Kaye Lee’s piece on this blog It’s time to get on with It received many comments. Nothing unusual about that. She is a much admired and widely read writer. In fact at the time of writing her article had received 131 comments.
What her article implies is that Labor Opposition leader Bill Shorten should just get on with it. Meaning he needs to step up to the plate, take it up to the Prime Minister, release a vision for the future and talk policy.
What was surprising with the comments was the overwhelming dissatisfaction with the opposition leader and more generally the Labor Party. Even allowing for the passion Labor supporters show their party I thought there was a certain political naivety in many of the comments. It amounted to Bill bashing.
My response to her article was this:
“In terms of political strategy I think for any opposition leader to draw attention to himself (other than making rudimentary comments) while his opponent is in self-destruct mode would be political folly. The same goes for the release of policy. Patience is required. The only exception would be commentary on the reform of his party.
Some of these comments are based on premature emotional thinking rather than hard political nouse”.
“Your marketing background comes out in comments like” these comments are based on premature emotional thinking rather than hard political nouse.” You are talking strategy rather than vision, timing rather than policy. Gough Whitlam prepared the ground for change for years. He explained his vision and how he would achieve it. We felt included in what was going on. Hanging round for a Christmas release (or an election release) is like giving us a sugar hit when we need protein. Tell us the vision, tell us possible alternatives to achieve it, include us in the process. All this palaver about how they elect a leader is hugely irrelevant to me”.
Some of the points Kaye raises need to be addressed. Firstly, yes I have a background in advertising. At the core of any advertising strategy is an ‘’appeal to people’s emotions.’’ Secondly, yes Gough did explain his vision, but he did so in a vastly different media landscape than today. He had the support of Murdoch in a time when newspapers reported and people read them. A time when people actually took an interest in politics without a 24/7 news cycle.
Today people have lost faith in politics and it is at its lowest ebb. The news is owned by Murdoch and as a result of his editorial policy, combined with popularity of social media it’s only the diehards like us who take any interest. Thirdly, on the subject of leadership I have to point out that the way in which the leader is elected, together with other reforms, have for many years been extremely contentious within the party. Fourthly, we should never underestimate timing in politics.
A little later I commented further:
“I repeat why on earth would Shorten buy into arguments the PM has already lost or looks like losing by himself. There is a point at which the slow drip ideas stream should start but it is not yet. I would be creating an Argument prior to the May budget and be philosophically based on Abbott’s demise of our democracy and his unsuitability for the job”.
“I don’t want an election campaign mode. I want that marketing bullshit to stop. I want a frank and open discussion with the Australian people. I want us to decide what sort of society we want and then talk about how we can achieve it. That can’t be done in a two week campaign. I would love to see political advertising banned as it is in the UK.
On the leadership thing, it actually doesn’t matter to me. Sporting teams change their captains but when they run out onto the pitch they are all there for the same reason. Who takes the toss doesn’t really matter though inspiration from your leader is a good thing and having a charismatic front man has certain benefits – not crucial though. Policies and vision should come from the whole team. Know your topic and have a plan for the future”.
Rather than comment on what her reply says and given that we both kick with the same foot allow me to explain my point of view.
What should Shorten do?
I won’t enter into a futile argument about leadership because under the new rules Shorten has been elected and will lead the party to the next election. End of story.
All the latest polls give Labor an unambiguously clear lead over their Coalition opposition. Tony Abbott has proven to be a failure as leader and the electorate has recognised that they elected a dud. He has a trust deficit even worse than the fiscal deficit (which has also blown out on his watch).
The year has just started. The Medicare Rebate has gone. The co-payment looks like it will also go. University fees have met the same fate. The proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act had to be abandoned. A proposed ban on the Burqa had to go and a back down on Paid parental leave reached its inevitable conclusion. What’s next you might ask? Well 2015 will serve up an array of problems befitting a Chinese take away menu.
We are being governed by a party who spent four years in opposition being so negative that they forgot that governance requires thought out policy not ideological implementation.
You might ask then, in light of all this, what then is Bill Shorten doing wrong? In spite of a clear lead in the polls he constantly comes under fire for his inability to cut through as Opposition Leader. Even on the pages of this blog he is criticised for an incapacity to confront his opponent, communicate policy or at least differentiate it.
Leading your Party in Opposition must surely be a job you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. It’s a thankless, powerless task that has few positives but comes with enormous expectations from those who follow you.
Releasing policy is considered precarious until the election campaign begins. Ask John Hewson. He tried it. The media focus on the incumbent and often a 10 second grab on the nightly news is about all one can expect. Often you are damned if you support something with bi-partisan intent or damned if you don’t.
Your followers have a ‘why doesn’t he stick it up ‘em’ mentality that is laced with an unrealistic desire to win every argument along the way.
