Tanya Plibersek has pointed the finger at News Corp for leadership speculation within the Labor party, saying it was created “because they want us to lose the next election”.
Speaking on Insiders, the day after Labor won all four of its byelection contests, with an increased margin in Longman, which had been billed as the main make-or-break for Bill Shorten’s leadership, Plibersek said there was never “a genuine problem”.
Anthony Albanese’s speech late last month, talking about the need to better engage the business community, was seen as his alternative pitch for the leadership, with Shorten’s Labor detractors using the speech as a launch pad to campaign for change.
Labor MPs, particularly from the left, had been backgrounding on leadership tension, as well as testing the waters, particularly after Shorten’s “captain’s call” on reversing company tax cuts already passed, backfired, leading to a quick rethink by the end of that same week.
But Shorten’s deputy said it was a media construct, led by the Murdoch press, in an attempt to send Labor into chaos.
“I don’t think there was ever a genuine problem,” she said.
“What we had was a media organisation who were very keen for Labor to be talking about ourselves. “We didn’t succumb to that temptation to talk about ourselves.
“We continued to focus on what matters in people’s lives. The schools they send their kids to. The hospital that they can rely on when they’re sick. We know that News Limited would be very keen for us to be focusing on internal Labor party debates. That’s not because News Limited want us to win the next election – it’s because they want us to lose the next election. We’re not going to be sucked in by that.”
Asked if the questions over leadership would now stop, Plibersek was blunt.
“Yes,” she said.
Buoyed by the byelection results, which were described by Labor campaigners as “better than expected” on Saturday night, Labor now has its sights firmly set on toppling Peter Dutton, whose electorate of Dickson is beside Longman.
The Longman campaign, which was designed as a test for the general election, focused on health, local services and what campaign heads described as “class warfare”.
It paid off, with Susan Lamb returning to Canberra with an increased margin, going from 0.7% to just over 4%, while the LNP saw its vote collapse by 10%, with Trevor Ruthernberg only securing 28.6% of the vote at last count.
The Labor ground campaign was the biggest of its kind, with 73,180 phone calls made over the 11-week campaign, while volunteers knocked on 35,870 doors.
Wayne Swan, the incoming Labor national president, and outgoing member for Lilley, described the 10% swing against the LNP as “an electoral earthquake”.
“I think seats like Dixon, Petrie, Ford… share characteristics [with Longman], and those members will be panicking,” he told the ABC.
“There was a pretty big tick for Bill Shorten’s program, for sticking to the issues, unlike the prime minister. This prime minister has all sorts of weird judgments, it has been his exploding cigar.
“These people don’t like the inequality that goes to the core of Malcolm Turnbull’s program.”
Frontbencher Christopher Pyne went on the offensive on the ABC, denying the government had ever made the results a test of Turnbull’s leadership.
That was despite the prime minister himself telling ABC Brisbane on 12 July the byelections, particularly Longman were “between me and Bill Shorten as the prime minister and the opposition leader”.
“What he said, to be fair, is that byelections are a mixture of different issues running. Local issues, national issues, leadership issue, candidate issues,” Pyne said.
“He didn’t make it a test of his leadership, and quite frankly, what’s happened in these byelections is … the government got a swing in Braddon and the average swing in Longman against it. So no one should be punching the air in the Labor party about keeping the 100-year tradition going that governments don’t win by-elections on the opposition.”
Pyne echoed the social services minister, Dan Tehan’s comments that the government, at this stage, would hold on to its company tax cut policy, despite Labor claiming the byelection results were a direct repudiation of the policy.
“It’s the right policy for the country,” Pyne said.
“And if you look around the OECD and the rest of the world, we can’t be the country with the highest company tax rates in the world, or we will lose investment in this nation. And we exist on foreign investment, as well as the toil of our own hands in this nation.”
Plibersek, whose interview on Insiders followed Pyne’s, was unable to hold back her smile at Pyne’s optimism.
“Christopher Pyne, you’ve really got to give him credit for being able to see the glass half full,” she said.
“It was a very Pollyanna-ish performance just then. In Mayo, this is a seat that the Liberals have held for 32 of the last 34 years. They had a swing against them. In Longman, in Braddon, they are seats that have frequently been held by the Liberals or the LNP in Queensland.
“Very, very marginal seats, indeed. Longman was a margin of 0.8%. Certainly a seat that they could expected to win back. Of course, results have gone against them there. They weren’t brave enough to standard candidates in Perth or Freemantle. But Perth is a seat with more Liberal votes than Labor votes, and they were too gutless to stand there. So I would say, all in all, this has not been a good showing for the government.”
Plibersek said the Braddon result, where Justine Keay was returned with preferences from the independent candidate Craig Garland, with the swing falling short of what is usually expected in a byelection, was based on local issues.
“The very strong showing from the independent there took votes away from Labor, but also took away votes from the Liberals down there and the Greens. It was a strong campaign from a strong local independent,” she said.
One Nation polled at around 15% in Longman, which was about a 6% increase on its showing at the 2016 election, but down on the 20% average it polled in the 2017 state poll.
In Mayo, where Rebekha Sharkie retained the seat with an increased margin, Pyne confirmed Georgina Downer would return as the Liberal candidate at the next election, despite her disappointing showing.
Labor’s byelections results has ended speculation the government would consider heading to the polls before 2019, with the next election expected shortly after the NSW state election, in March.