A new year, a new Bill?



The last few weeks have been good for Bill Shorten. He's been increasingly bold, has set the agenda and gotten favourable public response, putting the Coalition government on the backfoot. The polls have tightened, with two (Newspoll and Essential) recording 50-50 2PP.

Bill Shorten clambers out from under a pile of debris while Malcolm Turnbull struggles. Original artwork by Chris JohnstonMalcolm Turnbull meanwhile has been struggling. While expectations about Shorten have been extremely low, even among the party base, for Turnbull expectations are sky-high — and he is not living up to them. He is constrained by trying to keep the peace in his party room, fending off leaks and backbench revolts. In the last few weeks alone, there have been leaks about the Defence White Paper and conservative uproar about the safe schools program.

Turnbull's tax reform agenda, which was to be the centrepiece of his re-election campaign, is in shambles. Internal opposition led to the dumping of GST changes, and even modest changes to negative gearing are unlikely to get party room support. Bereft of a tax reform agenda, the government is caught between indecision and reaction.

Even with all this going on, Labor knows that a small-target strategy would not work against Turnbull. The negative gearing announcement made everyone pay attention because Shorten took a position that might be unpopular with some swinging voters in the electorate, challenging assumptions about his aversion to risk. Similarly, calling Senator Cory Bernardi a homophobe and replacing Joe Bullock with Patrick Dodson has caused people to start reassessing Shorten.

Negative gearing has been particularly potent because it is a policy that the party base really likes. Communication expert Anat Shenker-Osorio has argued that progressives should engage their base and persuade swinging voters, rather than cater to them and alienate their opponents. The Coalition's policies on immigration and refugees did this; negative gearing does it perfectly for Labor.

It's a sensible strategy. Since the Second World War, Labor has only won from Opposition three times, and in each case did so by having, a positive agenda with clear and distinctive ideas. With doubts growing about Turnbull, it gives Shorten an opportunity to outline clear and distinctive ideas.

The big danger here is that big policy announcements this early open Labor up to attack and give the Coalition time to respond. In addition to its proposed changes to negative gearing Labor has made big commitments on Gonski education reform. If Turnbull can create enough doubt about Labor, he can get re-elected. With the conservative wing of the Coalition making it difficult for Turnbull to outline and focus on a bold policy agenda, resorting to a fear campaign may become his only option.


"Labor's narrative needs to be not only that it is the party best equipped to deal with the challenges we face, but is the only party that can ensure any changes will be just and equitable."


But Labor needs to be bold and continue strengthening its narrative. A clear lesson from the British election is that a shopping list of appealing policies is not enough. Labor has sought to establish a narrative about the future and science, focusing on jobs of the future by announcing policies on coding, renewables and start-ups. But while this has potential, as evidenced by Turnbull's attempts to neutralise it with his innovation statement, it has not been convincing, as yet.

People increasingly understand that change is necessary. They are worried about the future, not only out of self-interest but also out of concern for their children's future and living standards. They want someone to be straightforward about the challenges we face, and have a plan.

Shorten's speech at the National Press Club this week showed signs that he recognises this underlying public mood and that determining how to ensure a just transition in the face of big structural forces is shaping Labor's thinking.

Digital disruption, the ageing population and climate change will have profound effects on Australia and the world. Most people understand we need to innovate and adapt, but they also want some security and certainty for themselves. Not everyone will benefit equally from disruption. There are some big risks, and intervention is necessary to ensure opportunities and burdens are fairly shared.

While Turnbull may be ahead as preferred prime minister, the Coalition has yet to demonstrate the principle of fairness — in government, let alone in their future plans. That principle of fairness is deeply held and widely felt across the electorate, as shown by the reaction to the 2014 Budget.

If Shorten can capture this mood, he has a chance of winning. Labor's narrative needs to be not only that it is the party best equipped to deal with the challenges we face, but is the only party that can ensure any changes will be just and equitable. A plan for the future that is both convincing and seen as fair may end up being the difference between being in government and opposition.


