We need to talk about Bill: Shorten’s unpopularity could still lose Labor the unlosable election

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg opened the federal election campaign proudly spruiking Frydenberg’s “back in the black” Budget. It was a disingenuous start to the campaign.

There is nothing in the black about Frydenberg’s first and very possibly last budget. More murky grey. The much vaunted surplus – intended to reinforce the mythology of the Liberals’ superiority over Labor as economic managers – is in fact a predicted surplus of $7 billion in 2019-20, which means it is not a fact at all.

The intention of the Government’s sophistry is to ensure that the binary of Liberal/surplus dominates the campaign.

The bogus nature of the Coalition’s budget was implicitly understood by the electorate. One powerful reason for this – something either not understood or simply ignored by the Government – is that despite giddy claims of a strong economy most Australians feel as if they are in the middle of a recession.

Negligible wages growth, job insecurity, underemployment, the rising cost of living at odds with official inflation data, crippling household debt, looming mortgage shock, a discernible gap between the richest and poorest and lacklustre consumer confidence combine to create a bleak reality far removed from the Government’s upbeat “back in the black” mantra.

In his Budget reply, Opposition leader Bill Shorten, delivering one of his best parliamentary performances, forcefully challenged the Government’s rosy view of the economy. He questioned the Budget’s optimistic assumptions, he identified some of Frydenberg’s conjuring tricks (most notably the sleight of hand involved in using the $3.4 billion underspend in the National Disability Insurance Scheme in the current financial year and a $3 billion reduction in NDIS spending for 2019-20 to pump up the projected surplus. This despite the fact that there is broad stakeholder agreement that the NDIS is dangerously underfunded.

Shorten was also effective in making his case that the Government’s regime of tax-cuts was in the face of a worsening global economic outlook.

“This isn’t a tax plan, it’s a ticking debt bomb,” Shorten said in one of his most devastating pronouncements. Another was: “What we need is a fighting fund for the country, a strong surplus to protect us from international shocks.”

The Budget was designed to put a spring in the Government’s step as it entered the election campaign. Instead, the Budget revealed its feet of clay. No wonder Morrison put off announcing the election for as long as possible.

Labor returns to its roots

Labor entered the campaign not only buoyed by the Budget’s manifest inadequacies but also Shorten’s Budget reply, which delivered an election manifesto unequalled since the Hawke-Keating years.

While the Liberal party can’t get past the nonsense of “if you have a go, you get a go”, Labor returned to its roots in setting out a vision for Australia that struck a chord with Australians no longer content with having their destinies decided by market.

The Liberal party promise of small government is ideological deadwood.

Australia has never had small government, nor has there ever been a genuine clamour for it. But it has been a clarion call that has historically served the Liberals well. Whatever “small government” has meant to Australians, it seems to have pressed the right buttons.

Labor goes into the election not with the promise of big government – no one would dare – but with a commitment to a big agenda: the revitalisation of TAFE, vocational education and training and apprenticeships; a voice for Indigenous Australians in policy-making (including the promise that the “Father of Reconciliation”, Senator Pat Dodson, will be Minister for Indigenous Affairs in a Shorten government); the ceasing of hostilities between Canberra and the ABC, including a commitment to boost regional broadcasting; and funding boosts for the NDIS, health (including the $2.3 billion expansion of bulk billing and the “biggest cancer-care package in Australian history”), education (including pre-school education) and infrastructure; and renewed commitments to addressing climate change, the introduction of a “living wage” and restoration of penalty rates.

Labor’s agenda is not just about economic management, but about values and a vision for Australia, long missing in Australian public discourse.

After six years of a Coalition government that has never been comfortable with the mantle of government (despite its belief that it is the natural party of government), which has found itself hostage to ideological warfare between the moderate and conservative wings of the party (resulting in three prime ministers in six years), and which has given every appearance – exhausted, frayed and erratic – of a government that has been in power not six years but 16. Add to that one of the weakest ministries since Federation, and a coalition partner comprising an assortment of village idiots, and the Morrison government’s “pro” column is looking pretty depleted.

Not surprisingly, the opinion polls could hardly spell better news for Labor and one does not have to be a one-eyed leftie to judge Scott Morrison a bumbling, inept and shallow prime minister of caricature proportions.

Voters wary of the Bill factor

And yet, with the election in full swing, there is noticeably little appetite for declaring Labor the sure winner. The reason for that reticence can be summed up in two words: Bill Shorten.

The same opinion polls that have consistently put Labor ahead of the Coalition also highlight Shorten’s unpopularity with voters. It’s true that disliking a leader generally does not dissuade Australians from voting for the leader’s party. And yet, Bill Shorten seems to be in a league of his own when it comes to unpopularity. One does not need the pollster’s statistics to know that most Australians have a visceral dislike of Shorten.

It’s difficult to pinpoint why that is, mainly because there are so many possibilities. Bill Shorten is the Charlie Brown of Australian politics: wishy-washy, indecisive, bland, with a penchant for saying the wrong thing. Yet most of us love Charlie Brown – as long as he doesn’t ask us to vote for him – so what is it over and above Shorten’s wishy-washiness that repels voters?

Most Australians cannot move beyond Shorten’s role in the unseating of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard as prime minister. Shorten has made some capital from the inability of Scott Morrison to explain why Malcolm Turnbull is no longer prime minister. Yet Shorten has never explained why he was moved to orchestrate the demise of Rudd and Gillard, let alone why, having deemed Rudd unelectable and/or unworthy of high office mid-way through his first term as prime minister, engineered his triumphant return.

Not to be unkind, but there is a lot more to dislike about Shorten.

His ambivalence on contentious policy issues (Adani, asylum seekers, taxation, Christmas Island) is grating, particularly when taken against his commendable readiness to release contentious policies such as the abolition of negative gearing and franking credits.

His wooden unease in public despite a lifetime in the public eye (“What’s your favourite type of lettuce?”), his inability to think quickly on his feet (from “I don’t know what PM Julia Gillard said, but I agree with her” to this week’s yes/no gaffe on superannuation taxation), his peculiar speechcraft (in which he experiments with various speaking techniques and intonations in a single speech), his tendency to speak to the media in over-rehearsed soundbites (and stumbling when speaking off the cuff) and his ill-advised jogging in the (presumably pre-arranged) media glare, complete with goofy grin, arms in the air triumphantly on crossing the non-existent finish line, and his bouncy exuberance.

Who is Bill Shorten?

Not unreasonably, voters like to think they have a handle on their political leaders when it comes to voting time. After six years as Opposition leader voters think they have at least a partial fix on Shorten: untrustworthy, inauthentic, evasive, awkward and perhaps a little strange. More frustrating, one suspects, is the feeling that if there is more to Shorten it’s many layers below the surface.

After his impressive Budget-reply speech Shorten seems to have reverted to his unpopular self.

Defenders of Bill Shorten point out that Shorten came within one seat of winning government. Others, including this writer, would argue that the 2016 election was Labor’s to win.

Australia cannot afford the return of the Morrison government. It is tired, incompetent and spent, has no long-term vision for Australia, nor a short-term understanding of the economic and social changes facing Australia. It’s also very likely that Morrison will find his leadership challenged, despite claims that the Liberal party has introduced a system to ensure it is more difficult to unseat a prime minister.

But Labor should be under no false illusions; a disaffected electorate will return the Coalition – very possibly as a minority government – if “the Shorten factor” proves too big an obstacle to overcome.

Labor has the agenda and a powerful line-up of shadow ministers to implement it. Australians need to hear more about the former and see more of the latter. As for Bill Shorten: just settle down. This is your race to win. Or lose.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

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