Shorten cannot win against Turnbull

How lack of political talent and the rise of hand-held online chatter levelled Australian politics, and exposes the Labor fraud under Shorten of presenting itself as a desirable alternative to the Coalition.

When international observers of Australian politics are nonplussed about domestic political shenanigans, they can be forgiven for not understanding the contours of a hybrid colonial derivation of Britain’s Westminster system that has developed in the antipodes. They may also be forgiven for uncritically assuming that Australian leaders must at least be smart enough political operators to understand how their own system works, and therefore to avoid the apparent instability that is said to be evident in a succession of leadership challenges. But they, like us, have no excuse for misinterpreting the more obvious global dynamics changing the nature of politics, and making not just Australian politicians look out of place in their own environs. The most important among these changing dynamics is the rise of online chatter about every topic imaginable, including, perhaps especially, politics. Another is the paucity of talented politicians anywhere in the Western world. The third most obvious one is the disappearance of journalism and its replacement with media personalities narrating public spectacles.

Memory lane

It’s easy to forget, or never to have been aware in the first place, that there was a world without hand-held, internet-connected devices and social media platforms. A world in which the public perception of politics was the sole domain of spin doctors and the traditional news media, who were able between them to concoct any version of events they liked, with audiences being unable to tell the difference between fabrication and reality. Instead they had to trust both news media and politicians, or find alternate sources of information.

In 1999 that began to change. The first Blackberry was launched, becoming a hand-held electronic messaging device by 2003. In 2007 the first iPhone was released, sparking an explosion of multifunctional hand held computing devices for which telephony was only one aspect of an online communications matrix, driven mainly by ambitions to turn ‘apps’ into new sales channels.

In 2003 MySpace and LinkedIn were launched, followed by Facebook in 2004, Twitter in 2006, and Google Plus in 2011. Since 1999 the number of web sites (including parked domain names) has grown from three million to around one billion, and internet users are estimated at around three billion.[1] Twitter says there are now 182 billion tweets a year (182,500,000,000),[2] though that number appears to have remained static for two years.

These devices and platforms changed the way people communicate with each other, and how they think about and interact with the world around them. They are not shy about throwing their opinions on every conceivable subject into the ether, where they mix with those of experts, lunatics, and traditional news media to create a maelstrom of ceaseless online chatter. It is tempting to see this maelstrom as Nietzsche’s abyss — a looking glass or portal into insanity and genius at the same time, as well as everything in between, leaving us all on our own to work out how to distinguish between them, and how to avoid that abyss from looking into us for too long.

Politics and politicians are not exempt from the abyssal stultiloquence, which comprises an undeniably representative sample of opinion to rival the supposed wisdom of traditional polling. Unlike that traditional polling, however, the social media multiplatform isn’t a one-way street. It can be skilfully manipulated, dangerously over or underestimated to mobilise millions of people into political assets or enemies.

In 2007 the relatively junior and largely unknown Barack Obama consulted Netscape co-founder Marc Andreesen to work out how to use social media to win the Democratic nomination and then the presidency.[3] No one really knows what Andreesen told Obama, but he became the candidate often seen with a Blackberry in his hands. And against all conventional wisdom, he edged out Hillary Clinton before going on to become the first African American president. Who would be courageous enough now to suggest that his mastery of the abyss did not factor into this long-odds victory?

The database of millions of contacts Obama’s team generated has proven to be cheaper to maintain and more powerful to mobilise than the Republicans could equal with lower-tech approaches by their own electioneering heavyweights, like Karl Rove and Frank Luntz. More recent events in the Republican primary contest appear to confirm that using social media is a more powerful tool in candidate toolkits that traditional extremist outreaches via dogwhistle euphemisms reported by mainstream media. Social media campaigning might well explain why Donald Trump is outscoring his opponents: he is far more gregarious in using Twitter to address and mobilise disaffected reactionary nationalists than his opponents, despite their increasingly desperate appeals to an increasingly Lunar Right. Trump appears to have thrown away the dog whistle to become far more direct, fusing the high camp drama of staged ‘reality TV’ with a constant barrage of directly bigoted, xenophobic one-liners, tweeted into the nowhere land of the maelstrom. There, in the abyss, Trump’s circus of resentment and narrow parochialism has found a ready audience — a demographic shaped by television sets programmed to auto-rotate twenty four hours day between WWF, UFC and Fox News. It is a convergence of technology with deception and entertainment that not even Hollywood imagined would be acceptable to their publics.

Predictive uncertainty remains whether social media celebrity alone will translate into concrete voting outcomes.[4] Nevertheless, Obama’s historic success creates sufficient reason for politicians to take social media and the abyss seriously when considering policy consensus, and the portfolio of electioneering lies they are prepared to tell for polling numbers.

