Malcolm Turnbull and his supporters regularly deride Bill Shorten as standing for nothing – first as a populist weather vane, and more recently as a constant nay-sayer in the style of Tony Abbott.
And there has been some grounds for the accusations: Shorten has not always appeared a firm and consistent advocate of policies. But in the last couple of weeks he has changed, standing up for both his politics and principles.
Both have been on display with his rejection of Turnbull’s demands to restore the Building and Construction Commission and to pass the Same Sex marriage Plebiscite; this was inevitable and predictable. But he has also doubled down in joining, improbably, with Jacqui Lambie to pursue an international competitive backpacker tax. And more importantly to opposes Turnbull’s unconscionable move for a lifetime ban on refugees to ever set foot on Australia.
But what may be the seminal moment was his response to the election of Donald Trump: while the Liberals were knocking each other out of the way to fall at the feet of the president elect, Shorten declined to join what Mark Latham memorably described as a conga line of suckholes. Government ministers scrambled to disavow or pretend to ignore the many previous pejoratives they had thrown at The Donald; Turnbull’s thunder that his comments on women were loathsome is apparently to be expunged from history.
But Shorten has not kowtowed. He has not resiled from his line that Trump is barking mad, although he has not repeated it. Instead, he said this: .
“Every time the people of the United States choose a new president, it has consequences for the world — and for Australia, The American people have spoken and as always, Australia will respect their decision. Australians should also know our alliance with the United States has grown and thrived for seven decades — no matter who’s in charge
“But if I see women being disrespected, I’m going to call it out, If I see people being discriminated against because of the colour of their skin or their religion, I’m going to call it out. As the alternative prime minister of this country, Australians are entitled to know where I stand.”
This is measured, respectful and sensible, and most importantly an affirmation of Australian (not necessarily American) values. Obviously we have to acknowledge the unpalatable fact that Trump will become the 45th president of the United States, the most powerful man in the world; and to some extent we will have to accommodate this reality.
But this does not mean we have to like it and it certainly does not mean that we have to be as effusive as our Prime Minister does in glorying in his “warm” conversation with the triumphant tycoon.
It is probably too early to question the sanctity of the ANZUS alliance, as Paul Keating did last week. But we should at least be wary of the very uncertain future that Australia awaits as we move towards the fateful day of January 20, when The Donald will become all-powerful. Denial is stupid, but grovelling to bullies will not help either.
Mungo MacCallum is a former senior journalist in the Canberra Press Gallery.