Now it's Combet vs Shorten

Julia Gillard must eventually fall on the sword that removed her predecessor. Of the two serious contenders to replace her, Bill Shorten has the best advantage.

Simon Crean is a selfless politician, he knows the game and has been a warrior for Labor for decades. His call for a leadership spill was a call of desperation, for no one loves the ALP more than he. I strongly doubt Crean particularly likes Kevin Rudd or dislikes Julia Gillard. He saw his party and government falling apart and tried to bring matters to a head and avert a landslide loss at the next election. He knows that the leadership must change and he’s right. 

I found the speculation about if or when Kevin Rudd would deliver ‘pay back’ to Julia Gillard depressing and irrelevant to rebuilding the federal ALP. Don’t think for a minute that the possibility of a leadership change is over. If Labor can’t turn the polls around there will be another spill.

The ALP federal caucus rightly decided that they didn’t want Rudd back as prime minister, given his less than endearing traits that led them to the extraordinary decision to oust him as prime minister. Let’s not forget how the Australian public deserted Rudd too. Yesterday, Rudd fell well short of the numbers required.  

We can’t forget that things weren’t good internally for Labor with Rudd as leader. He was exclusive of the wider caucus, viewed as a tyrant by some and less than a ‘team player’. The wheels came off his leadership for a reason. To consider bringing Rudd back in the future is not a viable option. Is the Australian public expected to afford any credibility to a government that ousted a prime minister, and then considers reappointing him purely because the polls were bad?     

While it’s all great theatre, I’m more concerned about who will be Labor’s next prime minister. On current polling neither Rudd or Gillard will present a contest at the next election. Many on the left side of politics concede that the next federal election is more about the Liberal/National Coalition not controlling the Senate.

To my thinking Labor has two credible choices. It goes with Gillard all the way and takes the pain, or it puts in place a new leader – and not Rudd. I have been informed that the NSW Right of the ALP has decided Gillard must go. Just imagine being judged by that gang? Nonetheless, reality dictates Julia must fall on the same sword used to remove her predecessor, and soon.

This brings us to two men who are both serious contenders, Bill Shorten and Greg Combet. Both are articulate, intelligent, good communicators and handle a crisis with relative ease. Both are necessarily ambitious and have leadership aspirations, which is no crime in politics. They have taken on every task allotted them, including their ministries, and have been Labor's most outstanding performers.

Greg Combet is a product of the union movement, having served his time with the left-wing Maritime Union and later becoming Bill Kelty’s successor as Secretary of the ACTU. Bill Kelty was a hard act to follow, his influence in the union movement and the ALP vast. Combet proved as ACTU leader that he had vision and was a strategic and effective leader. He is a deep thinker and passionate about his beliefs. Combet is a conviction politician on a mission. I found it hard to work Greg Combet out at first but over the years grew to respect his integrity and ability very much. There is a sincerity and warmth to Combet that the electorate needs to see. I will always maintain that his loss to the ACTU was immense and is felt deeply even today.

Bill Shorten is an entirely different proposition. He is a product of the ALP machine and a political career was always his destiny. This is evidenced from his university politics and role within Young Labor: his talent was always evident. There was really never any doubt that Bill Shorten would be prime minister or premier of Victoria and I have watched his career with interest.

As with many political aspirants of the Victorian ALP Right, Shorten had to serve his time with a trade union. For many, this is not seen as an opportunity to fight for workers but rather a time to bond with the union and hope that their votes bond with them and the faction. No hard yards required, just play the game.

Shorten was different. He started with the AWU as an organiser and was soon organising lowly paid, itinerant fruit pickers in Mildura and then tomato pickers around Shepparton. These were seriously hard yards that most would shy away from. What had become a mandatory part of his time at a union uncovered a different side to him than I expected – he believed in taking care of workers. He went on to become the AWU’s Victorian and then federal leader, putting his political ambitions on hold.

Shorten is a career politician and knows the ALP machine and all of its intricate traits, that’s to his advantage. Combet on the other hand was enticed into politics at a much later stage. Shorten is charismatic and the better media performer. Shorten also has the advantage of being from the Right and ‘immediate family’ whereas Combet is more the ‘cousin from the bush’.

There was a suggestion prior to Shorten entering federal politics that he take over the ACTU and in exchange, support Combet into a safe federal seat. Combet had not done what he set out to do at the ACTU and the deal was never done. Both have a healthy respect for each other as worthy contenders for the title. In a massive break from Rudd and Gillard, both are politicians of conviction and beliefs, and can sell a message – something recent Labor leaders desperately lack.

Bill Shorten will be Labor’s next prime minister. Whether he will take the political risk of taking on the Labor leadership if Gillard is ousted is a serious question for him. Shorten doesn’t like losing. I sense he’d be happier if Crean took the hit at the next election. Shorten could then pick up the baton after the battle and prepare for the next war on his terms. One sure way of getting Bill to put his hand up now is for Greg Combet to express an interest!

Dean Mighell is a former secretary of the Electrical Trades Union.

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