Anthony Albanese caps off his first week as leader by making key mistakes


Tanya Plibersek, Chris Bowen and Jim Chalmers withdrew from the race when they knew they could not win. Albanese was declared leader on Monday in a bloodless exercise.

But his preparations for the frontbench reshuffle have been a shambles. One obvious complication beyond Albanese’s control is Bill Shorten’s desire to remain on the frontbench.

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Shorten was a competent minister in the Rudd and Gillard governments but it is questionable whether someone who has dreamt of being prime minister since he was a boy is capable of shelving his ambition and serving under his rival.

Very few believe that Albanese should force the former leader to sit on the backbench or leave Parliament entirely. It is wise that he is treated with respect and Shorten must guarantee the same in return for the new leader if he wants to serve in the model of Simon Crean. If he gets the balance wrong, he risks joining the long line of embittered Labor leaders who have poisoned Labor’s chances at the ballot box.

But Albanese has shown himself willing to make captain’s calls elsewhere as he crafts his team to take on the Morrison government.

Take Kristina Keneally. Although she has never been electorally successful, Albanese sees her as a warrior in Senate estimates and a desperately needed addition to Labor’s lacklustre Senate lineup. She is also a woman.

The newly elected deputy Labor leader, Richard Marles, and deputy Senate leader Kristina Keneally in Canberra on Thursday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

If Albanese was so desperate to have Keneally on the frontbench, as he has belatedly and publicly made clear is the case, he should have made a virtue out of it by engineering the outcome.

Instead, he has allowed the factional process to spin out of control with two well-liked MPs humiliated into quitting their positions following his ill-timed comments at a press conference earlier this week.

Just as happened when Don Farrell stood aside for Penny Wong to take first place on Labor’s South Australian Senate ticket in 2012, it will be easier to publicly justify why he had to relinquish his internal support to make way as deputy Senate leader for a younger female.

But this cannot be said in the case of Ed Husic, a western Sydney MP who is future leadership material and should be supported by the Labor movement as it desperately tried to reconnect with the suburbs.

If Albanese was so desperate on having Keneally on his frontbench because he believes she is a performer, he should also have been willing to demonstrate the leadership in identifying the poorest performer amongst the NSW right frontbenchers, just as he did in dumping the factionless Canberra MP Andrew Leigh from the ministry on Thursday.

The team comprised Chris Bowen, Tony Burke, Joel Fitzgibbon, Michelle Rowland, Jason Clare and Ed Husic. The weakest link is Jason Clare, who despite having long-been touted for the leadership, has the political talents of his mentor Bob Carr in voice only.

As Labor’s resources spokesman he has been invisible and the opposition’s failure to balance its pro-climate change policies with its support for industry and jobs is a major factor in its shock defeat. If Clare is so selfish, or lacks the self-awareness to realise his poor performance was key to the May 18 result, his colleagues or the leader must bring him to the realisation.

Now Albanese’s captain’s call has backfired and he is left with the worst of both worlds.

He has promoted Keneally at the expense of another talent, rather than using the authority he has been given by being anointed unopposed to the leadership to ensure he has the best team.

Albanese must also guard against favouritism. He has used his leadership to promote Keneally because he wants gender balance and this is something the membership also wants to see.

But he was unwise to single out Husic as “one of his best mates” on Thursday. That will be noticed by his MPs. Those outside politics would be amazed at just how many decisions, enmities and rivalries are created through jealousy. Stoking that as leader is unnecessary.

Bosses shouldn’t have favourites, and if they do, should not be declaring them.

For a man who has spent six years imagining how he could do things better, Albanese’s first week as leader has been dominated not by his promise of a fresh approach, but by the unnecessary focus on Labor’s internal disputes.

Latika Bourke is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in London.

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