We all know that the September election will mean curtains for Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan, nobody thinks they’re going to hang around to be part of the new shadow ministry. We can safely say the same about Simon Crean, Bob Carr, Jenny Macklin and Peter Garrett, they will all be in the sixties by the next election and aren’t within striking distance of the leadership, so will almost definitely call it a day. Kevin Rudd might or he might not, he’s a wild card but let’s say for the purposes of this piece that Kevin calls it a day too. This will clear the way for a new generation of Labor politicians to fill up the senior rungs of the shadow ministry. Bill Shorten, Jason Clare, Tanya Plibersek, Penny Wong, Chris Bowen and Tony Burke are all transparently ambitious politicians who will undoubtable try and for the large part succeed in dominating the upper echelons of the Labor leadership but I don’t fancy any of them to immediately take the top jobs.
The aforementioned contenders all have time on their hands, they’ll know from the fate of Kim Beazley, Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull that they don’t want to time their rise too early. They’d be better off courting support in the parliamentary caucus for when the first cab off the rank leaders start to flounder. In fact most of them are probably a bit too young. Rightly or wrongly age tends to bring with it a certain gravitas as was perhaps evidenced by Andrew Peacock and John Howard performing more strongly in their second leadership stints than their first. But there are two older contenders currently within striking distance of the top jobs for whom the 2015/2016 election will signify their last chance.
Stephen Smith is 57, Greg Combet is 54. Both are currently at the peak of their political powers but neither have the time to wait for the new Liberal government to become vulnerable, if they want to become Prime Minister they need to move as soon as Julia Gillard steps down. I envision something like this will happen: Shorten and maybe Burke will both consider it and run the numbers but Smith wont muck about. He’ll be first out of the blocks and soak up plenty of media attention while the others are still deliberating. For other MP’s contemplating running, taking on Smith would represent an intimidating challenge. A former Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence Minister, Smith will possess unrivalled stature in the parliamentary caucus. A prudent political operator would probably determine that the bruising affair of taking on Smith in a leadership ballot would simply not be worth it when history suggests he’s not especially likely to last till the next election anyway. Smith will nominate, maybe Shorten, Burke or even Bowen will too but I suspect the experienced and well connected West Australian will win albeit narrowly.
Despite having limited time on his hands I doubt Combet will go straight for the leadership. As the minister for Climate Change he’s not really in striking distance just yet, especially given he’s a member of the Labor left faction. I suspect he will go for the deputy leadership and if he succeeds he will choose the Treasury portfolio. If the Labor party continues its recent habit of having a Leader from the Right and a Deputy from the Left or vice versa then the other major contenders for the deputy position include Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese. Both are strong contenders and it wouldn’t surprise me if either got it instead but as a former Secretary of the ACTU I can’t help thinking Combet will have a slight advantage when it comes to running the numbers.
What happens next? Smith’s leadership will be an unhappy affair. He’ll languish in the polls for about eighteen months or so. People will say that he’s a nice guy but he’s not Prime Ministerial material, he lacks the killer instinct etc. Then the challenge will come. Ideally it should come from Combet to keep the younger talent on ice for the next election but I suspect if they have the numbers, Burke, Bowen, Shorten or Clare will challenge. Either way that will mean curtains for Smith and either as shadow treasurer or leader the 2016 election will probably mean the end of Combet too. Then with the old blokes cleared out of the way and the traditionally easy first re-election taken care of the real contest will begin between Abbott’s Liberals and the new generation of Labor politics. What will that look like? Perhaps Shorten leader, Burke shadow Treasurer, Plibersek Deputy leader and Foreign Affairs, Bowen Education, Wong Health, Leigh Finance and Clare Defence? On paper it seems like a reasonably strong team but who knows.