MUNGO MACCALLUM. Time to take Bill Shorten seriously.

It is time, perhaps past time, to take Bill Shorten seriously.

In spite of Labor’s long-running lead in the opinion polls, it is far too early to declare him a certain, or even a highly probable winner. There are many who point to his nagging personal unpopularity as evidence of an insuperable hurdle to his success.

A friend of many years experience in Labor politics still regards him as unelectable:  too much baggage from the union movement, too much expediency and not enough principle, essentially a political hack rather than a visionary. If it were not for the multiple failures and disappointments of Malcolm Turnbull, my friend avers, he would have been dumped long ago for Anthony Albanese, Chris Bowen, Tania Plibersek – almost anyone with a spark of charisma and authenticity.

But for all Shorten’s supposed opportunism, there is no denying that the opposition leader has found a bandwagon that suits him, and which he may yet turn into a juggernaut to destroy the coalition government. And to be fair to the man, it is not all about chasing the shades of Jeremy Corben, Bernie Sanders and yes, even Donald Trump down the populist path.

Shorten has now articulated inequality as his lodestone, but it is a course he has been pursuing for long before the time he became Labor leader. Last week’s orations to the faithful and those beyond were signalled in what was then regarded as foolhardy commitments changes to negative gearing and capital gains tax, his campaign against company tax cuts and the big banks, and his attacks on the entitlements, perks, and rorts of the rich.

Of course the government and their media cheer squad dismiss all this as class war, the politics of envy; well, they would, wouldn’t they? They’re doing very nicely out of the system as it is. And when Shorten added family trusts for wealthy tax avoiders to his hit list, the premature expostulation of ministers went ballistic over an attack on the legitimate interests of farmers and small business, who would not be caught up in Shorten’s plan. If there is to be a class war, they are up for it: let’s hear it for  the privileged class!

But the Reserve Bank governor, Phillip Lowe,  contradicts Treasurer Scott Morrison’s claim that inequality used to be rising but is now falling; in fact, says Lowe, inequality is increasing whether you measure it through income (not too bad) or total wealth (definitely a problem).

And more importantly Turnbull,  Morrison, Barnaby Joyce and the rest of them seem totally unable to explain why their slogan of jobs and growth (which Turnbull, absurdly, claims to have delivered) has in any way improved the lot of the mass of punters who are suffering stagnant or falling wages and conditions, unaffordable housing, constant price increases for household energy and general insecurity while they watch the fat cats get fatter, smugger and more avaricious.

This may be the politics of envy, but there are good reasons to be envious, and simply waving them aside with a wave of an expensively tailored suit is not going to help, especially from a Prime Minister whose legendary wealth is paraded every time he goes home to his harbourside mansion. So Shorten, yet again, is on the front foot, leading the debate.

And he is also moving beyond retail politics to a glimpse of the big picture. He has renewed his championship of indigenous reconciliation – that is a given. But he has also proposed fixed four year terms for federal parliament, as is the case in most of the state houses.

Admittedly it was easier to reform them because they could be done by legislation; in Canberra it would require a referendum, which is why Shorten challenged Turnbull to join a bipartisan push. Turnbull ducked; he had more pressing matters to attend to. And the so-called conservatives at Newscorp were derisive, indulging in an orgy of politician bashing to leaven their pages of diatribe celebrating the departure of Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs.

In fact the idea follows not only Australian but international usage; non-fixed three year terms (which in practice works out to about two and a half) are an exception and have fed into instability, ad hoc government and voter resentment about being sent back to the polls so often. Serious politicians and commentators have urged four year terms for decades. But such is the febrile, belligerent nature of the current climate, any proposal from Shorten must be clobbered at sight.

Which of course means the revival of the republic debate, once Turnbull’s great aspiration must now to be deferred indefinitely – the longevity of the Queen is the current excuse for procrastination, but our Prime Minister has already signalled that the affection shown to her grandchildren and even great grandchildren may still be an insuperable obstacle.

Shorten’s timing is impeccable: the imbroglio over citizenship, in which parliamentarians are compelled to abjure their ties to the country of their birth or their family but must swear allegiance to a foreign, hereditary monarch is indeed an anomaly that cannot rationally be justified. Shorten’s schedule to the appointment of an Australian head of state is a long one – two parliamentary terms at least, possibly three. But that is not necessarily a bad thing: it suggests that he is thinking for the long term, to basic change rather than the tinkering that has characterised much of the agenda of successive governments government for the most of the last decade.

