Is the people’s darling, Anthony Albanese, positioning himself to challenge Bill Shorten for the Labor leadership? You would be forgiven for thinking so, given some of the recent media headlines.
Only weeks after slamming a television commercial featuring Mr Shorten and a monochrome collection of workers as a “shocker“, Mr Albanese strayed from the party’s song sheet this week to argue the ALP should celebrate the recent budget as the Turnbull government’s “ideological surrender”, rather than deny it was a “Labor” budget.
In doing so, Mr Albanese is waging a battle for something much more important than his party’s leadership. He’s fighting to establish the values that will drive the modern Labor Party and the next Labor government.
One of the very few advantages of the civil war currently being waged within the other major party, the Liberals, is that it makes voters aware of the different philosophies and values that reside within the one political entity.
The Opposition is similar to the Government in this way, with right and left factions struggling for ascendancy within Labor just as the right-wing conservatives and the leftish moderates are doing within the Liberal Party.
The main difference is that the majority of Labor’s MPs are right-wingers, which is how right-winger Bill Shorten managed to win the vote for the Labor leadership.
Despite Mr Albanese winning 60 per cent of the leadership vote from grassroots party members, which equates to around 18,000 votes, Mr Shorten’s 55 votes in the parliamentary wing outweighed that of Mr Albanese’s support in the party.
But even though the right still has control of Labor’s parliamentary wing, and therefore the party leadership, the left is strengthening its hold on the political party and its policy decision-making processes.
This is important because a Labor government is meant to implement the policies set by the party, which is why we saw dramatic battles over marriage equality and boat turn-backs at Labor’s most recent policy-setting forum, the ALP National Conference.
You might recall Mr Albanese proudly voted against boat turn-backs at that event, while other senior left-wing MPs, such as Penny Wong and Tanya Plibersek, avoided those optics by sending a proxy to vote instead.
Mr Albanese lost the vote because a number of left-wingers did a side deal with the right to avoid embarrassing the leader.
Ms Plibersek similarly failed in an attempt to make it compulsory for Labor MPs in the current parliament to vote in support of gay marriage.
Since those losses, the left has continued to strengthen its presence in the party, most recently getting the numbers on another decision-making body, the national policy forum.
In theory this should mean the left will have a strong influence on the policies of an incoming Shorten Labor government. However, that is less likely to happen in practice while the right remains dominant in the party room, and, on economic policies, while the treasury spokesman, such as the incumbent Chris Bowen, is also from the right.
As interim Labor leader during the Opposition’s leadership ballot, and now as its shadow treasurer, Mr Bowen has become an increasingly impressive advocate for the party. He’s made good inroads on repairing Labor’s poor economic credentials and has convincingly argued for fiscally responsible but compassionate reforms.
The shadow treasurer has drawn the line however at adopting one of Mr Albanese’s pet projects, the Buffet Rule, which would impose a minimum rate of tax on high income earners. This is despite Mr Albanese convincing the party at the last National Conference to commit to “considering” the tax reform.
These debates are mostly hypothetical while Labor remains in opposition. But as Malcolm Turnbull clocks up his twelfth bad Newspoll, and the prospect of Labor winning government strengthens, the tussle between the opposition’s right- and left-wing values has taken on an urgent realism.
The disagreement between Mr Bowen and Mr Albanese on tax is only the most prominent of those debates.
Mr Albanese keeps a prominent media and social media profile, embellished with DJ-ing gigs and an eponymous beer, to stay connected with the left-wing troops within the party and to maintain morale. For as their Liberal counterparts know well, the battle against the right is anything but an easy one.
As for the party leadership, if Mr Shorten were to fall under a bus, the right would more likely install one of their own, such as the impressive Mr Bowen, than give the coveted position to the left.
This means Mr Albanese may well have to make do with eventually replacing Kim Beazley as the best Labor PM the nation never had.