Cautionary tales

These appear to be lessons not yet learnt by either of the major parties in Australia. Malcolm Turnbull is said by some journalists to be ‘tech savvy’ because he is seen with his gadget in his hands at times when he should be paying attention to something else — like an idiot teenager. Looking at what Turnbull does on the social media multiplatform, however, suggests he hasn’t yet worked out that it is not merely a new channel for pushing out glib propaganda one-liners. Without engaging and mobilising followers, even the most clever tweets and posts are simply fleeting motes of debris in the fecal storm of online gibberish.

Still, the Coalition is not significantly challenged by an equally technophobic ALP, and may face serious social media competition only from the Greens. That is, if the Greens can act as a cohesive force rather than giving every appearance of being a loose alliance of individuals who dislike each other, but occasionally work in a semblance of solidarity to retain their seats, and maybe steal some more Left territory from a moribund ALP, whose Right faction gives every appearance of a Schadenfreude glee at seeing its Left limbs thus amputated. Must it be said plainly: Australia’s political establishment is dysfunctional and possibly deranged in its conception of the polity.

The danger for both the ALP and the Coalition is attitudes like those of former Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, whose stunning 14.5 per cent swing almost wiped out Labor in 2012, but whose overbearingly arrogant leadership style, lack of intellect and substance, and apparent ignorance of a sustained negative social media image for his government, led to an unthinkable reversal of fortunes, with a swing of 14 per cent against his party during the 2015 state election. The historic one-term backlash was so severe he lost his own seat with a swing of ten per cent against him. Subsequently he blamed negative reporting from the mainstream media,[5] but apparently without the necessary insight to understand that news media reportage was itself influenced by popular sentiment, expressed relentlessly in social media channels, and at times making traditional polling almost unnecessary as confirmation of this negative image. No one but the Newmans really know what goes on in their household, but in millions of other Queensland families, the propositions floated daily in the social media multichannel are talked about and absorbed, sometimes by way of the kids, and sometimes directly by adults wondering how overgrown children came to be entrusted with public leadership positions.

The example of deposed former Prime Minister Tony Abbott is another cautionary tale. He and his extreme Right faction relied heavily on the Murdoch propaganda machine and the poisonous mix of nationalist, populist Right media personalities who pursue bigoted causes as show business in NSW and Victoria. While the Abbott faction ungraciously whined about any actual critical analysis not in their favour, it seems to have failed to recognise an intensely unfavourable social media profile for Abbott and his government as a very real indicator of public sentiment. Despite spending millions of dollars on futile misunderstandings of how to use the multiplatform, the Coalition barely advanced beyond the Turnbull strategy of focusing solely on pushing one-way propaganda. As late as January this year, Abbott dismissed social media as ‘digital graffiti’,[6] though it is possible he only meant Twitter. As a consequence there was never any substantive Coalition social media strategy, nor an effective counter-strategy for trans-party political torrent of anti-Abbott sentiment that became a permanent fixture in the maelstrom, like the giant Jovian red spot, marking a special kind of cyclone within a circumference of tempests.

If the ALP does not understand how great a rôle the abyss played in Abbott’s downfall, and how great a rôle it may play in Turnbull’s popularity, it may risk an extended period in a stony wilderness. There is every risk that the abyss will paint Shorten as a corrupt and untrustworthy party hack, or, worse, that it might ignore him as too anodyne to merit any comments at all. A cursory glance around Facebook, Google Plus, and Twitter reveals the most common profile of Bill Shorten to be as an invisible man with no discernible substance, policies, or appealing character traits. Nor does the party itself seem to have any clue about the economic and political potentials of internet-based applications and trends. The ALP’s most tech-savvy MP, Senator Stephen Conroy of the Right faction, cost the Australian taxpayers billions of dollars to acquire enough nous to use industry jargon in describing the telecoms infrastructure he so colossally botched as communications minister, but his most insightful response to the internet is an antiquated, Soviet communist-style censorship reflex.

Contrary to the laments of Newman and Abbott, who actually enjoyed significantly greater favourable news media coverage than their juvenile antics deserved, it may not be official polls, or the mainstream news media that will shape public opinion. It seems almost as if an upper hand in wrangling the abyss could swing the next election as a one trick pony, all other things remaining as predictable as they have been since 2009.