Osmond ChiuOsmond Chiu is Secretary of the NSW Fabians. He tweets @redrabbleroz

Topic tags: Osmond Chiu, Bill Shorten, Malcolm Turnbull



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Existing comments

Really Osmond, are the papers not full enough of this same tit for tat dribble of our major parties ?

luke | 18 March 2016  

As I am not an Australian citizen, I am still interested in their politics. This article is a joke surely! When did the country ever fare any better under a labour government which has only ever come to power with promises to better the less advantaged which it later failed to fulfill.

Tony Knight | 18 March 2016  

I quite enjoyed Osmond's Fabian take on the current Australian scene - a tad idealistic but a good effort at showing the importance of having fairness as the bedrock for good social policy. Mr Turnbull's weakness is he lacks the personality to run a strong attack electioneering campaign. That's ex-PM's Tony Abbott forte. But most people expect an incumbent PM to be positive and to have a solid record of performance and achievements with which to persuade the electorate to keep the government's programs running. The new Bill I'd like to see in 2016 is one making shorter speeches (10 mins max) and leaving lots of time for questions. Bill Shorter is not a charismatic speaker by any stretch of the imagination but he is a good debater. Maybe he should join Toastmasters. Malcolm can deliver a good speech but when he has to answer questions, he waffles. I don't know which is worse: Abbott's 3 word slogans or Turnbull's 3 paragraph 'Let me explains.'

Uncle Pat | 18 March 2016  

At the moment Shorten is promising something for everyone.The Government is faced with a budget black hole the likes of which Australia has not seen before!! Will we Aussies be mature enough to appreciate that we are confronted with a day of reckoning.

BRIAN | 18 March 2016  

Yes, I am very much in agreement with Osmond and quite shocked by the comments of Luke and Tony which I see as rude and it is the first time I have read comments like this in eurekastreet. We readers can disagree of course but but rudeness and put downs should be off the table!!

Paula Kelly | 18 March 2016  

The role of an Opposition is to oppose (obviously) and to present an alternative to the Government. We rightly criticise Oppositions that focus on the former and neglect the latter. The “small target” worked for Howard against Keating and to some extent for Rudd against Howard. It failed for Beazley against Howard and it would fail now with a newish and still popular Prime Minister. Labor copped some rubbishing for calling 2015 the “year of ideas” and not releasing anything. Their policies are coming out this year and whether or not you agree with them, they are differentiating Labor from the Government. Not huge differences in a lot of areas but enough to give us a choice, which is a positive. The reality of competing interests and a reactionary right wing has set in for the PM, who missed his chance last year to distance himself from Abbott’s less popular policies. Like Obama, Turnbull came to the job with such high and probably unachievable community hopes that people would naturally be disappointed when reality set in. Shorten has come out of Turnbull’s shadow with more light on Labor showing some positive results for them. The Government should still win the election but it might just be a much closer thing than it would have been a few months ago.

Brett | 18 March 2016  

I would like to hear in detail how, under Labor, Australia will be changed for the better in five years from now and how we can get there. Random attractive policies are, as you say, not enough.

Brian | 20 March 2016  

Like Paula, I really appreciated what Osmond wrote. For me fairness is of primary importance in deciding who should govern Australia. Growing inequality and rising levels of poverty are simply unacceptable. We desperately need to learn how to share our nation's wealth equitably.

robert van zetten | 20 March 2016  

On the issue of FAIRNESS, neither Turnbull nor Shorten can honestly claim to be FAIR. You would only have to ask the desperate asylum seekers stranded on our off-shore HELL-HOLES in Nauru or Manus Island if they think either Turnbull or Shorten are FAIR. If only we had the power to ship both Turnbull and Shorten off-shore to these HELL-HOLES for a time and to bring those desperate suffering traumatised asylum seekers here permanently! These two career self-seeking politicians might then start being serious about being FAIR.

Grant Allen | 27 March 2016  

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