But Parliament’s return for 2021 gave MPs their first chance to catch up in person and compare notes about their summers, the mood in their electorates and how the ALP is travelling with voters.
These conversations are crucial in setting the mood and tone of the political year ahead in the caucus (and in the Coalition party room).
The Sun-Herald and Sunday Age spent the week knocking on doors and taking the temperature of the caucus, and two things stand our for Labor.
The first is that few Labor MPs – including the considerable majority that support Albanese remaining leader – think that he is in top form at the moment.
The view among many in the caucus is that appears distracted, the recent reshuffle was unnecessarily messy, he talks too much about himself and rambles at press conferences – essentially, that Albanese needs to sharpen up in delivering his critiques of the government.
Yes, the opposition has a new rallying cry – “on your side” – which it believes is cutting through with voters, but the circumlocutions Albanese goes through to deliver the line (compared to Kevin Rudd’s “working families” or Tony Abbott’s “stop the boats”) aren’t helping Labor get his message across.
It also stand in stark contrast to Plibersek’s low-key but pointed evisceration of Kelly.
This brings us go the second, equally important point, and one that Albanese’s critics and doomsayers overlook – there is not yet an obvious, clear path for Plibersek to take the Labor leadership (nor for anyone else, for that matter).
That’s for a range of reasons, including the leadership change rules that Rudd introduced make it that bit harder (though realistically, a 50 per cent + 1 majority in the caucus could vote to ignore those rules).
With the exception of three or four MPs, the national Left faction remains rusted onto to Albanese – and while they may like her personally, Plibersek’s standing as an alternative leader is not strong. The reason for this dates back to the first leadership contest between Albanese and Bill Shorten in 2013.
While Plibersek voted for Albanese, she also let it be known she would be willing to serve as Shorten’s deputy. Many have not forgotten this as it gave tacit approval to the Right faction’s man, who eventually won.
Rightly or wrongly, there is a view among some MPs that recent stories about Plibersek’s friendship with Alan Jones and her decision to pose for a front page photograph for the conservative Australian newspaper, and to write an opinion piece, are examples of her trailing her coat.
Penny Wong’s recent observation that “We had six years with Bill and Tanya. Regrettably, we lost both elections” was, by her understated standards, a laser-guided rocket targeting caucus malcontent.
The party’s Right faction isn’t about to lock in behind Plibersek either.
The NSW Right is – with the exception of Joel Fitzgibbon and to a lesser extent, Senator Deb O’Neill – more cohesive and united than it has been in a decade, when Mark Arbib and Karl Bitar ran the show.
The group is one of the largest sub-factional groupings in the caucus. It isn’t exactly thrilled with Albanese’s performance but it isn’t about to pull support either. If Albanese’s support were to become terminal, it’s likely they would look to elevate one of their own, Chris Bowen.
The Victorian right is divided between Bill Shorten backers (who could support Plibersek) and Richard Marles backers (who are aligned with Albanese). In Queensland, Jim Chalmers has a couple of boosters but it’s not much more than that.
So while there are legitimate questions about Albanese’s handling of the top Labor job, many in the ALP say the hyperbole and speculation about the future of his leadership should be dialled back – at least for now.
James Massola is political correspondent for the Sun-Herald and
Sunday Age. He was previously south-east Asia correspondent in Jakarta and chief political correspondent. Before that he was political correspondent for the Australian Financial Review.