Tanya Plibersek should be the next prime minister, but Labor is wasting her talents
Laura Jayes is the host of AM Agenda on Sky News Australia, a journalist right at the top of her game. Last Wednesday she said what we were all thinking. She introduced Tanya Plibersek as the deputy leader of the opposition. She quickly corrected herself.
Plibersek is not deputy leader of the opposition. And, sadly, she is not leader of the opposition. Tanya Plibersek is a wasted resource in a party that urgently needs its best and brightest on tap.
Tanya Plibersek didn’t take up the offer of free childminding if she ran for leader of the Opposition.Credit:Roy Vandervegt
When I wrote two years ago that I was prepared to look after Tanya Plibersek’s children so she could lead the Australian Labor Party, I was roundly mocked by Labor types who explained Plibersek’s decision wasn’t – really – about her children. It was hard not to respond with that schoolyard rebuke, duh. But another very strange thing happened after I wrote that story. I received emails and social media messages– in their hundreds – from others wanting to join the childcare roster. I mean, nobody volunteers to babysit other people’s kids unless it’s grandparents.
The Australian Labor Party, at all levels, has the weirdest vibe when it comes to leaders, otherwise why would you dump Jodi McKay, renowned for her integrity? Anyways . . . maybe it’s not just the Labor Party where the blokes think they are the only ones who can save the party but, right now, that’s where the messiah complex is at its most visible. So about two weeks ago I decided to conduct a survey on my fellow Australians. No ethics approval. No random sampling. Mind you, I did get some very strange looks from other patrons at my most recent questionnaire site, the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron in Kirribilli on Saturday (nice toasted salmon bagels, let me say).
Who, I asked, is the deputy leader of the opposition?
Of the 30 or 40 people I asked, the answers were instructive. My favourite answer was Jim Marles, who doesn’t exist, a combination of Jim Chalmers and Richard Marles. There were other answers, very few right. One replied: Dimples Guy. The most common answer was Tanya Plibersek, which is just how Laura Jayes, Sky News host, described the member for Sydney by accident.
The Labor Party, much like the Liberal Party, is riddled with rival messiah complexes. If the party loses the next federal election, Bill Shorten will claim he deserves another go. Albanese will think it is he who deserves another go. Richard Marles thinks he has the drive. Jim Chalmers is cultivating fans. Dimple Guy Mark Butler does indeed have lovely dimples more usually seen on toddlers but doesn’t have the profile. Tony Burke. Chris Bowen.
They aren’t messiahs though, just a bunch of noisy boys struggling to cut through. The Labor Party needs a well-functioning team with a person who knows it’s not about them but does get heard. There is no question popular, unflappable Plibersek would be better at this than Anthony Albanese. She has good recognisability, believability and trust. And when we measured such things, she was the preferred leader for Labor on many occasions. Just two minutes ago, in the Resolve Monitor, Plibersek scored as high as Albanese in the likeability ratings but has about half of his unfavourable ratings. Plus she’s good at the outreach. People within her party say she has friends across the factions and her regular appearance on Alan Jones and on Queensland’s 4BC reveals a person who is a worker bee as well as a deadset queen.
As one of Australia’s foremost political leadership researchers, Emeritus Professor Carol Johnson of the University of Adelaide, says: “Tanya Plibersek is a really good communicator and has the ability to cut through and, unfortunately for the Labor Party, Albanese has had huge problems cutting through.”
Why is the party throwing away the power of this influential politician? To answer, said one insider, you’d have to ask Penny Wong this question: “Why are you devoted to keeping a likely losing male Labor leader in a position of power? Why can’t you be like John Button?” For those of you who need reminding, John Button told Bill Hayden he couldn’t lead the ALP to victory in 1983. As this particular insider said, “Wong should take her beloved friend aside and tell him what his best friends won’t tell him.”
Politicians aren’t known for bloodless coups but any other scenario would have a high transaction cost, say insiders. Mind you, the knifing of Turnbull didn’t seem to affect the voting public in any serious way. There is a cost benefit analysis for Labor and one that it needs to calculate right this minute. For those who keep saying Plibersek can’t win Queensland, let me introduce you to another capable Labor type, three times state champ, Annastacia Palaszczuk.
When I wrote about babysitting Plibersek’s kids, her office was kind but uninterested in co-operating with my ambitions for their boss. Same now. But someone needs to listen to me and to the other voters who think Plibersek should be the next prime minister. And she won’t get that chance unless she leads the party into the next election.
Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist. She is a contributor to the new book Gender Politics in which Carol Johnson has a chapter.
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