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Clever Bill

Bill Shorten’s speech at the National Press Club today laid a solid roadmap for a future Labor government. Although the speech covered many policy topics, its main focus was on a narrative which can be short-hand referred to as the ‘Labor’s with you’ story. In many ways, it was a clever speech. This is why:

He acknowledged the ‘out-of-touch’ elephant in the room

Shorten acknowledged that the political class, which he quite rightly told the press-club audience included them, is perceived as out-of-touch with voters. It is at this point in a speech when a politician will usually lecture voters about the silliness of this misconception. However, Shorten didn’t do this. Instead, he said that voter distrust, anger, and declining loyalty is understandable in a political system which has too many scandals (ping Susan Ley) and when campaign donation laws have meant it has taken 7 months for the public to find out how much Turnbull donated to his own campaign (apparently us punters get this figure tomorrow. My money is on $2 million. Pocket change).

To try to rebuild some trust, Shorten promised to establish another parliamentary inquiry into a national integrity commission and to support Turnbull’s transparency reforms.

Sticking with the theme of ‘Labor’s with you’, Shorten also interestingly promised to keep up his hectic schedule of town-hall meetings as he did throughout 2016, but in 2017, rather than answering questions from the floor, he will be asking the audience for their policy ideas about how to fix things. This might seem like text-book political engagement stuff, but the point is, you can’t fault Shorten’s desire to turn political talk into walk.

Jobs and skills create growth

There are two reasons Shorten’s ‘jobs and skills’ focus is a clever move. The first is that, in a political environment where every person and their dog is claiming Labor doesn’t have a purpose, it doesn’t hurt to remind people what the Labor Party is: the political arm of the Labour Movement. Yes, Labor also has come a long way in recent years in understanding the legitimate political needs and wants of what I call the ‘identity politics’ movement. But it’s impossible to ignore the very real fact that traditional Labor voters, those people who once were rusted to Labor, but now swing dangerously close to either the Liberals (Howard’s battlers) or even One Nation, are the key to Labor’s electoral fortune. To put it bluntly, if you’re a progressive who wants to see your identity politics outcome come about, you have to get on board with Labor’s appeal to traditional working class, suburban voters. And this appeal must be centered on jobs.

The helpful thing about a jobs message is it is not just about jobs. As everyone with a job knows, you can’t segment your jobs away from the rest of your daily existence. And once again, this is where Shorten has been clever. Jobs is also about being qualified for the jobs that are available. This is where Labor’s emphasis on apprenticeships and funding to vocational training became relevant. It also links to his promise to reform the 457 visa system so these visas aren’t used to bring in cheap labour, which reduces job opportunities, undermines wages and conditions and gives no incentive for companies to train Australian workers to do the same jobs. It further links to childcare, all levels of schooling education and of course, Medicare. Because if you’re not healthy enough to work, you don’t have a job. All tied up in a neat narrative bow.

He argued against Liberal ideology without attacking them

It is not true that Shorten didn’t mention the Liberals, he did. But, as if following the rules of George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant framing textbook, Shorten didn’t fall into the usual trap of arguing against Turnbull’s Liberal policies. Instead, he took the smarter path of implying the inappropriateness of Liberal policies by laying out why his alternative plan is not just one of opposition, but of a completely different view of the economy and how jobs are created.

As an example, rather than spending ten minutes explaining why Turnbull’s pet-policy corporate tax cut doesn’t ‘trickle-down’ and is just a ‘gift to overseas investors’, Shorten took the high ground by explaining that the problem with the economy is that wage growth is at historic lows. There’s a reason such an idea resonates with voters. It’s because it is true. It’s now more difficult for Turnbull to now come out tomorrow and say ‘Shorten is wrong: wage growth is not a problem, the amount of tax corporations pay is a problem’. Turnbull can and probably will of course try, but his argument has already been refuted by Shorten who argued, correctly, that it is money in workers’ pockets which creates growth and in turn jobs, and that the government should do whatever possible to increase wages in order to keep the economy driving forward for everyone, not just the executives who benefit from a corporate tax-cut.

And the media struggled to respond

The press-club members struggled to respond to Shorten’s speech for one simple reason. Relating to the point above, Shorten didn’t offer the usual adversarial, oppositional rhetoric that they’re used to copy and pasting into a ‘he said, she said’ electoral two-horse-race narrative which is basically just a lazy prism through which all of them write about politics.

