Five weeks after the Australian Labor Party suffered a humiliating defeat in the federal elections, the son of a former British waterside worker was elected its new leader last night.
Bill Shorten, a former union leader, took the post after beating Anthony Albanese in a leadership ballot which, for the first time, allowed the rank-and-file membership to vote, as well as the parliamentary caucus.
Melbourne-born Mr Shorten, whose father, William, was a union official on Tyneside, was himself head of the powerful Australian Workers’ Union before winning a seat in parliament in 2007.
He won the leadership ballot with 52 per cent of the combined vote, although Mr Albanese received more support from the local branches.
Mr Shorten is Labor’s third leader in four months, taking over from Kevin Rudd, who was defeated in last month’s general election. Mr Rudd had earlier wrested control of the party from Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister.
Critics argue that the new 46-year-old leader played a key role in much of Labor’s instability over the past few years, and yesterday he admitted that his party had been through difficult times. “But what people have with me is someone who will always try and work out what is the best interests of the nation first, and then the best interests of Labor, and that’s how I approach my decisions,” Mr Shorten said.
Hinting that carbon price legislation would remain at the top of Labor’s agenda, Mr Shorten pledged to maintain its strong stance on climate change policy.
“Failing to put a price on carbon pollution merely delays problems for tomorrow’s generation,” he said.
Intriguingly the Labor leader’s election, which is not seen as a an immediate threat to Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s new conservative administration, has exposed a possible conflict of interest with the Queen’s official representative in Australia.
Governor-General Quentin Bryce, also happens to be Mr Shorten’s mother-in-law. Chloe Shorten, the Governor-Generals daughter, is the Labor leader’s second wife. Theoretically this could mean Mr Shorten having an audience with his mother-in-law at Government House in Canberra, in the unlikely event he becomes prime minister before next March when the Governor-General is due to retire.
As the Queen’s official representative, technically Ms Bryce has the ultimate say on legislation and is responsible for dissolving parliament if an election is called.
Yesterday, she offered to resign her office to avoid any perception of bias now that her son-in-law is opposition leader.
But Mr Abbott, who spoke to Ms Bryce in anticipation of a Shorten victory, said that would not be necessary. “The Governor-General offered to leave office early to avoid any perception of bias but due to the fact that she will retire in March next year and that the government commands the House of Representatives with a significant margin, I have thanked her for her magnanimity but declined to accept, instead asking that she conclude her full term,” the Prime Minister said. “I am grateful that she has kindly agreed to my request.”
But some political observers were suggesting last night that Quentin Bryce had no alternative but to stand down. Canberra Times columnist Nicholas Stuart said it would be impossible for her to develop a good and proper relationship with Mr Abbott.