But the rumblings within Labor run deeper than Fitzgibbon; there is a genuine concern that the party, which narrowly lost the 2016 and 2019 elections, could lose more seats to a Coalition government eyeing a fourth term that once appeared extraordinarily unlikely.
And with political insiders viewing a late-2021 election as increasingly likely, enemies of Albanese are bandying about the idea that the clock is ticking on his leadership and muttering darkly about the party’s electoral prospects.
No move against Albanese is imminent – for one thing, the leadership rule changes introduced by Kevin Rudd in 2013 make that difficult, though not impossible. But if you scratch the surface, there is certainly a wellspring of discontent in Labor ranks.
“Both the Left and Right [factions] are concerned. No one thinks he can win. He has been unlucky because of COVID; it’s not all his own fault. But people don’t think he can beat Morrison,” is the scathing assessment of a senior MP who asked to speak anonymously so that he could freely share caucus discussions.
“The only thing saving him at the moment is the lack of an alternative candidate. If there was an election this Saturday, we would lose 10 seats, and that’s not acceptable. I think he has until Easter, and a move could be triggered by a Karl Rove moment [a reference to a former Labor leader confusing US politico Karl Rove with TV personality Rove McManus in 2006].”
Two of the criticisms Labor opponents of Albanese level at him are, first, that he has not managed the internal climate debate adeptly and, second, that his appeal is limited in the outer suburbs and rural and regional areas.
As another MP, and opponent of Albanese, puts it: “The party has abandoned what it stands for. What is our argument to voters [to be elected]? Why are people turning their back on us? It’s our obsession with identity politics.”
Albanese, for his part, dismissed out-of-hand Fitzgibbon’s warning last week that the clock was ticking on his leadership during an interview on Radio National in which he predicted he would win the next election.
“Well, he’s wrong, isn’t he? And he sits on the backbench. He’s just wrong. The fact is, we’ve gone forward since the last election, as all the [polling] figures show. And at the last election, we were very close.
“I’m very confident that this year, continuing to hold the government to account whilst putting forward an alternative plan for a better and stronger recovery, the plans that we have put forward already for a future made in Australia, for our childcare reform, for assisting to improve the standard of living by making work more secure, by taking action on climate change, on all of these policies we will have a very strong alternative to the government.”
Supporters of Albanese say he has worked hard behind the scenes, but, as one wise old Labor head puts it, “the question is whether there is enough oxygen when we go to the poll, and that depends on the pandemic”.
Another caucus supporter of Albanese describes Fitzgibbon’s interventions as “a joke” while also dismissing recently leaked polling from the CFMEU that suggested the ALP could lose the heartland NSW Hunter Valley seats of Shortland and Paterson.
“Our fundamentals are better than theirs,” the MP said. “They have not turned the pandemic into a strong position. Morrison’s approval remains high, but that hasn’t translated to a vote shift, and the second thing we are seeing is the Australian public have a line and length on Morrison not being there when he needed to be there.
“Morrison’s first real move this year was to engage in a culture war with Cricket Australia. He won’t have a crack at Craig Kelly or [George] Christensen but he will at Cricket Australia … If the vaccine is so important, why isn’t he pushing back against Kelly [an MP who has promoted medically questionable COVID-19 treatments].”
Working in Albanese’s favour, too, is the lack of a clear alternative leader.
The top-tier candidates are broadly considered to include education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek, health spokesman Chris Bowen, Treasury spokesman Jim Chalmers and former leader Bill Shorten.
But all of the top-tier contenders have positives and drawbacks: Plibersek is seen as an accomplished media performer, well liked by the party rank and file but not popular in outer-suburban areas; Bowen has long been considered the frontrunner for the NSW Right and is a former treasurer, but he was badly damaged by the unpopular franking credits policy; Chalmers is from Queensland, a troublesome state for Labor, and he is considered too young by some; while Shorten, though very experienced, has never been hugely popular with voters and may still have too much baggage after losing two polls.
So while Albanese is safe for now, given Labor’s historic penchant for changing leaders and the potentially difficult environment the leader faces in 2021 – particularly if an election is called – the Labor leader would do well to watch his back.
James Massola is political correspondent for the Sun-Herald and The
Sunday Age, based in Canberra. He was previously south-east Asia correspondent, based in Jakarta, and chief political correspondent.