It will not, says Barnaby Joyce while giving aid and support to the water rorters and boasting about how he had secured their portfolio from a compliant Turnbull,  create jobs; true, and that is another imperative altogether. But it could be something to hope for, a reason for those doing it tough to make them feel a bit better about themselves. At the very least it will not do Shorten any harm, and as Turnbull and his troops continue to struggle for traction in the midst of what appears to be indecision and confusion, that is a plus in itself.

So William Richard Shorten, once considered a stop gap until someone better came along, is now a serious contender for the big job. There is still a long way to go, but he has already given the coalition a real fright and there is obviously more to come. Watch this space, watch this man.

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12 Responses to MUNGO MACCALLUM. Time to take Bill Shorten seriously.

  1. Jennifer Meyer-Smith says:

    Good article, Mungo. I accept Shorten is a good strategist and he has done well to inspire a sense of unity in the current Labor team (although too much unity is not necessarily a good thing.)

    However, I am still reticent to believe in Shorten’s ability or willingness to break the neoliberal hold on the Labor mindset. He, and they generally, sadly represent the complacent class, which enjoys socio-economic security and have lost touch with the daily battles of people suffering poverty on Newstart.

    Have you heard what Shorten will do about lifting the Newstart benefit to a dignified living level yet, or removing the draconian mutual obligations required currently?

    No, neither have I.

    While Shorten is the next likely Labor Prime Minister, I want him to make way for an inspirational leader like Sally McManus, who has already shown her backbone to take on neoliberalism and kiss it goodbye.

    Then, we can welcome back Gough’s Democratic Socialism, as Sanders and Corbyn inspire, which is not merely populism but inspiration.

  2. Alison Broinowski says:

    We have had a populist prime minister and one with charisma, and we’ve got nowhere. Let’s learn from experience and give unpopular uncharismatic Shorten a chance. He’s already saying what people want to hear about climate change, inequality, gay marriage, the republic and (more or less) on Palestine. Why can’t he fly a few kites? Like promising if elected to get Australian bombers out of Syria and Australian troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, like having a Chilcot-style inquiry into how we got there in the first (and second) place, and like restoring Australian aid to respectable levels? And demanding the closure of camps in Nauru and Manus too. Howard used this technique and it worked for him. The voters would be inspired.

  3. David Arthur says:

    Oh come on Mungo, are you serious? Hollow-man Bill? Labor’s constantly good polling figures are simply a reflection that the people are desperate, very desperate for a team other than Turnbull and Joyce. But Shorten with his manufactured and hesitant sincerity is not going to cut the mustard with the punters. Mungo, you’ve been around long enough to surely know that. I suspect that you’re so desperate that you’ve resorted to trying to convince yourself of Shorten’s worth.
    The likes of Corbyn and Sanders have genuinely cut through because they are sincere believers in their cause and they are able to speak passionately and persuasively. Their true conviction has enabled within each of these men a fantastic clarity that is articulate and indeed heart warming for those who seek another alternative. Although Shorten has always believed that he was destined to Labor leadership and perhaps prime minister-ship, the fact is he was never the man for the job. Every Labor MP, deep down, knows that. It’s time, Penny Wong to move to the Reps. as soon as possible.

    • John Kotsopoulos says:

      Why do you find it necessary to denigrate Shorten in order to pump up Wong’s tyres? Mungo got it absolutely correct.

      While people who think like you mark Shorten down as PM which is reflected in head to head polls with Turnbull his net job (disapproval) rating is remarkably close to Turnbull’s. I doubt if Wong would do any better and might do worse if there was a leadership change prior to the election

  4. Bill Burke says:

    Shorten may be given The Lodge courtesy of Liberal Party self inflicted wounds. But even that is not assured as he seems determined to load more lead into his saddle bags.
    Championing the Republic in the immediate future is inspired silliness. For the time being, Elizabeth II is being accorded a reverence that her longevity, diligence and presence have elicited, while William, Kate and Harry provide doses of youthful glamour. And Bill thinks he is going to wrest the attention of a majority of Australians to draw down the curtain on this scene. Not likely. Then, there is his other worthy project: Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. So far, there is no unanimity among the indigenous community on what is going to be put to the wider population for endorsement. Yet, Bill is off writing a blank cheque of support. Second major tactical blunder.
    A review of his electioneering last time round revealed he achieved more traction when he locked in to heartland Labor issues, aided and abetted by a neat bit of Medicare scaring. You would think that would have taught him to keep it simple, avoid any suggestion of agile comments and come up with some content driven programs that will actually make a difference to the working and want to work classes.

