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Positivity key to the new Shorten's rise



The Labor leadership of Bill Shorten has generally been seen as something interstitial and a little bit painful. From the moment he beat Anthony Albanese to the punch in the leadership ballot in 2013, he was perceived as a seat-warmer for an inevitably better candidate — perhaps even Albo himself.

Bill ShortenWhen the Coalition rapidly slipped behind in the polls, few were of the illusion that it was Shorten or Labor's sterling policy work facilitating the success as opposed to Tony Abbott's myriad (and painstakingly documented) policy and communication failures.

But the attention this week has been on something else: Labor has built a small poll lead over the Coalition as led by the eminently more marketable Malcolm Turnbull, and in this case the commentariat are willing to give Shorten and Labor the credit. They're the ones controlling the policy conversation and setting the agenda, and it feels like the government are just responding in turn.

Who is this Bill Shorten? This is someone who even a few months ago would be largely inconceivable in the top job, but now seems at the very least plausible.

Shorten has always been the backroom numbers man, the kingmaker who knifed two prime ministers and was pushed into the leadership against the will of the rank-and-file by those faceless men we hear so much about.

Turnbull seems like he was engineered in a lab to be an Australian prime minister by a mad scientist with inscrutable motives, with every single one of his personal and political moves since then oriented toward taking the top job.

Turnbull squandered the goodwill he had among the Australian mainstream (and even sections of the liberal left) by being paralysed by indecision.

Since he booted Abbott in September, Turnbull hasn't been able to appease anybody in particular. The hard right know that he's a snake in the grass, and progressives who weren't already deeply jaded by his previous political manoeuvring know that he has kowtowed to conservatives to hold on to power.


"Labor's campaign is about defence of social democratic foundations; of health, education and the social safety net; of whatever meagre working class victories remain."


Which brings us to Shorten. It's clear that aside from the overwhelmingly dissected physical changes — he's fit, he's jogging, he's loving life — there's been a notable change in the political image Shorten is maintaining. Whereas Turnbull got the job he wanted, but is paralysed into inaction by the two forces that put him there, Shorten seems more willing to pursue more aggressive policy ambitions.

The battleground over negative gearing is one such example. The Coalition's hands are unsurprisingly tied on it, but — aside from a few David Feeney sized hiccups in the messaging — Labor is willing to pursue reforms which were eventually (after some pointed pressure from the property lobby) deemed too radical in ambition and effect even by the Hawke and Keating governments. Considering that he was dismissing calls to resign his post in the face of low approval ratings as recently as December, Shorten's upward bounce in perceived electability is particularly sudden. Even The Australian conceded after this week's Newspoll that Turnbull's favourability had cratered, whereas Shorten's had doubled.

There is a shrewd element to Shorten's newfound electability, of course. Australia's populist economic narratives are usually choked by the overwhelming narrative of debt and deficit we've laboured under since the last Labor government. The popular wisdom is that no prospective government can build any credibility with the electorate in 2016 without presenting a plan for budget repair. But that is not the focus of Labor's campaign. Their campaign is about defence: defence of social democratic foundations; protection of health, education and the social safety net; protection of whatever meagre working class victories remain.

Common wisdom since Abbott's opposition days also seems to be that negativity is key. Abbott thrust himself into power lacking much of anything beyond slogans purely on the back of a campaign that tore Labor down as reckless, irresponsible and un-Australian on every key policy point. The new Labor platform — arranged around '100 Positive Policies' — is more focused on providing a vision. That makes Shorten look more positive, and his views more cohesive outside of a framework of stubborn contrarianism in Opposition.

It's also worth pointing out that the government's tack against Shorten is still straight out of the Abbott playbook. 'Class warfare' is the overwhelming angle — and heading into uncertain economic waters in a global economy increasingly skeptical of its collective lot, it's worth pondering whether that will resonate beyond the immediate base.

Most of all, Shorten's improved popularity comes from the fact that his beliefs look credible. His commitment to Australia's heinous detention centre regime will lose him many progressive voters, but on economics he, for perhaps the first time, looks like he believes what he's saying.


JR HennessyJ. R. Hennessy is a writer in Sydney. He is the deputy editor of Pedestrian Daily, writes on media and politics, and tweets @jrhennessy.

Topic tags: JR Hennessy, Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten, election 2016



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Existing comments

It wasn't 'faceless men' who 'pushed' Shorten into the leadership. It was the votes of his parliamentary colleagues, which is how it should be. Seems they knew him better than most of the commentariat.

Janet | 28 May 2016  

We only know about Shorten's alleged popularity from Opinion Polls. OPs played in Turnbull's favour when they allegedly exposed Tony Abbott's un-popularity. I find the OP question: Who do you prefer as Prime Minister? pointless when Turnbull is the PM and Shorten has never ever held the office (or even a comparable office e.g. President of the ACTU). I agree with the axiom which says: Governments lose office rather than Oppositions winning it. "Does the Government deserve to lose office?" would be a better question for OPs to ask. I doubt if many people remember how Shorten got elected to the position of Leader of the Opposition. As Janet points out it was the votes of his parliamentary colleagues (Not one of whom is faceless) which took precedence over the votes of the ALP rank & file. The back-stabber can never be carefree as long as his victim remains in the room. Not only is Tony Abbott's virile physique present in the room but his spirit is there not allowing Turnbull to enjoy the fruits of internecine murder much as Banquo's ghost spoiled Macbeth's appetite..

Uncle Pat | 30 May 2016  

I, for one, am pleasantly surprised by the improvement in Shorten's public performance. The policy work done by his colleagues is impressive, and could easily have been overlooked had Shorten not come forward. I would delay like to see Shorten with a majority in the Reps but a hung Senate but I suspect that is wishful thinking. The idea of Turnbull (really still Abbott et al) in control of the Reps where he can gut education and health without the need for Senate approval fills me with fear. The Coalition have already flagged more cuts that are not yet specified in the budget, but the media seem to have ignored this element of the election,

Ginger Meggs | 30 May 2016  

The positive things for Bill Shorten are: having done his homework and produced 100 positive policies, which are gradually being revealed; leading a united team; articulating a coherent political message; largely standing up for traditional Labor values. The negatives are: joining the Coalition on the cruel policy of keeping 1600 innocent asylum seekers in off-shore hell-holes without a plan to give them a decent future; being only partly serious about climate change mitigation. The Great Barrier Reef is badly bleached, with 35% of the coral in the middle and northern parts of the Reef now dead from hot sea water caused by global warming. Yet Labor join the COALition in approving new coal mines, such as those in Queensland's Galilee Basin. The Australian Greens are the only party with ethical policies on asylum seekers' and climate change mitigation, as well as overseas aid.

Grant Allen | 30 May 2016  

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