This struggle was most evident in Sabra Lane’s question when she asked if Shorten was opposing Turnbull’s refugee deal with Trump. Shorten had not, in fact, even implied he was opposed to the deal and had rather just stated that there was no need for Turnbull to hide away from commenting on Trump’s Muslim ban out of fear of destroying the asylum seeker resettlement deal, as Trump had already confirmed the deal would go ahead. It was almost as if Lane wanted to put words in Shorten’s mouth to conjure a policy dispute for a headline, when such a headline would, in reality, completely misrepresent Shorten’s entire speech.

Without having read commentary on the speech, since this commentary is no doubt being written as I type, I can already predict that Shorten will be framed as having crafted his rhetoric in reaction to Trump’s electoral victory, ensuring the same rust-belt result doesn’t undo Labor at the next election. Again, templated journalism will be at play here which frames politicians’ only motive in life as finding a popular electoral angle, and never, low and behold too, for example, do something about low wages in order to improve economic conditions for the entire country. If someone writes anything from a different perspective, please be sure to include it in the comments below, because I would love to be pleasantly surprised.

I was, however, pleasantly surprised by Bill Shorten today. His speech and his off-cuff questions showed how much work Labor has done on refining their policy agenda to address the real concerns of voters. I look forward to this Labor agenda continuing its onward march to defeat the Turnbull-fizza at the next election.


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  1. Steve Laing -

    Engagement with the public is critical, as he must be seen to lead from the front, not just in parliament. If he can do that, he may be able to gather some momentum behind him other than from the rusted on Labor voters. I’m glad he is making a stand against Trump – that too is a clear differentiator from Turnbull.

  2. billshaw2013

    I’ve been to two of Shorten’s Town Hall meetings over the last twelve months and one thing stands out……he is very consistent in his message and he stays on course. What came out from the Press Club speech is no different from his Town Hall commentary with mainly rusted on Labor. This is in contrast to the Liberals where they target their audience saying what they presume the audience wants to hear. This inevitably ends up that someone is lied to. This partly led to Abbott’s downfall as his addiction to pandering to targeted audiences left him erratic and a perceived liar. Staying on message alleviates lying.

  3. David Stakes

    MSM will try to paint Shorten into a Trump like corner, Shorten standing up for our unemployed youth,and decimated TAFE. Nothing wrong with that. Its when it affects all aspects of society thats when its wrong.

  4. Steve Laing -

    Billshaw – telling the truth alleviates lying. Its why the LNP likes secrecy, because then they don’t have to talk about their lies when they get found out…

  5. Keith Woolsey

    Did he mention Labor supported new brown coal mines at all? Anything concrete on emptying or closing the refugee camps?

  6. billshaw2013

    No mention of brown coal mine support so that is one issue still to be tackled. He did say the camps had to be emptied and the prolonged holding of refugees in detention was not acceptable.

  7. Kate Ahearne

    Thanks for this, Victoria. Just one thing that strikes me, though. You say:
    ‘This struggle was most evident in Sabra Lane’s question, when she asked if Shorten was opposing Turnbull’s refugee deal with Trump. Shorten had not, in fact, even implied he was opposed to the deal, and had rather just stated that there was no need for Turnbull to hide away from commenting on Trump’s Muslim ban out of fear of destroying the asylum seeker resettlement deal, as Trump had already confirmed the deal would go ahead. It was almost as if Lane wanted to put words in Shorten’s mouth to conjure a policy dispute for a headline, when such a headline would, in reality, completely misrepresent Shorten’s entire speech.’

    But that cat was already well and truly out of the bag.

    Under the headline, ‘It’s time for leadership’: Bill Shorten slams ‘appalling’ Donald Trump immigration ban’ in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald, Michael Koziol quotes Mr Shorten.
    “Wherever possible, I want the United States to be able to go about its business without interference from Australia. And I would expect the reverse to be true,” the Labor leader wrote on his official Facebook page.

    “However, there are some issues where silence will be interpreted as agreement. For that reason, I need to say Mr Trump’s ban on refugees based upon their religion or country is appalling and ought to be ended as soon as possible.”

  8. Ella Miller

    Michael, you were right..thanks.
    I sat with anticipation absorbing Bill’s speech… I felt AT LAST Labor is speaking.
    He did not disappoint.
    But MSM starting with the few second grab…ie jobs,jobs,jobs.
    It will be interesting to see what happens with the PM.

  9. Roswell

    A politician with a spine.

    The only politicians the media has been obsessed with lately are the spineless ones.

  10. aravis1

    Bill is coming out as good news in a bad world. It is truly time.

  11. helvityni

    Amen to that,aravis1. It’s time.

    I don’t expect perfection from anyone, and definitely not from our leaders, but do expect better than what we have been getting from Abbott and Turnbull.

