On Thursday Scott Morrison was signalling his virtue while the Labor Party was letting its freak flag fly.
Morrison was at the Tweed Heads memorial service for Doug Anthony, once the deputy prime minister and National Party leader. He rolled into the Twin Towns Service Club carrying his own Bible.
Talk about virtue signalling. Our Prime Minister parades his faith in a way not seen since Kevin Rudd would stop outside his neighbourhood church in Bulimba to offer comment on anything and everything, framed by the modest local chapel’s colonial doorway.
A long way south of the Tweed, Labor’s Anthony Albanese was on his own roll, a shadow ministerial reshuffle, couched in fighting words – “taking the battle up to Morrison” – but in reality a likely last ditch attempt to stave off an assault on his leadership.
It didn’t please the primary audience, the Caucus members who have been mostly and steadily losing belief that Albanese has got the policy or political smarts to take the Labor Party to an election pencilled in Morrison’s personal diary for September or October.
It may have hastened the day but, as with everything within and about Labor right now, it’s complicated.
The memory stirred by Albanese’s key gambit of shifting the left’s Mark Butler out of climate change and giving this tricky portfolio to Chris Bowen is of another leader under pressure trying to assuage Sussex Street, the New South Wales Labor Right’s palace of plotting.
In 1982 Bill Hayden had Bob Hawke and his surrogates coming at him from every direction. He rolled his shadow reshuffle dice with a central move of Victorian Ralph Willis out of the treasury portfolio and giving it to the young and ambitious Paul Keating.
It didn’t work. Keating thought he’d been sold a pup and sulked. The NSW Right saw it as a sign of weakness and doubled on efforts to overthrow Hayden. John Button, a close friend and ally of Hayden’s, saw the foreboding tea leaves and tapped his mate on the shoulder.
By February 1983, Hayden was gone and Hawke was in, sailing to a big win over incumbent Malcolm Fraser.
It doesn’t look like there’s a Button in the current ALP ranks (the only possible figures capable of delivering a home truth are Butler or another South Australian left-winger, Penny Wong) and there’s certainly no Bob Hawke, kicking up dust in the mounting yard.
Also, it needs to be stated emphatically that Albanese is no Bill Hayden.
However, Albanese is in every bit as much trouble as Hayden was almost 40 years ago.
There is a clear majority of ALP members who have lost faith in Albanese’s ability to do the job he’s struggled with for just over a year and a half.
MPs, including many who have been wishing Albanese to succeed, don’t think there’s enough strategic precision or tactical agility in the leader’s office.
While elements of a coherent analysis and response to the government’s performance and sketchy agenda can be found, there’s no stories that link these pieces into a whole that could capture the imagination and persuade people to look again at Labor.
The problems with which Albanese is saddled are almost all of his own making.
They are usually minor in isolation but grow like the tiny pebble in a shoe, becoming an annoying stone demanding removal.
His thought bubble “let’s have a referendum” about the date for Australia Day caught MPs by surprise and left them without an explanation when asked about it at functions on and around the day.
Then there was the clown car trip to the reshuffle – a throwaway mention of it happening at the weekend, some ill-disciplined leaking of the Butler shift and a hurried news conference – giving permission for complaint to the critics and the confused in Caucus (this being a working majority most days).
So, if not Albanese, who might there be?
A leadership eruption could happen at any time, either through a misstep by the leader (very likely), a very bad poll (possibly unlikely because of the inflated Labor vote in Queensland and Western Australia where Premiers Palaszczuk and McGowan ride high) or some unexpected asymmetrical event.
Meanwhile, there are willing candidates, led by NSW left-winger Tanya Plibersek, who has been running hard since early December.
Plibersek is liked by voters, adored by the party’s rank and file and has six years of senior ministerial experience on her CV.
She’s clearly qualified but her right-wing frenemies in NSW (with help from a few factional allies elsewhere) would likely throw improvised explosive devices across her path to stop an advance.
Chris Bowen is also running hard, although his chances might be hindered if he can’t do in seven months what Mark Butler couldn’t do in seven years – frame and sell a climate change and energy message that satisfies Labor’s dual constituencies of those who work with their hands and metropolitan environmentally aware folk.
The others – Richard Marles, Bill Shorten and Tony Burke – are possible chances but they’d have to get around or over the frontrunners. Joel Fitzgibbon could run into the room, startle everyone and emerge as leader – it’s that unpredictable.
Labor knows that movie, by the way. In 2003 there was no consensus as to who could replace leader Simon Crean despite universal agreement he had to go. Out of this mix of despair and chaos came Mark Latham. Most Labor MPs have that one on the shelf with The Shining and The Night of the Living Dead.
The only thing we do know is Jim Chalmers has scratched himself from any contest – certainly for leader and possibly for deputy (although that’s fluid). He’s doing it for the sanest of reasons – why take a ride at the front of a burning dumpster?