March 9, 2023

Federal politics

Tanya Plibersek’s dispassionate ambition

By Margaret Simons
Tanya Plibersek, wearing a serious expression, is seated next to Bill Shorten, who is smiling

Then deputy Opposition leader Tanya Plibersek and then Opposition leader Bill Shorten at Parliament House, October 21, 2013. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

The member for Sydney’s decision to stand for the deputy Labor leadership in 2013 continues to influence her political trajectory

After Labor lost government in 2013, Tanya Plibersek hated being in Opposition. Like most of her colleagues who survived the election, she had absorbed the lessons about the cost of leadership instability. For her, at least, these were not new insights. She had always believed Kim Beazley and Jenny Macklin should not have been deposed by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard in 2006, and that the party would still have won government and been stronger as a result. But in what was to turn into almost a decade in Opposition, as Labor twice failed to regain government despite a divided and lacklustre government, Plibersek was tested. Should she do what she had criticised others for doing? What some of her closest friends in the party were urging her to do? Should she have the self-belief, the arrogance, the conviction of her own abilities to seek the leadership for herself? Should she, even, consider tearing down an incumbent leader?

In Opposition, Plibersek was continuously named in the media as a potential Labor leader. She was included in many of the polls in which the public was asked to nominate a preferred Opposition leader. Sometimes, in those early days, she outranked both Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese. Then, as the years went by and Shorten became increasingly unpopular, it was between her and Albanese, with Shorten a distant third.

In the first few weeks after the 2013 election defeat, Plibersek made a crucial decision. In interviews for my biography of Plibersek, she minimised its importance – suggesting it was unremarkable, and that it would be childish for anyone to continue to hold it against her. Yet it continues to influence, perhaps even determine, her political trajectory.

After the defeat there was an automatic spill of the Labor leadership. Under the rules introduced by Rudd, the new leader was to be decided by a ballot equally weighted between rank-and-file party members and the parliamentary caucus. Several names, including Tanya’s, were mentioned in the media as potential contenders. She says “a few people” rang her to urge her to run. One of them was former prime minister Bob Hawke. “He had always been a great friend and a great supporter,” she says. She told him that her children were too young – Louis was about to turn three. Hawke repeated those words in a media interview on election eve, ruling her out of contention because of her children, at the same time as saying she was “very impressive, intelligent, a capable minister” and that she might be interested in being deputy leader.

There was a social media campaign advocating a Plibersek run, complete with hashtag – #Plibersek16 – and Hawke was excoriated on Twitter and Facebook for supposed sexism. The feminist group Destroy the Joint pointed out that Shorten also had a three-year-old and did not see that as a barrier. But Plibersek says today, “Bob was just repeating what I had told him.” She says she did not seriously consider running in 2013 and a few days after the election publicly ruled herself out.

Would she have succeeded if she had made a different decision? “I don’t know,” she says today. Media commentary suggested she might have had the numbers among the party membership, but not in caucus. Her weaknesses were said to be being insufficiently combative, and possibly not wanting the job enough. But public opinion polls continued to suggest that Plibersek was more popular than Shorten, and only narrowly behind Albanese. She was mentioned, along with Jason Clare, as “the face of the future” by Rudd’s former strategist Bruce Hawker.

Her withdrawal left two contenders: Albanese and Shorten. With the party’s recent self-sabotage so much in mind, they ran an outwardly civilised campaign over the weeks following the election, touring the branches and conducting public debates, with each taking pains to declare their respect for the other. But this was the Labor Party. Behind the scenes, it was fierce, and toxic.

Shorten was from the Right and had the faction’s support. Albanese, seeking support from his own Left faction, carried the burden of the old battles between Hard Left and Soft Left. His old enemies Martin and Laurie Ferguson were against him. So, too, elements of the Victorian Left, led by Senator Kim Carr. The antipathy between Albanese and Carr is notorious to this day, even though nobody close to them seems to completely understand its origins.