  12. Robert G. Shaw

    Victoria, a fine article.
    Let us hope that Shorten can convince many, many, others in the same manner he has convinced you.

    My greatest (strategic) fear is a Labor abrogation of its own ‘Rust Belters”.

  13. Wayne Turner

    Shorten speech,showed how pathetic the MSM are.One of the biggest reasons we have alot of crap is we have even worse MSM.

  14. Susan

    Thank you Bill…. I agree 457 visa rorts, wages and vocational training are some of the most important factors affecting workers at present.
    Good to read an article about Australian politics instead of USA’s

  15. Michael

    Mal’s $2 Million (?) is now the cost of a Prime Ministership in Australia – The Koch’s have a lot to learn from down under – innovative and agile at the same time!

  16. Ella Miller

    @Robbert G Shaw 8.47pm
    Robert I feel more optimistic tonight than I have in years.
    If Bill can pull off half of what he saw needs to be done , in education and training in health, in demanding from companies that they invest in our work force through training young and old and making sure corporations pay their fair share then we will be heading back onto the right track.

    The one statement which sticks in my head proving that he gets it was and Ii can’t quote word for word was
    ‘if people do not have money in their pockets to spend then how will the economy grow’?
    Bring on the election ASAP.

  17. PK

    While the ALP continues to follow the neo-liberal ideology, they are a waste of time and not worth even looking at… Bill you build an economy from the bottom up… middle class assistance is just more trickle down… start talking about a Job Guarantee, take on Bill Mitchell as your economic and fiscial adviser and then you will be worth listen too…

  18. jim

    The LNP’s obsession with cutting wages and penalty rates is just plain stupid, Labor is trying to stop this…..The Fair Work Commission is the independent umpire, but when making decisions, it must follow the rules set out in the Fair Work Act.

    I wanted to let you know that if the Commission were to cut penalty rates for hundreds of thousands of already low-paid workers without sufficient compensation – leaving people worse off, Labor would not accept this.

    In a speech last week, Bill Shorten explained that Labor would consider changing the rules which guide the exercise of the Commission’s discretion.

    Legislating the level of penalty rates, or imposing specific conditions is not the answer.

    If we start directly legislating penalty rates it will load the gun for future Liberal Governments to use the Parliament to cut them.

    That’s why Labor will take the action we need to so that we can protect workers earning penalty rates.

    “We are all diminished as citizens when any of are poor. Poverty is a national waste as well as a individual waste”.
    Gough Whitlam ALP.

  19. CD

    Shorten, though far from being perfect, has improved greatly as a leader over the past 3 years. I worry however – the capacity of the working classes to vote against their own best interests never ceases to amaze me. How else would the likes of Abbott, Turnbull, Trump etc get elected?

  20. lawrencewinder

    The blank stolid faces on most of that audience augers ill for anything other than arguments for a neo-liberal, IPA ideology. I must admit I did enjoy his succinct slap-down responses, particularly to Sabra Smart-Arse and the Unctuous Uhlmann. They were not interested in questioning just point scoring.

  21. Shevill Mathers

    The next election cannot come soon enough, the Abbott-Turnbull disaster is taking Australia backwards at warp speed, which will both be difficult and time consuming to recover from. Great speech and good answers to questions. Bill, keep it up.

  22. Mojo

    No thank you, sorry, all I have seen from Bill when we need the voice of a strong opposition on some of the most important and pivotal issues facing this country is a frustratingly long pregnant pause, before he eventually engages with the media after the news cycle has closed and his supporters have long since left.

    Agreement on divisive issues that under a healthy and functioning democracy would have polarised political parties, been a catalyst for stimulating and robust public debate and ensured media scrutinisation of government policy.

    And an absolute continuing “tow the line” on fiscal and monetary policy when we now know it’s entire premise is completely and utterly false.

  23. Leanne

    I watched Mr Shorten’s speech to the NPC and it was epic, the looks some of the journalists had on their faces with almost worth capturing
    on camera, but alas, I did not. I enjoyed his speech, but I also enjoyed the raw honesty of it. I hope he does win the next election and people are not stupid nor dumb enough to vote liberals back in.

  24. Keitha Granville

    I was gratified at the desire for every 10 jobs there MUST be an apprentice put on. Businesses cannot kkep on saying there is no one qualified her so they need 457s when they fail completely to train anyone.
    Apprentices, TAFE training as it used to be (ie good), and an increase in basic wage and Newstart. These are the things that will get our economy booming again. More money in the hands of people who will spend it, creating more jobs and more money. Less money handed to big business who will pocket it and send half of it overseas to head office.

