What is Bill Shorten doing?

Over about the last forty years, a new convention has become established in Australian politics. Leaders of major parties resign from federal parliament upon losing the leadership (sometimes immediately, sometimes after a decent interval), unless they intend to try to win it back.

Or, putting that the other way around, a former federal leader (the rule is not so well established at state level) only stays on in parliament in the hopes of becoming leader again. Otherwise they leave.

The one who established the practice was Gough Whitlam, who resigned from both parliament and the Labor leadership after losing the 1977 election. But his successor, Bill Hayden, did not follow suit, and remained in parliament after resigning from the leadership in February 1983.

A month later, however, when Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser lost an election, he followed the Whitlam precedent, resigning both the leadership and his seat. Since then, every leader bar one – whom I’ll discuss shortly – has followed the rule.

Here is the list:

  • 1985: Andrew Peacock (Liberal), stayed on to plan a comeback, which succeeded in 1989.
  • 1989: John Howard (Liberal), stayed on to plan a comeback, which succeeded in 1995.
  • 1990: Andrew Peacock (Liberal), stayed on, apparently planning a comeback, but resigned midway through the following term.
  • 1991: Bob Hawke (Labor), resigned two months later.
  • 1994: John Hewson (Liberal), resigned nine months later.
  • 1995: Alexander Downer (Liberal), the exception – see below.
  • 1996: Paul Keating (Labor), resigned a month later.
  • 2001: Kim Beazley (Labor), stayed on to plan a comeback, which succeeded in 2005.
  • 2003: Simon Crean (Labor), stayed on to plan a comeback, which never eventuated.
  • 2005: Mark Latham (Labor), resigned immediately.
  • 2006: Kim Beazley (Labor), retired at the election a year later.
  • 2007: John Howard (Liberal), clearly signaled that he would resign, but was relieved of the need to do so by losing his seat.
  • 2008: Brendan Nelson (Liberal), resigned a year later.
  • 2009: Malcolm Turnbull (Liberal), stayed on to plan a comeback, which succeeded in 2015.
  • 2010: Kevin Rudd (Labor), stayed on to plan a comeback, which succeeded in 2013.
  • 2013: Julia Gillard (Labor), retired at the election two months later.
  • 2013: Kevin Rudd (Labor), resigned two months later.
  • 2015: Tony Abbott (Liberal), stayed on to plan a comeback, which was short-circuited when he lost his seat four years later.
  • 2018: Malcolm Turnbull (Liberal), resigned immediately.
  • 2019: Bill Shorten (Labor), ???

The one exception on the list is Alexander Downer, who stayed in parliament for another 13 and a half years, most of them spent as foreign minister. His was the shortest tenure of any individual on the list (although Kevin Rudd’s second term, taken in isolation, was shorter), and could fairly be described as unique in its ineptitude.

Downer may at some level have contemplated a comeback, but no-one ever took the idea seriously. Alone among recent leaders he was so completely discredited that there was no need to fear him. In the strict sense of the expression, he is the exception that proves the rule.

And now we have Bill Shorten, who resigned the Labor leadership following last month’s defeat, but says he plans to stay in parliament and has been reappointed to the front bench – while disclaiming any intention of a comeback.

The question is not so much whether or not he is telling the truth; quite possibly he would be unable to answer that even to himself. The question is whether the rule is now so well established (and with the proviso that, whatever his faults, Shorten is no Downer) that it is impossible for anyone to believe him.

It’s easy to argue that the rule is a bad one: that it deprives the country of political talent that it sorely needs. Former leaders who had genuinely given up on further leadership ambitions could be a valuable resource for their successors – as, for example, former prime minister James Scullin was for John Curtin.

The contrary view, of course, also has merit; even ex-leaders without ambitions of their own could be incorrigible troublemakers, as both John Gorton and William McMahon were for their Liberal successors. But this is a debate that we have so far been deprived of. The establishment of the modern convention proceeded without discussion.

In 2001, many thought that Kim Beazley was rejecting the convention and adopting a role of elder statesman within Labor. But time refuted that view, and Beazley quickly returned to plotting and eventually to the leadership.

With that precedent in mind, any future ex-leader will have great difficulty in having their sincerity accepted. And the problem is especially acute for Shorten, who already has, to put it bluntly, a reputation for power-seeking at all costs.

Anyone who wanted to challenge the rule would have to do more than deny (as Shorten has done) their future ambitions. They would have to steer scrupulously clear of anything that could possibly be interpreted as involvement in leadership questions. This Shorten has not done, and it is something he may be simply incapable of doing.

In that case, if he wants to spare Labor a future of endless damaging speculation, the only thing Shorten can do is leave parliament at the earliest convenient opportunity. Both he and his party may protest that that is unfair, and perhaps it is. But the weight of precedent is too strong.

I rarely endorse Michelle Grattan, but she has this one absolutely right:

Adjusting to a diminished position, avoiding the temptation to criticise his successor even in private, being part of a team that has to move on from the Shorten-era policies – all that will be very hard.

If after a few months he feels he can’t do these things, Shorten should find another career.

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