At a Glance

Leadership has always been presented as the glittering prize in politics.  It’s the pinnacle of politics that many aspire to but only few achieve.

Its interesting to see that more recently, continuing leadership of a major political party in Australia has become a much more fickle commodity.

Fickle in what sense?  Compared to the rewards of the record 11 years John Howard spent as Prime Minister, these days becoming leader is like being gifted with the poisoned chalice.

Think about it…Julia Gillard became Prime Minister in 2010, followed by Kevin Rudd in 2013, then Tony Abbott in 2013 and now Malcolm Turnbull in 2015.  Australia now has the dubious history of having had 4 Prime Ministers in only 5 years.

Under these conditions, only the ruthlessly ambitious would put their hand up for the role.  Bill Shorten has always been considered to display these traits, but has he drunk from the leadership chalice a little too soon?

This inevitably invites the question, what will become of Bill if he fails in his bid to become Prime Minister?

What’s on the Cards if Bill Shorten Loses?

As a casual observer, looking at the polls, you may be lead to believe that Bill Shorten is in with a real chance. Be wary of taking these polls entirely at face value – because come election day we are unlikely to see Shorten as victorious.

Unlike his predecessors though, Bill Shorten has already accomplished a major achievement for a Labor leader.  He has managed to hold onto his job for an entire term of the Parliament!!!

You might be surprised to know that the last Labor leader to achieve this feat was Kim Beazley, between 1998-2001.  He later resigned, following his 2001 election defeat and was replaced by Simon Crean.

Do you recall how Bill Shorten secured the Labor leadership?

It was following the chaos of the Rudd-Gillard years and subsequent Labor election defeat in 2013. In a head-to-head contest with Anthony Albanese, Bill Shorten narrowly won the leadership battle.

This was a significant moment in Labor history. This leadership contest was the first to include the rank and file membership of the ALP.  The membership vote counted for 50% of the ballot with Labor caucus members making up the other 50%.

It is interesting to note that Bill Shorten won strong support of his caucus colleagues with 64% of the vote, whereas Albanese won strong support of the rank and file membership with 60% of their vote.

In the end Bill Shorten secured the leadership with a combined 52% of the vote.

What Will be Bill Shortens Post-Election Fate?

In the unexpected event that Bill Shorten leads Labor to victory he will be hailed as a modern day Labor hero.

In the more likely event that Labor loses, will the ALP move to ‘Kill Bill’?

It’s been a surprise for many since the start of the year, at the improvement in Bill Shortens political fortunes. However, it came as no surprise that when Malcolm Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott in September 2015, that the Coalition received an immediate electoral boost.

In November 2015, Malcolm Turnbull was riding high and leading Bill Shorten by 50 points on the key question of preferred Prime Minister.  Furthermore, Turnbull had anywhere up to a 10 point lead in the two party preferred vote.

By December 2015, murmurings could be heard within the Labor Caucus as to whether Bill Shorten would survive into the new year. He had yet to convince his colleagues that he had a winning strategy and was asking a then nervous caucus to simply ‘trust him’.

It’s interesting to note, that Malcolm Turnbull’s 50 point lead over Bill Shorten has now shrunk to 15 points. In December 2015, who would have foreseen that the polls would now be consistently tied around 50:50 in two party preferred terms?

If you look back to November 2015, Malcolm Turnbull also had a (+38) satisfaction rating compared to Bill Shortens (-31). This was a massive difference of 69 points.  Bill Shorten has since seen a considerable turnaround, as this difference has now shrunk to just 5 points.

It’s been an incredible surprise that it has taken only 6 short months for Bill Shorten to bounce back.

Don’t consider that this improvement in political fortunes is a guarantee that Bill Shorten will keep his job following a Labor election loss.

Politics is a dirty business, with both major parties proving they are happy to quickly discard Prime Ministers.  In this environment, one can only imagine getting rid of an Opposition Leader may all be in a day’s work.

It Will Come Down to This…

Political parties judge leadership success by two simple measures, winning Government or how close was the call. In politics, there is no silver medal for coming second.

Assuming Malcolm Turnbull is returned to Government, the attention will then turn to Bill Shorten and his ongoing leadership of the Labor Party.

As it stands, the ALP currently holds 57 seats in the House of Representatives. For Shorten to survive post July 2 – it will come down to how close he took the ALP to winning Government.

There is a general view that the ALP could win up to 12 additional seats from the Government this election.  If this were to occur, it would give the Opposition 69 seats, 7 seats short of the magic 76 required to form Government.

The expectation is, that should Bill Shorten only win up to an additional 6 seats, then his leadership is in danger.  Above and beyond this, the more seats he wins, the safer his leadership will be.

Who Could Be Next in Line?

Politics is littered with the headstones of the politically ambitious.  It’s a contest between those that have the job and those that desire it.

If on July 2, Bill Shorten falls short of party expectations, the Labor leadership will most likely be up for grabs.

A challenge, would most likely come down to a competition between these three candidates:

  • Anthony Albanese from the left wing of the party
  • Chris Bowen from the right wing of the party
  • Tanya Plibersek from the left wing of the party

Ultimately, this ballot would come down to a battle between the left and the right factions.  Before the ballot, in this scenario the left faction would have to make a decision to either support Albanese or Plibersek as their preferred candidate.

In 2013, in an attempt to reduce the stronghold of factional powerbrokers over the Labor leadership process, Kevin Rudd introduced new leadership voting rules.

This meant for the first time, rank and file members of the ALP received a vote in the Labor leadership ballot. While this took place in 2013, it is interesting to note this may not automatically occur in 2016. After the election, the ALP in the event of a leadership ballot will have to decide whether to once again include the party members in the ballot.

The decision to include the party members will have a significant impact on any leadership ballot outcome within the ALP.

In the event that the members are included, the left faction candidate would be favoured to win the leadership.  If they are not part of the ballot process, then the Labor caucus alone will decide the leadership, and that would favour the right faction candidate.


The only antidote for leadership longevity is political success.  Political parties are not called party machines because of their warm embrace of political failure.  The foundation for their existence is to promote and reward political success.

As politically ambitious as Bill Shorten is, the legacy of the Rudd-Gillard years, made this election virtually impossible for a Labor leader to win.

Even though Bill Shorten has come close to achieving the near impossible in this election campaign, it will not guarantee that he will retain the leadership post election.

At the end of the day his future will be determined by how may more ‘bums on seats’ he brings to the ALP on July 2, 2016. For him to have a chance to face off again in the 2019 federal election, he will need to win more than 6 seats at the 2016 election to secure his leadership.

Will Bill Shorten, having ambitiously sought the leadership chalice feel short changed if he achieves a better election outcome than was expected but finds himself losing the Labor leadership.

For more information in regards to this or any other public affairs issue you may require assistance with, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Jody Fassina|Managing Director|Insight Strategy

M: (0405) 103 493

E: Jody.Fassina@insightstrategy.com.au


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