  25. Robert G. Shaw

    yes, I too hope that Shorten can deliver without too much compromise.
    And yes, I think the cornerstone of any successful appeal to the electorate will have to be about ‘jobs’ – to the difficult though necessary exclusion of all other sectors. Initially.

    I did have a wry smile though when I read some of his tweets – it appears as though Trump’s protectionist narrative has wafted across the Pacific,

    “In 2017, my first focus will be jobs. We should be building Australian first, buying Australian first & employing Australian first.”

    I’m happy about that though. I see it as the first and primary duty of any government and glad it’s re-entered our conversations.

  26. John Lord

    I was impressed with his thoughtfulness but a good speech writer could have given it a bit of flair.

  27. Harquebus

    Bill Shorten’s NPC address was just more blurb with no real solutions. He is another know-nothing who thinks he has all the answers.

    “He knows nothing and thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.” — George Bernard Shaw

  28. Terry2

    In keeping with his promise to big business Mr Turnbull will say today at the National Press Club that if Australia had a business tax cut “full-time workers on average weekly earnings would have an extra A$750 in their pockets each and every year and…and…and there would be a free sausage-sizzle every Friday and..and…free beer and wine spritzers for the ladies and….and …lollipops for the kiddies and…and…….. ”.

  29. Kaye Lee

    We want…a shrubbery

  30. James Cook

    And….the media basically ignored and under-reported the whole speech. I bet Turnbull gets front page.

  31. Ella Miller

    James so well said …In the Launceston Examiner this morning …NOT A SINGLE WORD…will send letter to editor …needless to say it will not be published.
    Look forward to seeing the front pages of MSM tomorrow because not one had anything about Mr. Shorten’s speech.
    We need to DEMAND BETTER and if we don’t get it stop buying the papers..or reading them on line.

  32. 1petermcc

    How will the speech be reported?

    This morning on AM they decided to skip it except for a slight nod that it occurred and instead talked to a Lib backbencher about unemployment in his region albeit under the heading of Bill Shorten’s speech. I’m guessing the ABC will count that as a stat for a Labor story but it totally ignored the content.

    Considering Sabra was actually there, I would have thought it would get coverage. Perhaps it was beyond her comprehension as I remember Turnbull totally bringing her undone by answering her question with “Ask me a question” before the last Election.

    It will be interesting to see what coverage we see of MT’s effort today in AM tomorrow. I’m thinking it will get proper coverage and I’ll be lodging a complaint if it does.

  33. townsvilleblog

    The only problem with the speech was that the Australian workforce did not see it because they were at work, and sadly the commercial TV stations will only carry a snipet of it if they mention it at all in their news bulletins. How can Labor get positive messages such as these out to the Australian workforce of roughly 8 million?
    I must admit I missed it too as I have been ill for weeks, social media would not carry the speech in full, so there must be a way to get a summary to the people who are affected by these policies. The LNP is well and truly on the nose, but the really sad thing is that we do not see and hear Bill shorten or any Shadow Ministers speaking out with force, making headlines, I sincerely hope this changes for the better soon as an election could be held at any time.

  34. Steve Laing -

    The Labor party need to get the speech up on YouTube, then post the link out using social media/email and ask people to share it stating that people need to share it because the MSM won’t (ideally with evidence showing the lack of media coverage and in which papers). Somehow the electorate needs to be made aware that the MSM appears to be deliberately ignoring certain parties and politicians whilst gratuitously giving air time to others. It is essentially lying by omission.

    Progressive parties need to get a lot better at their communication strategies. Relying on the traditional media to get their message across is a lost cause. Fortunately there are alternatives, and smart politicians will get on board. Unfortunately there aren’t many smart politicians who seem to understand that there is no point creating wonderful “content” (i.e. policies) if there is no means to communicate it to the electorate. But they are largely still stuck in the cosy paradigm of Canberra and the Press Gallery.

  35. Michael

    It is up to you and me, us – I suggest stick to the wonderful content and do not play the MSM game – how would not answering MSM questions go down or do 50/50 (can’t be fairer than that?) alt/MSM media?

  36. Chris2017

    I do not believe the ALP has the answers. Both sides have contributed to the toxic atmosphere of politics and the personal unpleasantness across the parties is nearly as bad as internecine brawling. We are drifting into troubled economic waters and the sell-off/sell out of our industries and infrastructure should raise more interest than at present. Most worrying is the increasing gap between the rich and the rest. Leaving out one Senator, there are few who have my respect in Parliament and certainly none of the major parties represent more than a scintilla of my interests and priorities.

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