Rudd has undergone something of a Damascus road transformation in character since he was cut down in 2010.

Julia Gillard
She is one of the least popular Prime Minister in history, presiding over record low opinion polls but she is incumbent and that isn’t nothing. By far the largest advantage to sticking with Gillard is that the government avoids once more going through the bruising process of a leadership change. But she does have some talents of her own. Gillard’s approach to the carbon tax, the NBN, the flood levy and the budget surplus suggest that unlike Rudd she has some sense of long term planning, a highly commendable trait for someone apparently clinging to dear life by a thread.

She’s also a gifted parliamentary performer and has a strong background in Industrial Relations, an area which will need to feature in the next election campaign if Labor is to have a hope of winning. Nonetheless a leader whose authority has been eroded by a combination of her own mistakes and circumstances beyond her control sees her in a dire position with little hope of recovering. It is in the party’s interests to go through one of those bruising leadership changes to get themselves a Rudd or a Smith.

Simon Crean
Simon Crean’s first stint as Labor leader was unsuccessful. Against Prime Minister John Howard who had skillfully accrued the benefits of incumbency: gravitas, stature, reliability etc, Crean’s bland, dogged style was ineffective. But as Prime Minister Crean’s sturdy handed Mr reliable image would be much more effective, especially when juxtaposed with the sometimes erratic leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott. Crean has experience in spades and economic credibility, he would be well equipped to salvage some credit for the governments aversion of the Global Financial Crisis but his ability to connect with voters is rudimentary.

Modern, dynamic and engaging are just some of the words which should never be used to describe Simon Crean and it so happens that this government is already miles behind in the polls. A relic from the Hawke and Keating years, Crean may be a solid choice for a popular party looking to consolidate its position but he would be incapable of turning around Labor’s current position to the point where winning government was vaguely attainable.

Craig Emerson
To call Emerson a long shot would be an understatement. The Minister for Trade is known for his strange attempts at humour, particularly in question time, if Simon Crean represents safeness and reliability Emerson represents a sort of erratic dynamism. He has however moderated himself somewhat since he became Minister for Trade and his background in economics allows him to explain Labor’s economic policies with an articulate confidence that makes the Prime Minister and the Treasurer look very pedestrian. He also went out to bat for Rudd when the Prime Minister was on his last legs which protects him somewhat from the stigma of Labor factions.

His relationship with the AWU is almost as bad as Rudd’s however making it seem unlikely that Emerson could ever take the leadership, although given what Bill Ludwig and Paul Howes have done to the union’s image in recent months this might be an electoral asset. Emerson is what you might call a high risk/high payout leader. He won’t deliver a mild result, he’d win or he’d get thrashed.

Bill Shorten
In many a sense he is the cause of Labor’s woes but there is a reason Bill Shorten is one of the fastest rising figures in politics. It is not merely because he is well connected, Shorten is articulate, charismatic and convincing. Shortly after he entered parliament I flirted the idea of him succeeding Rudd, in a peaceful handover sort of way after Rudd had been Prime Minister for ten years and was looking to retire. Unfortunately for Shorten he spent all his political capital in one night last year. His role in the sacking of the Prime Minister saw him rendered untrustworthy and conniving.

Shorten will always be suspected of an alterior motive and as such will never be able to win over the confidence of the Australian people.

Tanya Plibersek
Not really a contender but perhaps she should be. Young, urbane, charismatic and articulate, Plibersek has been one of the government’s strongest performers since 2007. She is a deft performer with the media, evading lose-lose questions with grace while slam dunking the winners everytime and stayed well clear of the factional games that saw Rudd axed in 2010. She would probably come across as too young and inexperienced for many voters though. (although she’s older than David Cameron was when he took over the leadership of the UK Conservative Party)

Greg Combet
Burdened with many of the same problems as Shorten but few of the Assistant Treasurers gifts. Combet’s role in the sacking of Rudd was less than Shorten’s but it wasn’t merely Shorten that was stigmatized in that affair but union bosses generally. Combet’s media skills are pedestrian, like Wayne Swan he appears to be reciting official party lines. He often comes across as cold, insincere and would be annihilated if he ever got to contest a general election.

Wayne Swan
If the Latham diaries are to be believed, in 2004 the Labor Unity faction presented leader Mark Latham with three options for the post of shadow treasury: Kevin Rudd whom Latham despised, Stephen Smith whom Latham despised slightly less and Wayne Swan who Latham more or less considered the same as Smith. Believing Swan to be the least capable candidate Latham appointed him to the post in order to “let him suffer”. Soon thereafter Latham bowed out but Swan stayed on, after his close ally and Leader Kim Beazley bowed out Swan was again reappointed to the treasury portfolio under the risk aversive Kevin Rudd and after Rudd was rolled by Julia Gillard Swan not only retained the treasury but was elected deputy leader.

Swan’s ability to explain a policy, to argue in a debate or to survive an interview awful but his ability to remain in a senior position despite this is legendary. But they surely wouldn’t dream of making him leader would they? Ideally Crean or Emerson should replace him in Treasury, he definitely should not lead the party.

Peter Beattie:
Some people float the idea of a leader from outside of the parliamentary party. Paul Howes, Steve Bracks, Kim Beazley have all been suggested but far and away the most articulate, charismatic, intelligent candidate is Peter Beattie. If Beattie were already in the parliament, say elected in 2007 then he would probably be a decent choice for leader, in fact I’d rank him second after Smith. But he’s not and the process of maneuvering him into the leadership of the government from where he is now would be farcical and embarrassing. It would do more harm to the government than anything we’ve seen thus far.


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