Bill Shorten, the man who would be PM, needs to be himself first

Everyone remembers Bill Shorten the charismatic, considered, confident and articulate union leader who became the public face of the Beaconsfield, Tasmania, mine rescue. That’s the problem for Shorten. Everyone remembers.

As Opposition leader, Shorten is none of those things. Instead he comes across as nervy, uncertain, artificial and confused. I say “comes across” because Shorten is no doubt the same person who brought hope, compassion and order to the 2006 mining disaster that gripped the nation.

But as Opposition leader Shorten just isn’t connecting with voters, or his own increasingly nervous party. Bill Shorten is the only thing standing between Tony Abbott and his place in history as the first one-term Prime Minister since William McMahon (1971-72).

Something happened to the former national secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union when he entered federal parliament in 2007: rather than being himself, he seemed to be intent on inventing a new persona, like someone desperately aware that he didn’t fit in.

Success did no elude the new MHR for Maribyrnong. He was immediately elevated to the government frontbench as a parliamentary secretary. He was appointed to the ministry in 2010 as Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation, and to Cabinet in 2011 as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations.

Shorten was a competent and respected Minister, and internally was a formidable party powerbroker, a maker and breaker of prime ministers, but the man who would be prime minister looked anything but the part. Shorten was not himself. He was a diffident public speaker, an unconvincing parliamentary performer and often awkward in exchanges with television interviewers.

His most infamous public flub was in April 2012 when he told Sky News that he endorsed a statement of support for Speaker Peter Slipper by then Prime Minister Julia Gillard: “I haven’t seen what she said, but let me say I support what it is that she said.”  

This kind of political flim-flammery reinforced the growing perception of Shorten as being a politician uncomfortable in the spotlight, and worse, of uncertain convictions. His power behind the scenes was undiminished. He made possible the return of Kevin Rudd in 2013, the PM he had helped unseat three years earlier: but this only made it more difficult for the public to understand what, if anything, he stood for.

This particularly mattered once Shorten became the alternative Prime Minister, and especially when the incumbent Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was proving less than inspirational.

From the first, disastrous opinion poll following the Coalition’s victory at the September 2013 election voters have been turning away in droves from the Abbott government. Never embraced as an alternative Prime Minister, neither is Abbott embraced as the serving PM.

The recent Fairfax/Nielsen poll shows that the Coalition is ahead of Labor on the two-party preferred vote 51-49, and Abbott holds only a slender lead over Shorten as preferred PM, 48-43, with Shorten picking up 4 points since the last poll. Federal Labor might also glean some comfort from the fact that the Liberals were unable to knock off Jay Weatherill’s struggling Labor government in South Australia. And the shiny ministerial scalp of Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos, forced to stand aside over the Australian Water Holdings affair, is a prized Labor win.

This might seem to spell good news for Shorten, but he knows, and Labor knows, that if a federal election were held tomorrow voters might yet baulk at the prospect of a Shorten government. Voters have misgivings enough about voting for a Prime Minister (Abbott) they neither knew nor liked; they won’t do it again with Shorten.

So the challenge for Shorten is real and immediate: voters have to see and hear the real Shorten, not someone acting the part of himself.

Will the real Bill Shorten please stand up?

Shorten should take a deep breath, take stock, sack the focus groups, set some goals, define a vision for Australia, develop a coherent narrative that informs and engages, and take his own advice: “To win the next election we need to change half a million minds. This means regaining the trust of people who have voted for us in the past but did not vote for us in 2013.”

It also means losing some of the bad habits he’s acquired since entering Parliament.

Shorten may be a funny bloke in private, but his attempts at humour, clever retorts and putdowns go down like a leaden non-sequitur. Referring to the Abbott government’s response to the unravelling of Qantas, Shorten threw this incoherent jibe at the government during a fiery session in Parliament: “These people are the cheese-eating surrender monkeys of Australian jobs.”

The mis-directed cultural reference may have paid due homage to The Simpsons, from whence it came, but given that it’s a pejorative term for the French, it was as irrelevant as it was obscure. As was his reference to Nationals leader Warren Truss as “wombolic” (as in the children’s television series The Wombles that first aired in Britain in 1973).

Shorten can also afford to lose some of the phoney mannerisms and gesticulations he has come to adopt, especially when speaking in Parliament. Shorten’s public demeanour suggests someone who is ill at ease; he really needs to learn to relax.

He also needs to address widening perceptions that he is weak and vacillating.         

His failure to reprimand or discipline, or indeed sack, shadow defence minister Stephen Conroy following his venomous attack on Lt-General Angus Campbell, the military chief of the government’s Operation Sovereign Borders, during a Senate estimates hearing, was leadership at its weakest.

Shorten’s choice: more of the same, or a new beginning

Shorten has failed to make his mark on the party he has lead since last October.

The failure to make an impact on the party and the electorate during this critical time will not make it easy for Shorten to rescue his leadership, but it can be done – if he acts now, and decisively.  

Instead of remaking himself, Shorten should be remaking Labor. His reluctance to distance Labor from the failings, economic missteps and bad policy making (and even worse policy implementation) of the Rudd-Gillard era is harming the ability of Labor to highlight weaknesses in the Abbott government – voters are picking that up for themselves – while also providing voters with little confidence in Shorten as the alternative Prime Minister. Labor under Shorten represents more of the same, including suspect leadership.

Labor must toughen up on its policy agenda. Shorten has been too wishy-washy on the future of the mining tax and his confused position on the carbon tax is more hot air than considered policy. Slogans against the loss of jobs in manufacturing are easy, but Australians want to know what a Shorten government would do to protect jobs.

Shorten is more concerned with not saying the wrong thing on policy matters and giving the media a “gotcha” moment than he is with articulating what Labor policy is. One reason may be that there are no such policies, as Shorten has himself acknowledged: “I know that to return to government, Labor needs new policy ideas.”

Only Shorten can turn Labor into a viable alternative government, and in doing so give himself a real fighting chance of becoming Prime Minister in 2016. Tony Abbott’s lacklustre prime ministership has opened the way for a Shorten government, but only if Shorten can prove that he is up to it.

Somewhere in the Simpsons-loving Bill Shorten is the man of substance that his life-long supporters have always believed was destined for great things. Where is that Bill Shorten? Perhaps he is still in Beaconsfield.



3 thoughts on “Bill Shorten, the man who would be PM, needs to be himself first

  1. Good overview.. totally agree that he missed a leadership opportunity to bring Conroy into the real world of opposition over the military/boats issue.

  2. Leo,

    I agree with most of your commentary except that he is the only one standing in the way of a one-term Abbott Prime Ministership. Regardless of who is in the seat, and there is a good chance of Albanese taking over before the end of this term of government, there is no way that Labour can wrest the West of Sydney from the Coalition in two and a half years. Their ‘success’ regarding the Asylum Seeker issue will see to that.

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