It was all smiles, thunderous applause and backslapping as Labor MPs gathered for their first caucus meeting since the election – but behind the scenes there had been a sharp tussle over the wording of motion moved by Anthony Albanese congratulating Bill Shorten.
Caucus rules controlling the conduct of leadership ballots specify that nominations need to be open for a week when the position is spilled, which now happens automatically after the election.
There was a view from the leader that the process should be conducted as quickly as possible given he was the only candidate, but that push was resisted by Albanese and some other colleagues, who argued that the rules needed to be followed.
In the end, Albanese moved a motion on Friday that congratulated Shorten on the “outstanding” outcome of the election campaign, congratulated Labor’s many volunteers who contributed to Labor’s formidable field campaign, and authorized Shorten on Labor’s behalf to negotiate with parliamentary crossbenchers “whilst not departing from the caucus rules”.
The explicit reference to the caucus rules means the nominations will remain open for the period specified by the rules, which is seven days.
The tussle over the motion is a proxy battle for lingering tensions between Shorten’s group and Albanese that have played out since the final week of the election campaign, where the New South Wales right faction appeared to be positioning to back Albanese in the event he ran for the Labor leadership.
Albanese, the prominent NSW leftwinger, took days to rule out challenging Shorten for the Labor leadership.
The party’s factional power brokers are also positioning ahead of the allocation of frontbench positions in the new shadow ministry, a process that will play out once the election count concludes.
Shorten conceded on Friday during the special caucus meeting that the Coalition is likely to “scrape over the line” to form government but predicted Australians would be back at the polls within a year owing to Malcolm Turnbull’s lack of authority.
The opposition leader trumpeted Labor’s achievement of the second-biggest swing against a first-term government in Australian history and said “after the longest campaign in 50 years, this could well be one of the shortest parliaments in 50 years”.
He noted that the cabinet minister Christopher Pyne had said on Friday that the Coalition had won the election.
“It’s likely in coming days that the Liberals will scrape over the line but the combination of a PM with no authority, a government with no direction and a Liberal party at war with itself will see Australians back at the polls within the year,” Shorten predicted.
“We will fight for our positive plans in the 45th parliament, we will respect the judgment of the people … but we will be campaign-ready from this day onwards.”
Shorten criticized Malcolm Turnbull for his “extraordinary outburst in those early hours of Sunday morning”, characterising his speech as an attempt to “blame the Australian people … for their disastrous campaign, for their out-of-touch values”.
The prime minister had accused Labor of running “some of the most systematic, well-funded lies ever peddled in Australia” for its campaign claim that the Coalition was planning to privatise Medicare.
“The Liberals think that a massive swing against them was a matter of perception alone, that somehow there weren’t enough negative Liberal TV ads and everything would have been right,” Shorten said.
“But Saturday cannot be put down by our opponents to a failure of communication alone. It wasn’t that the Liberals didn’t talk about Medicare, it was what they were doing to Medicare.”
Shorten signaled a clear intention to maintain the strategy of attacking the government over health cuts. “Until they change their policies, nothing will change,” he said.
On Friday the Coalition looked to have won 74 seats. Pyne claimed victory on the basis the Coalition was “very likely” to win three more: Herbert, Capricornia and Flynn.
At the caucus meeting, Shorten welcomed 26 newly elected Labor MPs and senators to great applause and paid tribute to Linda Burney, the first Indigenous woman elected to the House of Representatives.
He acknowledged Labor’s candidate Des Hardman in the still-undeclared seat of Forde, expressed a “very good feeling” that Anne Aly would win in Cowan, and said everyone had their “fingers crossed” for candidates in Capricornia, Hindmarsh and Herbert.