Marr stings 'limited' Shorten


The Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has had many critics during his two years in the job. Now that Malcolm Turnbull has become Prime Minister quite a few of them think he has lost any chance of winning the next election. It should be remembered, however, that the polls are still evenly balanced and Turnbull has yet to strut his stuff in any meaningful way.

Bill Shorten tails Malcolm Turnbull. By Chris JohnstonSo Shorten should still be the subject of the sort of scrutiny that David Marr, the master of prime ministerial profiles, has just given him in Faction Man: Bill Shorten's Path to Power (Quarterly Essay 59). Marr is appalled by Shorten's path to power through the union movement, the Labor Party and the factions for what it reveals about the modus operandi of these organisations. But he is still somewhat taken with Shorten's talents.

Nevertheless, he doubts that Shorten is up to the job and concludes with a stinging judgement, pace Daniel Andrews, that without doubt 'he would have made a fine Premier of Victoria'. Shorten, according to Marr, is a limited man who has not yet shown that he can 'scale up' from his successes in union and internal party politics.

The various knocks on Shorten are all in this essay. Some of them are formulaic, including the fact that no first term Labor opposition leader after the party has lost office has ever become prime minister. Though both Andrews and Annastacia Palaszczuk in Queensland have recently done so at the state level, so perhaps the political environment is changing.

Other criticisms are substantial, including that he is excessively self-interested. Shorten is perceived as lacking passion and dynamism and of not standing for anything. He is said to lack popular appeal as shown by his failure to win the membership vote when he defeated Antony Albanese in the Labor leadership ballot. He is also dogged by his role in the two Labor leadership coups in 2010 and 2013 (perhaps that will diminish given Turnbull's own coup).

The polls reflect his unpopularity, surpassed only by the unpopularity of Tony Abbott.

Overall he is seen not be a sufficiently interesting man, suffering by comparison with recent successful Labor opposition leaders like Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd. There is something in this point but perhaps it is misplaced. Governments lose elections, oppositions don't win them.

Let's not forget that many said the same thing about John Howard, who made a virtue of his so-called ordinariness and went on to be Australia's second longest serving prime minister. Perhaps Australia has a Messiah complex if it always needs titans for its political leaders.

Faction Man, Quarterly Essay by David MarrMarr concludes with what can be seen as either a savage put-down or damning with faint praise: 'His goal is power for Labor and Bill Shorten, and decent administration for Australia.' Decent administration is generally seen as the province of state governments, but after recent turmoil perhaps national-level voters might just settle for it.

Faction Man could easily have been called Union Man or Victorian Labor Man, given its focus. Marr has the ability to piece together and clearly explain complex matters like union and factional politics. And the picture he paints is a very unattractive one, in which Shorten fully participated, of shifting alliances and backstabbing, all with the narrow goal of a seat in federal, state or municipal politics.

To put it mildly, it is an unedifying read and helps to explain why both sides of major party politics are on the nose with voters.

Once again, as in the case of Rudd, Abbott and Turnbull, the story of this aspiring political leader also has a Catholic twist. There has already been far too much generalised commentary about Catholic values and, in particular, Jesuit values as they apply to political life in this country.

Wisely, Marr eschews too much of this. But he does tell a powerful story of the role of Shorten's impressive and much-loved mother, Ann McGrath, in shaping her son and in insisting that he have a Jesuit education. That education, Marr says, left Shorten with an 'undogmatic faith' and important business connections of the type a GPS school can provide.

Significantly, he also does his bit to break down shallow generalisations about 'a Jesuit education' by speculating about the differences between Riverview and Xavier at this time. There are many different types of Jesuits and it would not be surprising if each of their schools had a distinct culture.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Bill Shorten, David Marr



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Existing comments

It is rich of Marr to say Shorten is not up to the job, after we have just witnessed the downfall of a person who really really was not up to the job. The popular perception is that anyone could do a better job than Abbott. A much more pressing question, after the last ten years or more is, what is the job of the PM? What exactly is the role and how do people understand it?

