Has Anthony Albanese had his Karl Rove moment?
A seemingly minor slip during a radio interview in late 2006 sparked a series of political moves that cost Labor’s Kim Beazley the leadership.
Beazley confused Australian media personality Rove McManus with the US political wunderkind and consigliere to President George W. Bush, Karl Rove.
Such was the level of doubt about Beazley’s judgment and political skills, this small mistake was enough to light a fuse under his authority.
A week ago, current Labor leader Anthony Albanese caused eyes to roll and faces to be palmed when he suggested Scott Morrison pick up the phone, call Donald Trump and ask the US President to concede defeat to Joe Biden.
It was a classic “WTF” moment and created an environment ripe for what happened in Canberra over the past five days.
Albanese’s authority has been challenged openly and his hold on the leadership loosened. The Labor leader’s position is safe in the short terms unless he makes a spectacular fumble or goes rogue.
He will almost certainly still be at the top of the ALP heap for any craft beer Christmas parties in Sydney’s inner west.
However, whether he can count on longevity beyond the first Parliamentary sittings of 2021 is the biggest known unknown in our national politics.
The stupidity of Albanese’s “call Trump” demand – something he first sought to qualify and then deny – was amplified by some opportunistic, and inaccurate, boasting that Biden’s US victory was an endorsement of bold and progressive action on climate change.
The US election results were misread widely and significantly.
While Biden won handily, the Democrats fell short of winning key Senate seats, went backwards in the House and watched a slew of progressive propositions go down despite record turnout for the party’s presidential candidate.
As a conga line of Labor MPs came forward to claim a climate policy mandate from their reading of the US results, the party’s resident bomb thrower and now-ex-frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon called bulls–t.
Albanese took the bait from Fitzgibbon – his second tactical error in just four days – and started a shouty argument in the shadow cabinet.
Within 24 hours, the MP for the regional and resource-rich seat of Hunter had quit the front bench, declared he alone had the special sauce for a Labor victory, and mused about standing for the leadership.
According to an informed reading of the room, when Fitzgibbon advised Caucus he was out of shadow cabinet there was a wave of relief and some joy among most Labor MPs.
This sentiment drained fairly quickly as the politicians worked through where things might lead. The Jaffa which had been rolled down the Caucus centre aisle had leadership stamped on it.
This set a clock ticking that may ring an alarm early next year and spark a leadership crisis with an unknown outcome.
These still unfolding developments might have more immediate consequences were there a candidate or even a couple of settled contenders. There isn’t anyone regarded as the person most likely, despite the conventional wisdom suggesting shadow treasurer and Queenslander Jim Chalmers would be in the running.
At the moment various ambitious Labor MPs are being talked about and talking about themselves – a selection that includes former leader Bill Shorten, current deputy Richard Marles, and senior frontbenchers Tanya Plibersek and Tony Burke as well as Chalmers.
Behind these leadership tensions is a roiling debate about energy and climate policy.
Fitzgibbon, who suffered a near-death 14 per cent swing at the last election on the back of a surge by One Nation voters in his Hunter electorate, wants Labor to sit tight, mimic the government and wait until Labor wins before tackling the policy challenges.
The ALP’s progressive left, led by climate policy spokesman Mark Butler, wants ambitious leadership on carbon emissions and a speedy move from fossil fuels to renewables.
Fitzgibbon has significant but not majority support in Labor’s Caucus, but his stirring of the leadership pot has caused previously subterranean doubt about Albanese to come to the surface.
A medium-term test for Albanese will be his shake-up of Labor’s front bench next month following a reshuffle by Scott Morrison. Fitzgibbon has demanded Butler go but his advocacy will make sure that won’t happen – which was probably his aim all along.
The questions about Albanese are not directly related to the climate/energy policy debates but rather whether he has the skills and judgment to lead the party.
Being a pot-stirrer is not a new role for Fitzgibbon – he was the lead shock troop in the ultimately successful assault on Julia Gillard’s leadership during the 2010 to 2013 period.
The way things are going, Fitzgibbon is going to reprise his success at toppling a leader. The remaining unknowns are when it will happen and just what – and who – comes next.