As Albanese’s factional ally, Plibersek was expected to vote for him and to campaign on his behalf – and she did. Former NSW minister Verity Firth, a friend of Plibersek’s, remembers going to a big meeting of the Sydney membership, where Plibersek introduced Albanese and urged her supporters to back him. Says Firth: “Her people hit the phones and mobilised support for him. They did everything loyal factional colleagues should do.”

Then Bill Shorten turned a clever trick.

Shorten told me he hadn’t dealt with Plibersek closely before the 2013 leadership contest, but he regarded her as “the most talented woman in the caucus … I respected her integrity. I also understood that to run the Labor Party, you’ve got to have the Right and the Left in lockstep. If you have a leader from the Right, then the deputy has to be from the Left. I thought she was a future leader, and I thought I could work with her.” In the lead-up to the ballot, “I spoke to her once or twice. She was going to vote for Anthony because they were on the Left. But she said she could work with me if I won. And I said, ‘That’s all we need.’ There were no deals or any other understandings beyond that.”

It isn’t clear if Tanya Plibersek understood that Shorten might use her name in public. Former Keating government minister Jeannette McHugh, a member of the Left faction, says she believes Plibersek thought he had made a promise not to do so. But on September 12, just two days after Plibersek had ruled herself out of the leadership contest, Shorten told the media it would be a “positive thing” if she was deputy leader – and he would be happy to have her in that position if he was successful in the ballot. Firth remembers thinking, “Oh, you clever man.” Tanya could not be deputy to Albanese, because they were from the same faction and the same part of inner Sydney. If people wanted Plibersek in the leadership team – and many did – they would have to vote for Shorten.

In early October, days out from the ballot, the political journalist Patricia Karvelas, then working for The Australian, rang Plibersek’s office and asked her if she would indeed be willing to serve as Shorten’s deputy. Plibersek’s current chief of staff, Dan Doran, was working as her press secretary at the time. He remembers taking the call. There was a discussion in the office. Should she rule it out?

She decided not to. It turned out to be, he acknowledges, a consequential decision – perhaps bigger than they realised at the time. There had been no internal plotting, he says, no briefing of journalists behind the scenes or manoeuvring to Albanese’s disadvantage. “It was simply an answer to a question from a journalist, not something we were putting about.”

The resulting story was published on October 4. The lead paragraph said that Plibersek had confirmed she would willingly serve as deputy to whoever won – either Shorten or Albanese. Karvelas quoted “senior Labor sources” as saying that Shorten had done “great damage” to the Albanese campaign by nominating Plibersek as his deputy, because “many members, particularly women, want her in the leadership team”.

While the popular Ms Plibersek will not put herself forward as part of a ticket with Mr Shorten, the fact she has confirmed she would stand as deputy even if the right-wing Mr Shorten wins could sway many left-wing voters and feminists who back her strongly.

Plibersek’s decision not to rule herself out for the deputy position did not determine the result of the leadership ballot. The Fergusons and Carr mobilising against Albanese were almost certainly the deciding factor. But it is equally certain that she turned at least some votes in Shorten’s favour. Albanese saw it as betrayal.

There are two ways of viewing Plibersek’s decision not to rule herself out. On one hand, it might be seen as a betrayal of Albanese, a choosing of her own career aspirations over the fortunes of her faction and its leader. It was a leapfrogging over Albanese into the leadership team. On the other hand, why should she have put aside her own ambition? One of those close to Plibersek says she had reached the stage of her career, and the level of esteem within the party, where “not to step up would have been too self-effacing”. “There comes a time in political careers where you have to step up, or not,” this person says. “The alternative would have been to accept a position permanently in Albanese’s shadow.”

