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The panic over the Labor leadership is absurd. Of course Albanese can beat Morrison

John Della Bosca

Some in the party have learned only to emulate the mistakes of previous generations, believing it will deliver a different result

‘Though I have had more arguments with him than I have had hot breakfasts, I believe that Albanese has both the right attitude and the right strategy to lead Labor to a win if the party gives him a fair go.’

Like individuals who lose their sense of self-belief, the Labor party goes through periods of self-sabotage. Most self-saboteurs don’t realise the harm they are doing to the party because they are in a reverie that a simple change is the solution. A few ride the vibe of self-sabotage out of self-interest because the ultimate and most destructive change is a change of leader from which they hope to benefit. 1916, the 1930s, the 1950s and the early noughties are all periods when Labor’s lack of self-belief and collective self-sabotage was most obviously on display. Some in the party, it seems, have learned only to emulate the mistakes of previous generations, believing it will somehow deliver a different result. There is a gradual escalation of the thinking of self-saboteurs. Convinced that they deserve government but that the party is unjustly held back by circumstances, the doubters first look for excuses outside the party. They blame the milieu created by Covid. They still resent the leader and his team for failing to launch policies or attack the government even though the entire world is focused on the pandemic.

The doubters believe the leader should be able to control the thinking of the constituents and when he cannot, the leader is denounced as ineffective. Alternatively, they rail at the ignorance of the electorate because either the punters are bogans who do not understand climate change or woke hipsters who do not understand the economic importance of the coal industry.

The doubters fear success because they believe that they as individuals or the party as their personal proxy will be exposed as imposters and pretenders. As an ad hoc excuse for failure to “cut through” they depict political opponents as cheats and liars and are angry with their own leader for failing to effectively expose “Scotty from marketing”. When they run out of excuses, they turn on the leader and engage in the ultimate self-sabotage. Anonymous voices start a media campaign like the one we have recently seen. The whispers become a chorus, which become a malaise of division which can only be solved by a leadership spill. This in turn almost always leads to further division and disfunction.

This bout of self-doubt became public with the resignation of Joel Fitzgibbon from the shadow cabinet over his perception the party had failed to develop a policy recognising the needs of communities dependant on the resource industry. Interestingly I have not heard of any indication that Fitzgibbon thinks the solution is a change of leader (except maybe to him). Rather he appears to be using a curious variant of nudge politics to achieve his policy objective. It seems he may have had some success given the departure of Mark Butler from the climate change portfolio. Whatever Fitzgibbon’s motives, his departure converted some doubters into self-saboteurs.

The notion that Anthony Albanese should be replaced as Labor leader in favour of a beauty parade of possible alternatives lacks any rational basis. Bob Carr remains New South Wales’s longest-serving premier but as opposition leader he was seldom within 20 points on the preferred premier measure compared with incumbents Nick Greiner and John Fahey in the lead-up to the respective elections.

Similarly, Mike Rann was never preferred premier of South Australia until he became premier. And of course John Howard was never preferred prime minister over Paul Keating prior to the 1996 election. Pointing to the preferred prime minister score as a predictor of electoral success or failure and a measure of Albanese’s worth as leader is about as useful as reading tea leaves.

Albanese was ahead in the preferred PM stakes at the beginning of 2020 before Covid hit. He has pursued policies that provide real solutions to the problems of ordinary Australians like his childcare initiative. Next week he launches an industrial relations policy which no doubt will deal with the problem of uncertainty, insecurity and unfairness in the workplace – a problem on the radar of at least one member of almost every Australian family.

Though I have had more arguments with him than I have had hot breakfasts, I believe that Albanese has both the right attitude and the right strategy to lead Labor to a win if the party gives him a fair go. A large part of the leader’s success must be measured by whether he is keeping the ALP electable. Albanese passes this test with flying colours.

The most reliable measure of electability is the two-party-preferred vote. Newspoll’s recent results highlight the absurdity of attacking the leader when, in spite of the pandemic, Albanese has got the party no more than a point behind the Coalition and, according to this week’s poll, at level pegging. The Guardian’s latest Essential Poll has Labor ahead 47 to 44, with the rest undecided.

The panic in the ranks started mostly because of the fear of an early election in the wake of the pandemic. This highlights the absurdity of self-sabotage. The only reason the prime minister would want an early election is because, unlike some of my Labor colleagues, he knows Albanese can beat him.

• John Della Bosca is a former minister in the New South Wales government, a member of the Australian Labor party national executive for 12 years, and a former general secretary of the NSW ALP and fellow with the Whitlam Institute

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