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Shorten and Clinton's joust with the past


When former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced she would seek the 2016 nomination for President of the United States, it was a surprise to absolutely no one.

Hillary ClintonGiven her unparalleled range, competence and level of experience — she may be the most qualified candidate for the presidency in the history of the country — she has been the frontrunner since pundits turned their eyes to the future about three days after Barack Obama's reelection in 2012.

Five months later, things for Clinton seem to be slowly creeping back into the 'Danger Will Robinson' zone that found her the runner up in 2008.

It's not that she's made any major blunders, although the emails controversy, and her sometimes screwball — or at least unintentionally condescending — social media presence (she recently asked students to express their feelings about their debt in three emojis) were more than mere blips.

She doesn't have any real competition, either. Yes, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has been drawing huge crowds with his very progressive agenda. But at 74 years old, and as left-wing as he is, he's far more likely to become the president of Hufflepuff than the United States of America.

Ostensibly, what's making people nervous about Clinton is the fact she's not a good campaigner. She's stiff, abrasive, and probably, down deep, afraid of losing again.

But there's another layer to all this, and it's one that she shares with Australia's Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. It's The Past.

Hillary Clinton is not just an astonishingly brilliant candidate; she is the wife of President Bill Clinton, who flamed out spectacularly in the late 1990s over revelations that he was having an affair with an intern. He has been mostly nowhere to be seen so far in the campaign, and that's undoubtedly an intentional move meant to keep that complicated, messy past out of the conversation.

Fair enough. But only a fool would think that all that history is not going to bring an eventual reckoning. The unspoken fear is that Hillary in the White House will eventually mean further distraction from Bill. Not philandering, necessarily. But the man is walking charisma, and surely he would on some level pull focus. Why would the country want that added complication?

The past haunts Shorten in a different but no less significant way. He came into office as Opposition Leader after Tony Abbott and co. had spent the prior four years on a campaign meant less to help the country or offer an alternative than to burn the ALP down.

To Shorten's great (and largely unnoticed) credit, he has almost entirely eschewed the politics of arson and attrition. As disciplined and focused an Opposition Leader as Abbott was, in government he and his team careened from error to error.

It's striking how little competence has been shown across so many portfolios in so short a period of time. People may cast their aspersions on Abbott in particular, but in case after case the problem has been not him but the people around him, and his hidebound loyalty to them.

But rather than capitalise on these many mistakes with shrill, slogan-ridden campaigns, Shorten and company have been largely satisfied to keep above the fray and let the chips fall. 

Shorten also used the opportunity of the ALP national conference in July to lay out major planks in its platform — something that modern oppositions usually avoid. That willingness to clearly stand for some things has been another positive sign (even if some of the things he's standing for are concerning).

But no matter how fresh and united Shorten presents himself and his party, the polity remain lukewarm to him. That may be because he can seem a bit sloppy; his critiques on the government at times have the Pythonesque quality of a person trying to attack an opponent with a large, flopping fish.

But again, I wonder if the deeper issue is that no matter how fresh and positive a face he presents, on another level his star and those of a few other prominent Labor members (like Sam Dastyari) remain tied to the worst parts of the ALP's recent history. There is the suspicion that to make him the prime minister is to the let the vandals back into Rome. 

This week the Quarterly Essay will feature David Marr's latest political biography, Faction Man: Bill Shorten's Rise to Power. If past experience is any guide, it will have quite a few juicy and also concerning tidbits about the man who could be the next-next prime minister of Australia.

Maybe it will show that in more ways than we know, Shorten really has stepped away from the ugly past of which he was a significant part.

Jim McDermott is an American Jesuit priest and screenwriter with a keen interest in Australian politics.

Hillary Clinton image courtesy Brett Weinstein, Flickr Creative Commons

Topic tags: Jim McDermott, Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten, Hilary Clinton



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Existing comments

All eyes seem to have been on Donald The Trump (or is it The Donald) in the long lead-up to the American Presidential election. Hillary can't match him (in hairstyle alone). So, it's a bit of a yawn all round. But, unfortunately, even more so with Shorten. He's a 'team' man and team men are usually a bit colourless. Personally, I would have chosen Anthony Albanese. But what's that saying about beggars.

Pam | 21 September 2015  

Shorten`s main and fatal problem is that he is the-man of the Union's; owned lock, stock and barrel. Politically that castrates him and makes him I believe unelectable. as the Royal Commission proceeds it will get more and more so; and indeed so it should. The Unions, as long as they obey the law (which many don`t) are OK as defenders of a very narrow interest group but they cannot govern the country on that basis.

Eugene | 22 September 2015  

Eugene: spot on.

HH | 24 September 2015  

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