  5. Dr John CARMODY says:

    While also no enthusiast for Mr Shorten, I realised — during the last election campaign — that he seems to have the important ability to persuade his team to grapple with problems and rally behind the consensus which the group reaches. It is a proverb in Australian politics (and it has a lot of empirical evidence to support it) that the people will not elect a divided party. Irrespective of whether some of it might be illusion, Shorten seems to have held the ALP together as a cohesive team. The contrast with the Government is striking and, unless a radical change occurs, the incumbents seem likely to be severely punished at the next election.
    Mungo McCallum points to Shorten’s “personal unpopularity” as if Turnbull’s is anything to write home about. In fact, it’s a spurious indicator: it’s like comparing the popularity of the Australian cricket team with someone else — say Mungo McCallum — who isn’t in the role. The true and ONLY,indicator is the 2-party-preferred vote: because that’s the vote which determines elections (which are, ultimately, a binary choice between a Government and an Opposition), not the presumed “popularity” of individual politicians. John Howard was re-elected in 2004, for example, because Mark Latham was far more unpopular and the 2PP vote was cast accordingly.

    • Jennifer Meyer-Smith says:

      Which dickhead Labor stringpuller put Latham in as Labor leader then, I ask in retrospective anguish?

  6. Jaquix says:

    You have to give it Shorten, he is leading cause united team. Turnbull is not and cannot. His team is talented and hardworking. They beaver and consult and with up controversial policy. Turnbulls do not. He is also “leading the debate”. We’re all talking about what he talks about. All despite Murdochs best efforts to denigrate or ignore. Polls show that Shorten is improving on every measure, slowly and surely. Tortoise and hare. Turnbull going in the opposite direction. Charisma overrated. Often its self-centredness. Bills public speaking and presentation has improved. Malcolm shrinks and ages before our eyes.

    • Jennifer Meyer-Smith says:

      All true Jaquix,
      but I fear Shorten’s pragmatic lack of preparedness to upset the apple-cart.

      On 2PP arrangement and most popular PM charts, Shorten’s Labor is undoubtedly winning. But I don’t want them to be grinning …

      … coz while they’re feeling so self-satisfied and victorious, they’re forgetting about us little pebbles that don’t shimmer so brightly in public opinion charts such as those pesky 000,000’s of unemployed vulnerable Aussies living below the poverty line.

  7. Andrew McRae says:

    Thanks for a good article, Mungo.

    ‘Personal popularity’ is a nebulous thing. In fact, so nebulous that a dire lack of whatever-it-is did not prevent Tony Abbott from becoming PM. Of course, some say that governments always lose elections, rather than opposition parties win them; it’s almost a truism. Turnbull’s own ‘popularity’ has apparently plummeted since replacing Abbott.

    What is not so nebulous is the connection between ‘approval’ ratings and political competence. In this regard, Shorten is clearly closing the gap, and even more clearly leading in the development of coherent policy and in maintaining a unified party. I’d say that it was only a mere, small vestige of ‘belief’ in Turnbull (fostered by the press gallery, mostly) in the electorate which so narrowly won the LNP the last election.

    Whatever his perceived failings (‘Shorten-comings’?), which so disappoint Labor stalwarts – especially the slavish in-step support of all LNP positions on refugees, security and involvement in wars – Shorten has been able somehow to withstand the right’s various attempts to stain fatally his character. He now faces a totally inept, venal government led by a man whose own character has been disastrously exposed – despite the white-washing that is still prevalent in the MSM – and who will surely not be given another chance by the voters, if he even makes it to the next election. It’s ridiculous to compare Shorten to Corbyn or Sanders or pine for a charismatic, idealistic someone who’s likely not even to be found in the parliamentary ALP. Shorten’s probably doing just well enough, by operating within his limitations (which probably adds to Laborites’ disappointment, but is unknown to the hubristic Turnbull), to win the next election; that’s probably the best that one can hope for, anyone who just wants to replace this shamefully corrupt, lazy, incompetent government with one that is somewhat better.

  8. Mike Gilligan says:

    Shorten will win irrespective of all arguments
    because the unions have the cash obtained from
    skiming peoples superannuation to easily out campaign
    poor silly coalition who had to be propped up
    by Turnbulls personal wealth- drovers dog stuff

    • Jennifer Meyer-Smith says:

      A particularly pessimistic viewpoint, Mike.

      I don’t want Shorten to win. (Personally I want him to take a backseat and have somebody with more equitable societal values to win.)

      But one thing is for sure, I want the LNP defeated resoundingly by a combined force of the Greens and Labor with other emerging Progressive parties coming together to pathe the way for a renewed political system that EXPECTS to represent us all no matter what our position in society.

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