Try an experiment. Watch the Chanel 10 new at 5pm then 7 or 9 at 6, SBS at 6.30 and the ABC at 7. If Shorten is featured in any story I can almost guarantee his comment will not exceed 10 or 12 seconds.
Labor supporters have an unrealistic, urgent desire to obtain office and they don’t take into account the re-thinking of policy and party structures necessary to win back government, and the planning involved in doing so. They underestimate the task of unseating a government in one term.
Abbott made the mistake of not formulating policy in opposition and is paying dearly for it now.
More often than not opposition leaders are focused on the polls, whilst at the same time, be wondering who might have the knife raised above their head conspiring to unseat them. In Parliament your effectiveness is limited, and you can only ask questions that your opponents are not required to answer. You can appear on TV programs that have little public appeal or talk-back radio, with a daytime audience, but generally speaking your public exposure is limited.
It is all made the more difficult when your own ability is limited by your personal capacity to deliver succinct messages because people have an expectation that you should have the presentation skills of a Barack Obama, Bill Clinton combined with the charisma of Whitlam or Hawke. Shorten has none of their eloquence, instead showing a distinct inarticulateness that is at times depressive. Often he comes over as just another apparatchik or Union boss. As a communicator he lacks charisma and personality. What he does have though is an ability for well thought out policies and ideas. He may very well be the man for the times.
So opposition leaders tend to come over as unconstructive, having nothing good to say, or mere carpers. Abbott of course made a virtue of it. (More later).
Having said that, Australia has not been blessed with charismatic leaders with a passion that excites and inspires. Howard, Gillard, Rudd, and now Abbott have been dour, if not intelligent, individuals who would hardly enthuse one to alight from bed each morning let alone be excited by ideas emanating from enlightened and sagacious minds.
You would have to go back to the period of Whitlam, Hawke, and Keating to experience the exhilaration that might come about with an enthusiasm for what might be possible through the political process.
Brendan Nelson, Kim Beazley, Mark Latham, Simon Crean, John Hewson, Andrew Peacock, Malcolm Turnbull, and Alexander Downer all suffered from the helplessness of opposition and failed as leaders despite their aptitude.
My personal view, as an aside, is that Kim Beazley would have made a fine Prime Minister had he obtained office. And he nearly did.
Tony Abbott it must be said intentionally turned negativity and all the difficulty of opposition into a virtue. But then his personality was suited to it. I doubt that we will ever see another opposition leader like Abbott.
Why? Well only a person of Abbott’s character, or lack of, could do what he did. By the sheer force of erasing all pretense to decency he imposed himself on the Australian people, telling lie after lie, day after day and week after week on a scale hitherto inexperienced by an electorate well and truly sick of politics. He said “no” to anything and everything with propaganda like intensity and the people never realised the wrongs that would eventually be perpetrated on them.
He had the assistance of a newspaper baron equally deficient in decency, in Rupert Murdoch, and a government preoccupied with leadership squabbles rather than good government.
After 15 months of incumbency it is demonstrably apparent that a daily avalanche of Abbott style deleterious destructive opposition might gain you government and give you power, but it makes the task of transposing yourself into a credible statesman-like Prime Minister almost impossible.
So what should Shorten do?
Well for the moment he should sit pat and let Abbott’s self-destruction take its course. At the same time he should not fall into the trap of adopting a small target strategy. As I see it, Bill Shorten, at this time in our political history, has been handed a unique gift.
The opportunity to create a two-year narrative about the decline in our democracy and Abbott’s involvement in it. It’s an invitation to do the same as Abbott did. Redefine what opposition is, and do so, in a resoundingly positive way.
Acknowledge the faults, the corruption on both sides together with the destruction of our parliamentary conventions and institutions. Shout the need for a new democracy as often as Abbott said “Stop the Boats”.
In every utterance say that good democracies can deliver good government and outcomes only if the electorate demands it. He has said that 2015 will be noted for the power of Labor’s ideas. So he needs to deliver a series of headland speeches that are not just noted for the power of their ideas but for the daring of their vision. The scale of their emotional, practicable and logical thoughtfulness.
Messages should speak to young and old alike by appealing to people to participate in a new democracy where all policy is cantered on the common good. I can hear the first sentence of his first speech:
“I speak to all who have a common interest in renewing our democracy regardless of ideological association”.
And create a strategy for the next election with grass route appeal that was so successful in the Victorian state election.
Finally let us not forget that the Abbott government has 90 seats in the House of Representatives but needs only 76 to form government. The point is that it can afford to lose a significant number of MPs without actually being consigned to the wrong side of the treasury benches. This pushes the number of seats Labor needs to win to return to power well up the electoral pendulum.
For further thoughts on the same subject: