Wednesday 24 January 2018
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. The media focuses on the incumbent and often a 10 second grab on the nightly news is about all one can expect. Often you are dammed if you support something with bi-partisan intent, or dammed if you don’t.
“The exchange and intellectual debate of ideas needs to be re energised and it is incumbent on the young to become involved.”
More often than not 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.
And in their urgent desire to obtain office they don’t take into account the re-thinking of policy and party structures necessary to win back government, and the work involved in doing so. Remember, Tony Abbott made the mistake of not formulating policy in opposition and paid dearly for it. You could be the sort of Opposition Leader he turned out to be but look at how that’s turned out. The best ever, the Murdoch papers said.
In Shorten’s case it is all 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 or Bill Clinton. 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 unless Labor history needs defending: then he can burn rubber with the best of them.
So opposition leaders tend to come over as negative, having nothing good to say, or just carpers. Abbott, of course, made a virtue of it.
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.
So unpopularity has never been a retardant against election.
You would have to go back to the period of Whitlam – who could make your hair stand on end – 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 Beasley would have made a fine Prime Minister had he obtained office. And he nearly did.
I have written, over the years, a few pieces about how Bill Shorten should approach an election year. Even been criticised for doing so but this one from Kaye Lee typifies people’s expectations:
‘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.’
Next Wednesday the Opposition leader will address the National Press Club and it will present him with an opportunity to outline what path, both economically and socially he wants to take us down. He might even begin with these words he tweeted last Monday:
“Today’s must-read. The top end of town is doing very well already. They don’t need a $65 billion tax break from Turnbull. And if I’m elected Prime Minister, they won’t get it.”
With an election likely anytime after August it seems Labor is well prepared to take the fight up to the Coalition. Leaders need not be popular to win. Ask John Howard.
“The party plans on using its jumpstart on campaigning by “building our narrative”, which is expected to centre around the party’s work highlighting inequality, including the casualisation of the workforce.
“It’s going to be about getting back to Labor basics, about coming up with solutions for the battlers, and that includes people who have jobs but can’t get enough hours, can’t have job security,” one party source familiar with the plans said. “You can expect that to be a fairly big theme as we go through this year.
“We’ll be working with the unions on it, of course, but it continues what we started at the last election. Negative gearing changes. That sort of thing. It is our point of difference and it matters to people and we should be going further down this path.”
Shorten certainly has his detractors but he keeps on keeping on. But he also has a large block of supporters.
He enjoys the support of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees union, which has a significant bloc of federal MPs and the support of Victorian Left power broker Kim Carr. He is also respected for his negotiating skills by many business leaders.
Since his last campaign one would have to admit that he has put an enormous effort into getting the party into shape for the next election. To be rid of him now would be an unnecessarily bad move. After all his performance as a Labor campaigner at the last election surprised everyone. So much so that he came within a seat of winning. Other than the “unpopularity” disease every leader seems to acquire in Australia what other reason do they have?
Collingwood lost a few premierships by slim margins but never sacked the coach. You couldn’t say Shorten has under performed.
For his part, the Prime Minister has become emboldened by his win in Bennelong and his High Court challenges to the legitimacy of three Labor MPs. Given a positive outcome in both will it be enough to overturn years of the poorest governance this country has seen in my lifetime? I don’t think so.
My thought for the day
“Labor is a party of progressives who never apply the philosophy to their internal structures. A decent leader should insist on it.” Go Bill!