MUNGO MACCALLUM. Time to take Bill Shorten seriously.

Aug 2, 2017

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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