Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Marr stings 'limited' Shorten

  • 05 October 2015

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.

So 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