Can Anthony Albanese from the Labor Left succeed where Bill Shorten from the Labor Right failed?

Shorten faced a seasoned campaigner in Scott Morrison and lost despite a handsome lead in all the polls leading to the 2019 election. Albanese faces the same Scott Morrison with an equally handsome lead in the polls.

Morrison will use the same fear tactics against Labor generally and supplement these with warnings about Albo being a “lefty” who will overspend and overtax if he wins.

I think this narrative can be challenged. In politics, leaders who take on their own power base are often more effective in bringing about needed change. But it takes strength of character.

At an international level one can point to Gorbachev who took on the Soviet establishment that had appointed him and changed Europe forever. Or de Klerk in South Africa who was installed by the pro-Apartheid National Party but who then freed Mandala and dismantled Apartheid.

In Australia Bob Hawke took on the unions including in the protracted airline dispute, Paul Keating took on the fiscal conservatives within Labor to deregulate the financial system and John Howard took on the gun lobby. All resulted in important and necessary changes.

Morrison is not in this mould.

He will not take on his own support base. He will always seek to placate the coal lobby, the socially conservative lobby, and the big end of town. He has shown himself to be a good campaigner and salesman but not a prime minister capable of hard decisions that make a real difference.

Albanese has an opportunity to follow great leaders by acting counterintuitively to his left origins. He has shown promise in this regard. He rejected the Greens target of 75 per cent as an interim 2030 climate target, but he also rejected the up to 60 per cent demanded by some in the Labor Left who had grown too close to the Greens. He settled instead on an achievable 43 per cent.

Shorten’s target was 45 per cent which reinforces the point that a right-wing leader taking on the left (and the Greens) may have less success than a left leader.

When Shorten was leader, the Left were not prepared to budge on election losing policies to change franking credits, capital gains and negative gearing taxes. I know Shorten tried and was frustrated by pushback within the party. And yet one by one Albanese demolished these additional taxes with hardly a murmur from the Labor Left.

More recently, to the annoyance of some in the Left Albanese has said that he will not seek to increase the JobSeeker allowance. He has kept spending commitments moderate despite enormous pressure to spend more and the only new tax being proposed is on multinationals which reinforces the fact that Morrison will never take them on.

Far from being in a weaker position in 2022 compared to Shorten in 2019 because of his Left history, Albanese can turn history to his advantage by rejecting excessive Labor Left and Green demands. This is what will show strength of character and calm middle Australia where elections are won or lost.

To succeed Albanese cannot afford to confuse the electorate with mixed messages. Already he has had to reaffirm a tough stance on border protection after an initial slip-up on offshore detention. He must now reaffirm an uncompromising stance on national security including total support for nuclear submarines despite his historic antinuclear stance. He must unequivocally stand up to China and against all authoritarian governments that abuse human rights. It may not be what the Greens and some in the Labor Party want to hear but it’s necessary and is the best legacy he can provide for the late Kimberley Kitching. It’s also a winning formula.

Albanese must ensure his advice circle includes key people from the Right that understand pragmatic middle Australian politics. People who might advise that while a national integrity body is important, of greater importance is the need to address religious discrimination as demanded by religious leaders concerned that they can’t protect their religious ethos within their own institutions.

Morrison is unwilling to take on his own side on two important issues facing Australia. First, on climate change, he will not stand up to the coal lobby by introducing a sensible 2030 target beyond 28- 30 per cent. Second, on the economy, he will not act against big business by supporting much needed wage increases. Interest rates are projected to increase by as much as 3 per cent adding $1500 a month to an average mortgage and there will be increased energy prices after Morrison’s cynical short-term relief on petrol prices to cover the election period.

Voters are not stupid. They will see past day-to-day stumbles of leaders that the press loves to highlight and look for real answers to challenges they and the nation face. To win Albanese must not only highlight Morrison’s inability to meet these challenges. He must convince the electorate that although he heralds from the Left his personal journey is to move himself and Labor to the middle ground by, if necessary, taking on the Left and the Greens on key taxing, spending, climate change and national security issues. This will give him the legitimacy to steer the economy towards higher wages, lower interest rates and lower energy prices.

Theo Theophanous is a former Victorian Labor Minister.