CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Labor leadership rumblings
, May 27, 2006
The federal Labor Party needs something more substantial than a change of leader.The last thing Federal Labor needs is another political "Messiah" to lead them out of the wilderness. Barely a year after the departure of Mark Latham, whose brief experiment as leader caused untold damage to the ALP, speculation is suddenly bubbling away that Australian Workers' Union boss Bill Shorten needs to be fast-tracked to Canberra to lead the party.
Incredibly, senior Labor figures have had to hose down talk that the yet-to-be-elected Mr Shorten should be shoe-horned into the Opposition leader's job.
Mr Shorten, still in his 30s, has been pre-selected for the safe Melbourne seat of Maribyrnong.
The sitting member, Mr Bob Sercombe, has declared he has no intentions of quitting before the next election.
Having ignominiously withdrawn his nomination for pre-selection after a bitter fight, Mr Sercombe is in no mood to pass on the seat to Mr Shorten any earlier than he planned.
There are already two leadership aspirants in the Parliament, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, and Labor faces an election within 18 months.
But both aspirants have knuckled down in recent weeks as it has dawned on the party just how difficult it will be for anyone to wrest power from the Liberals during a period of sustained prosperity.
It is hard to say who is hurt more by the talk - Mr Shorten or the federal parliamentary Labor Party.
What we know about Mr Shorten is that he is a capable and successful union chief, well-connected with leading Melbourne businessmen. He is articulate, a good media performer, and has the ability to instil a certain loyalty among his union troops. That is about it.
Mr Shorten recently gained national prominence by being the unofficial spokesman at the Beaconsfield mine rescue.
While the mine management literally went to ground to concentrate on rescue efforts and to avoid scrutiny of any possible culpability, Mr Shorten took clever advantage of the vacuum.
Such was the blanket coverage, it will mean that in two or three years' time, when Mr Shorten secures a position on Labor's frontbench, he will be a familiar figure.
Mr Shorten has no parliamentary experience, no bank of knowledge (that we know of) of foreign affairs, defence, welfare, agriculture, trade, economics or the other myriad areas of government that is required of a leader of a national political party.
Even the recently departed Simon Crean, who failed to capture the imagination of the voter, was acknowledged as an experienced and capable performer in the Federal Parliament.
But Mr Shorten is no Bob Hawke, the former president of the ACTU who had played a prominent and pivotal role in public life for three decades before entering Federal Parliament.
Ever since Gough Whitlam, Labor has been obsessed with the idea of a leader who could unite the party, win the confidence of the mainstream voters, and help it win back government.
Charisma, telegenics, style and confidence count more in the Labor Party than character, substance, experience and policy.
What Labor needs more than anything else is a re-evaluation of its all of its policies, from the ground up, to give the Australian people a credible alternative at the next election.
It also needs to tackle some of the structural problems which have beset the party, resulting in the dominance of political staffers and unionists who end up being pre-selected for Parliament.
Labor is making a big mistake by fanning speculation about a Shorten coming, and Mr Shorten has made a strategic mistake for his own future by failing to kill the story off immediately.