COMMENT: Labor’s election loss a failure of leadership


David McKelvey

Bill Shorten. Taken by David McKelvey. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Henry Sims, Reporter

If there is one lesson the Australian Labor Party need to take from the disastrous 2019 election it’s this: leadership matters. 

Although many will come out and point the finger elsewhere – ambitious policies, the relationship with the trade union movement or a focus on the environment over the economy, just to name a few – this loss sits at the door of Bill Shorten and a party room that refused to hear what voters had long been saying. 

They don’t like Bill Shorten. 

They never have and after the results this weekend, they likely never will. 

Shorten has consistently lost in preferred Prime Minister polling across Newspoll, Ipsos and Galaxy. He has consistently had a negative approval rating. The notion that voters were going to overlook this at an election was fanciful, and in all honesty, arrogant. 

With Shorten gone, Labor is at a crossroads.  

In the coming weeks a very public leadership race will get underway. Anthony Albanese has thrown his hat in the ring and Chris Bowen is rumoured to be entering the race. Tanya Plibersek considering running, but has backed out citing family reasons.

The challenge for the contenders is to figure out the best way forward – do they abandon some of the party’s more ambitious policy in search of the centre, or do they stay the course with a new messenger? 

In doing so they don’t only need to convince the party room, but the grassroots membership of the party, that their way is the way forward.  

Since the reforms to electing a party leader brought in under Kevin Rudd, the caucus and the membership each have a 50% say in who is elected as the next leader.  

Labor must look back to find their way forward. Whitlam, Hawke, Keating and Rudd have run and won on a basic formula – a high personal approval rating and a bold, visionary platform for what Australia should look like.  

For Whitlam it was free university. For Hawke and Keating it was Medicare and a raft of major economic reforms including the floating of the dollar. For Rudd it was dismantling WorkChoices and fighting for a price on carbon and a tax on super profits in the mining sector.

Even Gillard, who came in to save the party from oblivion in 2010 and faced some criticism for the way she came to power, fought for the NDIS and the NBN.

But all of them were well-liked by the electorate. 

Shorten had a vision for the country, but he couldn’t articulate it well enough or prove to Australia that he was going to fight for it – or perhaps they simply didn’t trust him after his key role in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd leadership changes. 

Closing expensive tax concessions, cutting down on middle and upper-class welfare, committing Australia to a clear and bold set of climate policies, restoring penalty rates and boosting wages are policies that were worth fighting for a week ago, and they’re worth fighting for now. 

It’s crucial now for the ALP to elect a leader who can lead. Someone who, at the very least, voters don’t openly loathe. Someone with an approval rating above 50%. 

It’s just as crucial they don’t change course and shirk the challenge.  

Many of our greatest achievements have been fought for and won by visionary Labor governments – with leaders that match. 

Labor needs a leader who is up to the task, or Labor will face more than just three years in opposition.