CLOSE READING | 05 October 2015  

I've seen this Quarterly Essay for sale at our local newsagency, still deciding whether to buy it. Marr is a fine writer no doubt about it. I was especially interested to read of Shorten's Jesuit education. Of course, many outstanding contributors to public life have completed their entire education in public schools, namely, Michael Kirby and Susan Keiffel (High Court). Not sure about PMs, although Gillard was educated at public schools in Adelaide and Gough did attend a public school in Canberra.

Pam | 05 October 2015  

'To put it mildly, it is an unedifying read and helps to explain why both sides of major party politics are on the nose with voters'. Quite so. So Pam, don't buy it unless you're prepared to follow up with a cup of tea, a Bex, and a good lie down. For me, Marr's essay was depressing though not a surprise. Shorten may be a successful political animal and a erasable administrator (state premier?) but I'm not convinced that he is a national leader. Leaders need to be able to manage up (those to whom they are responsible), down (those for whom they are responsible), and sideways (those whose cooperation they need). Howard could do all, Rudd and Abbott could do none. Shorten seems to be able to manage down (think NDIS for example), and sideways (that's the whole faction game), and up (so far as his party room is concerned) but I doubt that he can persuade the electorate that he has credible vision and narrative as to where he would want t take us and why.

Ginger Meggs | 06 October 2015  

Ginger, can you still buy Bex? I've plenty of other reading material to get through so might save up for the next Quarterly Essay.

Pam | 06 October 2015  

I am grateful to you, John and to David Marr, one of my heroes, for helping me clarify my reaction to Shorten. If leaders are to inspire and to lead by inspiring visions I fail to be inspired by Shorten. And the connection with the Jesuits... as the quintessential Jesuit product with only Jesuit education at primary and secondary school then training as a Jesuit I know my thinking is sadly better developed than my heart.

Michael D. Breen | 07 October 2015  

I am yet to read this essay - I would however urge those with little union & ALP knowledge to do so. In my view, Bill Shorten is a team player - not perfect, but he is ahead of Malcolm Turnbull by streets in this & other areas. The Liberal & National parties are both largely ruled by big business - see the newly signed TPP agreement, with no real conversation with Australian public to date & little if any to be expected before it is voted upon by Parliament. Also, if any other Opposition leader had to put up with an antagonistic Murdoch press here, plus the Abbott & LNP drafted TURC (targetting the unions & Shorten in a very partisan way), they would have an even lower approval ratings than Bill Shorten now has. We would do well to see the positives in Bill Shorten & accept him at face value as he is today. My fear is that Malcolm Turnbull is a big business PM who cares little about the huge social justice issues we face here and overseas. Bill Shorten is by far the better choice as PM.

John Cronin, Toowoomba | 07 October 2015  

Whenever he is on Q&A or Insiders David Marr really makes the conversation crackle. He's provocative, insightful and frequently exasperating. But he has, on the evidence, a deeper knowledge of the political process in Australia than most of the political commentators in the mass media. Senior commentators seem to have made their reputation on the basis of leaks rather than on hard graft. They are given these leaks because the leaker knows exactly how they will use them. But with Marr I get the impression would-be leakers couldn't be sure : 1. how Marr would react on being offered a leak and 2 how he would use it. Now vis-à-vis Shorten: I feel Marr has a grudging admiration for a man who can find his way through the labyrinthine tunnels that link the Australian Trade Union Movement with the Australian Labour Party and emerge like a triumphant Theseus. I don't want to push the Theseus analogy too far but women helped Theseus a lot on his path to power. He became King of Athens when his father Aegeus spotting his son's ship carrying a black sail thought his was dead flung himself from a cliff top into the Aegean Sea.

Uncle Pat | 09 October 2015  

Warhurst has nailed the most distasteful aspect of Marr's essay: the maneovering and nasty power seeking machinations, not only of Shorten, but also the bulk of the reigning faction and union bosses within the ALP. It's an unedifying read as the lust for power is simply for the sake of the power and associated ego rewards alone. Oh for a world of independents with integrity and vision. Tony Windsor, where are you?

Bob hopkins | 11 October 2015  

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