Establishment media are rife with speculation that senior Labor MP Anthony Albanese may be preparing for another tilt at opposition leader.
Albanese has stated he is not.
But you never know what to believe in these days of revolving door leadership swaps, where pragmatism has replaced principle in both the major parties.
Albanese delivered a speech on June 22, recalling Labor under Gough Whitlam, and referring to his mentor Tom Uren who coined the phrase that Labor is the party of the “fair go”.
Whitlam, Albanese said, was prepared to envision a different Australia — one in which there is universal health care; free education; a Race Discrimination Act; Indigenous land rights; sustainabile and liveable cities; support for the arts; and an outward-looking foreign policy including engagement with China. (Albanese didn’t mention it, but groundbreaking sex discrimination laws should also have been on that list.)
But those reforms, we should note, were not the brainchild of Whitlam: they were the result of years of strong social and union movements that campaigned hard throughout the 1960s and ’70s for real and lasting changes.
Albanese said Whitlam’s legacy is a reminder “of what is possible” when Labor is at its best. He attacked Liberal MP and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott for “wanting us to be terrified of the future”, and quoted Whitlam as saying: “Conservatism is basically pessimistic, reformism is basically optimistic”.
Labor, “must be brave enough to offer visionary leadership”, he said, “but smart enough to know that effective reform requires that we bring the people with us”.
Much has been made of Albanese’s comments about Labor needing to relate better to business and “aspirational” voters who are not members of unions.
As the speech was delivered just before Opposition leader Bill Shorten was forced to back down on Labor’s promise to scrap company tax cuts for medium-sized businesses — meaning that businesses between $10 million and $50 million would be able to keep their tax break — it did seem that Albanese was disagreeing with Shorten from the right. Or, Albanese could have been responding to the relatively newly-formed Industrial Left faction in Victoria, a split from Albanese’s Left faction. Or, it could have been both.
Either way, the establishment media have a very large platform in which to speculate, spin and generally manipulate public opinion. For some time, at least a section of it has come to Albanese’s aid. That’s because the ruling class know Albanese is a safe bet. Remember News Corp’s “Save our Albo” front page in 2016, when it claimed he was under threat from an alleged Greens preference deal with the Liberals in Grayndler?
He may be in the capital “L” left faction, but he does not have a close association with unions – left or right – as Shorten has.
It’s hard to argue these days that Albanese represents left-wingers who still vote for Labor. His comments on refugee policy, like the other “left” leader Tanya Plibersek, are more evidence of this.
In his Whitlam speech, Albanese said: “Labor supports offshore detention and regional processing, in order to stop the people smuggling trade”. He went further in his comments to Sky News on July 10, saying the Coalition’s policies “have stopped the boats” and that Labor had got “some things wrong”. He also rejected calls to put a time limit on offshore detention.
“What we know now is that the government’s policies have stopped the boats," he told Sky News. "They are not coming. And so, the circumstances of rejecting boat arrivals have been achieved.
“The truth is that, and I’ve said many times before, is that we got some things wrong. We thought that the argument was that there were pull factors as well as push factors, ah, was wrong. And indeed, we made an error when we did that. I think that that has been acknowledged by the Labor Party. And that’s why we have a framework that includes offshore protection.”
Compare this to his comments on August 30, 2001, in response to the Howard government’s Border Protection Bill to enforce its decision to prevent the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa from delivering 433 rescued asylum seekers (mainly Hazaras fleeing Afghanistan) to safety in Australia. “I am firmly of the view that we do need leadership, and leadership is not about responding to every poll," he said back then. "Leadership is about doing what is right.”
“Leadership is about humanity, caring for people and being prepared to take a stand, as the leader of the Labor Party has done in opposing this bill. This is not a refugee “crisis”: 400 people on a boat do not represent a crisis. This is a political crisis for us as a nation, which has been brought on by a desperate Prime Minister…”
He went on to argue that the refugee issue “requires a comprehensive solution based upon the law and based upon decent humanity”.
Arguably, refugee and asylum seeker policy is the critical issue for any party claiming to support a fair go.
Whether led by Shorten, Albanese or Plibersek, Labor has long since abandoned any pretence of support for the tiny numbers of asylum seekers who, according to Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton, are still seeking to come to Australia by boat. (Dutton was quoted by June 23 Australian as saying Australia is in a “danger phase” because a month ago Border Force stopped 131 people from Sri Lanka seeking to enter Australia.)
Albanese voted against boat turn backs at Labor’s 2015 national conference, but it can be safely assumed he won’t be doing the same this December.
Albanese is not the only front bencher to have shifted to the right. To those who say it has to if it wants to win government, I say look to Britain.
British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn took up the fight within his own party to stop the slide to the right and, as a result, he and his team have reengaged large numbers including, importantly, Generation Y who are alienated by the major parties’ “me-too-ism”. Arguably, Corbyn is fighting for the sort of visionary policies that Albanese is on record extolling Whitlam for doing.
Albanese’s position on boat turn backs may not be expressed in the same way as Dutton, but it is essentially the same.
Albanese is an ambitious man — for himself — and he is preparing to be drafted into the top job should the opportunity arise. But don't be fooled: there is no rift in the Labor Party. An Albanese-led Labor Party will be no different from a Shorten-led one. There is, unfortunately, no big policy debate inside Labor: if there is any at all, it is on the margins.
[Pip Hinman is a long-term activist and member of Socialist Alliance in Sydney.]