Leo D'Angelo Fisher Columnist

Leo covers management and leadership issues, business trends and corporate strategy. He is a former senior business writer at The Bulletin and a former host of The Business Hour on 3AW.

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The Labor leadership contest is breaking all the rules, but it just might work

Published 26 September 2013 11:48, Updated 27 September 2013 08:21

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The Labor leadership contest is breaking all the rules, but it just might work

Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese could “nice each other” to death, but that in itself makes for a welcome change of pace for the Labor Party. Photo: Rob Homer

At first blush it seems a perfectly reasonable idea: give the 40,000 rank and file members of the Labor Party an equal say (along with members of the parliamentary caucus) in choosing the next federal party leader, who will of course be the next opposition leader and, potentially, the next Labor prime minister.

Maybe it is a good idea. The only risk so far is that the two leadership aspirants, Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten, will nice each other to death. It makes a pleasant change from leadership aspirants wanting to knife each other to death.

That’s probably why Labor’s experiment with democratising – and humanising – the party is such an odd fish. It’s hard to unreservedly embrace the direct election concept because it is so thoroughly alien to everything we’re used to in the firestorm that is Australian politics.

But that might be reason enough to give the concept a chance. It’s hard to deny that images of the candidates mixing and conversing with ordinary folk in relaxed and unhurried settings – from barbecues in suburban parks to meetings in community halls – is a welcome change of pace.

There is something unnerving about Albanese and Shorten being so felicitous towards each other, until it becomes clear (or as clear as anything can be in politics) that the mutual respect and admiration is genuine, the civility comes naturally and the expression of support in the event of the other’s victory is sincere.

Perhaps after the drubbing of the September 7 election, which was widely judged to be an expression of the nation’s distaste for the toxic leadership dispute that paralysed the Labor government for the past three years, there was no way that Albanese and Shorten were going to come out swinging and risk doing further damage.

“We must rule a line under divisions of the past,” Shorten told the audience at Tuesday’s leaders’ debate in Sydney.

Albanese echoed the sentiment: “After our electoral defeat, Labor is becoming stronger and more united and more inclusive as a result of giving ownership back to our members.”

Out of the ordinary

This is not your usual leadership tussle. Both candidates have vowed to support and serve the other; there will be no banishment to the backbench for the loser of this historic ballot.

“[W]hether Bill, who would make a great leader of the Labor Party and one that I would be very proud to serve, or myself, is successful, we have an opportunity to draw a line in the sand of past divisions and move forward as a team,” Albanese said.

(Lines in the sand are all the rage in the Labor party at the moment.)

Shorten likewise pledged himself to serve on an Albanese frontbench: “[I]f the majority of people and the majority of caucus select him … they’ll have done well and I’ll certainly work with him. I’m around for the long haul.”

Recall the uncomfortable body language and stilted patter when leadership rivals John Howard and Peter Costello, or Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, got in front of the cameras in attempts to calm leadership speculation: nobody believed it for a second. But it seems that Albanese and Shorten are the real deal.

This amity bodes well for Labor in opposition and, if it holds, can only mean a stronger, more stable Labor government when the time comes.

But there’s more to this leadership ballot than a couple of mates running for office.

Thinking man’s contest

As well as sharing common ground, Albanese and Shorten have outlined substantial points of difference and emphasis on policy.

Shorten has committed Labor to supporting the retention of the mining tax, simplifying GST compliance and improving the participation rate of women in the economy. “Women in Australia still don’t get an equal go,” he said at the Sydney debate.

Shorten has also spoken out against domestic violence and its impact on women and flagged the idea of parliamentary quotas for indigenous representatives.

“If I was to be PM, I would like to be known as the PM for the powerless, for the disempowered, for people who don’t have a voice in society,” Shorten said at the debate in response to a question.

Albanese has foreshadowed further party reforms, including curtailing head office interventions, trialling community preselections and direct elections to national conference.

The future of the Labor Party is a pivotal component of both men’s campaigns, both in terms of the organisation and what it stands for. Albanese’s slogan is: “Vision. Unity. Strength”, Shorten’s is: “Party. Policy. People”.

Each candidate has said he will not be involved in factional activities if elected leader.

Albanese says that as leader he will be mindful of the “kitchen table” concerns of ordinary voters.

“They talk about simple things. How to get a better education for their kids. Is there good healthcare if someone in their family gets sick? Do they have adequate access to childcare? Are their jobs secure with decent working conditions?”

Party members must be wondering why such unity and clarity of purpose had evaded Labor for so long. But it stands to reason that only an election defeat, and a sizeable one at that, could focus the collective resolve to put things right.

A great service

Albanese and Shorten have done their party a great service by conducting themselves with such civility and co-operation, while also addressing themselves to the policies, values and philosophies that will take Labor into the post-Rudd and Gillard era.

This is good news for Labor, but it is also good news for the people of Australia, Australian democracy and the national economy.

The leadership ballot and its conduct to date promises that whoever is declared winner on October 13 will provide robust opposition to the Abbott government, and early indications are that this is a government that can stand some scrutiny and challenge.

One can only hope that a strong Labor Party in opposition will restore the standing and relevance of Parliament in the broader community.

But ultimately, the work that the next Labor leader and his team will do in opposition will provide voters with the confidence that whenever the government does change – whether it’s after one term, as both Albanese and Shorten have promised, or after two or three, as modern precedence suggest – a capable alternative government will take the reins.

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