Jeannette McHugh, the woman who had held on to the seat of Grayndler for Albanese until he was ready to enter parliament, says, accurately, “Nobody is a bigger supporter of Albo than me.” Yet she supported Plibersek in her right to run. “It was her perfect right to make it clear she was available for the deputy leadership.” Few men, McHugh says, including Albanese himself, would have ruled themselves out if they had been in the same situation. “You can either say, ‘Isn’t she ruthless?’, or you can say, ‘Why the hell shouldn’t she?’”

Wayne Swan, who is now the national president of the Labor Party, told me: “Why should she have stood aside if she wanted to be deputy? I think what she did shows that she’s got a bit of steel. She was entitled to run, and the party was entitled to have the choice.” And Julia Gillard says: “She was factionally and personally obligated to vote for and campaign for Albo, and she did. But she was also right to conceive of herself as the best person to serve alongside Shorten.”

There were what McHugh describes as “unfortunately inevitable” consequences for Plibersek in the Left faction. “A lot of people in the Left got upset with her. People that she adored. And I stood by her. She had every right to be deputy, and of course, she did it wonderfully. But in doing it, she was many, many, many times seen to be supportive of Shorten. She’d be standing beside him, or sitting behind him in parliament, and she’d be smiling up at him. And people who disliked Shorten with a passion found that hard to comprehend.”

In interviews, Plibersek dismissed any suggestion that her decision was one of the reasons for the coolness between her and Albanese. Indeed, she denied that there was any such coolness, at least on her side. How childish it would be, she said, if a decision like that were still held against her.

She said these things in mid 2021, before the 2022 election campaign that made Albanese prime minister. If she truly believes her 2013 decision doesn’t still rankle with Albanese, then she is entirely alone in that belief. And, judging from the things she has said to friends and colleagues, the claim that there is no coolness on her side is disingenuous, if politically prudent. Albanese was approached to be interviewed for my book on Plibersek. After not receiving a response for months, in August 2022 I was told to expect a phone call from him for “a 10­minute chat”. The phone call never came. Attempts to follow up were not responded to.

In the 2013 leadership ballot, Shorten won 64 per cent of the votes in the parliamentary caucus. Despite Albanese’s stronger showing in the rank-and-file ballot, this was enough to secure Shorten a 52 per cent majority in the combined vote, and for him to become leader. Nine members of the Left faction had voted for Shorten. They were a mix of the Ferguson Soft Left and members of the Victorian Left who were aligned with Kim Carr (although Carr himself had voted for Albanese). One of the nine, Senator Kate Lundy, had initially told Albanese she would vote for him but changed sides. Members of her faction were angry about her decision. She retired at the 2016 federal election.

Plibersek became deputy leader unopposed. She gave an emotional speech, recalling that her parents had arrived in Australia as migrants with just one suitcase each. Gillard tweeted her congratulations to “a woman of achievement & vision, wit & warmth”.

Crikey indulged in an editorial prediction – that Plibersek would become Labor leader after Shorten lost the 2016 election, and that she would win and become prime minister in 2019.

She’s smart and politically savvy. She’s wildly popular among the left-wing faithful, and sensible enough to win over the Right rump. She’s an effective and believable communicator – something Shorten and the previous two Labor leaders all struggled with – with as clean a hand as any after Labor’s bloody internal battles. She’s a woman, at a time when plenty want revenge for the way Julia Gillard was treated. In three years’ time she’ll be ready to lead. In six, it could be the Lodge. Albanese might have had a shot in 2016. Now it’s Plibersek best positioned to be the next Labor prime minister of Australia.

That prediction seemed reasonable at the time. Most thought that Albanese had missed his chance and that Plibersek had vaulted over him. But the prediction would prove completely wrong.


This is an edited extract from Margaret Simons’ Tanya Plibersek: On Her Own Terms (Black Inc.), available now.

Margaret Simons

Margaret Simons is an author, journalist and journalism academic. She has written numerous books, articles and essays, including the Quarterly Essay Cry Me a River: The Tragedy of the Murray–Darling Basin.


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