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Bill Shorten's WorkChoices moment

  • 19 May 2014

There was plenty of material for the Federal Opposition Leader to work with as he delivered the budget reply. But it's hard to tell how much of it merely reflects the diabolical nature of the proposed changes to longstanding social compacts such as universal healthcare and youth unemployment assistance, and how much signals a genuine, substantive escalation of Labor opposition.

If the response from the public gallery and social media is any measure, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey may have just done Bill Shorten a huge favour.

In the decade under John Howard, Labor leaders in opposition slid to the middle, perhaps in the belief that offending the least number of people was a suitable strategy for winning office. Kim Beazley and Simon Crean, with three turns between them, were an unremarkable blur. Mark Latham proved a combustible anomaly.

Then came WorkChoices. It came into effect in March 2006, exempting companies with under 101 employees from unfair dismissal laws, removing the 'no disadvantage test' for workplace agreements and restricting industrial action. Kevin Rudd became leader of the Labor Party later that year. Notwithstanding his merit as a candidate, including that his candidacy came at the tail-end of Howard's fourth term as Prime Minister, there is no doubt that the unions-led campaign against WorkChoices was pivotal to handing government to Labor.

In other words, successful opposition seems to rely heavily on people getting terribly het up about something. But it takes a clever opposition leader to channel this in his favour. What Shorten has been handed this week is several WorkChoices with which to galvanise people. He needed it.

Since he became Labor leader in October last year, the running gag whenever someone mentions the Opposition Leader is to feign shock and say 'We have one?' It seems harsh until one takes into account the tepid response over the past few months to the strangulation of the Gonski school funding reforms, the National Broadband Network (NBN) and DisabilityCare (NDIS). These are legacy items. Frankly I had expected far more screaming and eye-gouging from the Opposition. A bit of blood on the floor, even.

I'm not alone in my exasperation. Prior to the Budget reply, the descriptors people offered to me about Shorten included 'invisible', 'wet lettuce' and 'damp loo paper'. These are people I think of as critically engaged and progressive. It's not a good sign when natural allies think you're letting them