Decline of journalism

Not far behind the main political parties in the technophobia and misconception stakes are Australia’s so-called news media — the traditional mix of press, radio, and television. These appear to be divided into three camps: the bien pensant collectives in the ABC and SBS; the moderate conservatives in the non-Murdoch camp; and the Murdoch army of propagandists for the wizened plutocrat’s global interests. What they all share, and what differentiates them from journalism as it existed twenty years ago, is an astonishingly parochial ignorance of political economy, history, literature, and philosophy. Instead their staff appear to be hunting down an aspiration to celebrity in their own right, to the detriment of investigating and analysing events and public figures. They interview each other to create a bilious echo chamber of one-sided, often ill-informed opinion, only rarely aired out by genuinely informed and informative commentators, and by the increasingly less frequent appearances of real journalists.

Part of the fallout from this unhealthy pantomime is that technology news of general public interest, and not aimed merely at promoting gadget consumerism, is hardly ever reported. Big internet outages, cloud infrastructure failures, malware outbreaks, computerised share and money market frauds, state and non-state cyber terrorism, and other events like it, hardly ever make it into headlines. Sometimes such events aren’t mentioned at all, not even in special IT broadcasts, programmes or sections. Unfortunately this extends to social media, with no greater analysis than anecdotal stories attributed to young hipster acquaintances, or credulous repetition of Silicon Valley marketing blather, standing in as lifestyle news or human interests stories. News media coverage of itself as an industry is pretty thin, but the coverage of social media, particularly as it affects news media, is almost invisible. The rare exceptions tend to prove the rule, sometimes by embarrassing so-called journalists for uncritically repeating what they see and hear online.

The commercial news media also suffer from grotesquely antiquated management thinking, reacting to technology disruption as if it were a temporary nuisance. And so the press erects paywalls to protect income, with the possible effect on increasing rather than decreasing the exodus of readers it was trying to triage with that measure. Press management seems not to have been able to replicate the Google blue sky advertising model. Radio and TV news media are being progressively pushed into offering spectacle to maintain ratings, but their management does not seem to realise they will never be able to compete with online crassness, no matter how much they alienate themselves from anything resembling news. The idea of offering actual journalism and information relevant to national audiences seems to have been killed off entirely.

The cumulative effect is that traditional news media no longer have the comfortable oligopoly on relaying news to a credulously trusting public they once had. This is not a promising development for unreconstructed machine politicians either; they have lost the ability to massage political messages and tell their carefully crafted lies through news media constrained from calling ‘bullshit’ by ethics, editors, advertisers, and owners. In an environment where millions of private citizens are restrained by no such rules, and are often in positions to counter obvious lies or distortions via social media channels, ‘bullshit (and far worse) is called instantly, even before the lie is finished in the telling, and continuously, making obsolete any notion of news cycle based on old media economics and political hack manipulation.

It no longer matters how good relationships are between politicians and the press gallery. It no longer matters how impressed or unimpressed the press gallery gaggle is with people or policies. The public no longer needs politicians or the press to access information, form opinions, and share those views with millions of others completely outside what was once a contained and controllable loop of information. The people still called journalists tend to pitch their stories at each other, creating a hybrid narrative of metanews about metapolitics. They seem unaware that their supposed wider audience isn’t listening, reading, or watching anymore, with many regarding news media output as elitist and narrowcast blather that has an almost exclusively abstract quality in any assessment of daily realities outside the Canberra politico-media echo chamber.

Whether this is good news for Australian citizens, and democracy more generally, remains to be seen. The example of Sir Richard (Tim) Hunt remains a fresh example of how horribly wrong a social media-inspired sentiment flux can go, particularly if it is reinforced by uncritical repetition through news media, and prejudicial action by notional professionals, based on credulous acceptance of unverified information and lynch mob reflexes.

It seems that old hierarchies of authority and information are exposed as having never been trustworthy in the first place, and every incentive exists to doubt them. But at the same time, no new touchstones of authority or reliable information have emerged.

It is a void of trust that is a form of the crisis of confidence political scientists talk about when public disaffection with politicians reaches a certain threshold. This is unquestionably a leadership failure at all levels in politics, the old media, and even the public service, which should be offering better advice to its political masters. But it is also an opportunity for smart operators to capitalise on their opponents’ cluelessness, and to steal the march on them, perhaps the way Obama stole it from the Republicans, and the way Trump is stealing it from his fellow intellectual dwarves.

Shallow talent pool

There is not one outstanding political leader in any of the democracies anywhere in the world today and that’s the first time since the Second World War.

Whatever your political persuasion, we should be doing our very best to persuade younger people of capacity to be thinking about a political career, we need better people in politics. — Bob Hawke, 2013[7]

When Hawke made his comments late in August 2013, not long after Kevin Rudd had deposed Julia Gillard (who had deposed him in 2009) to head into a losing election against Tony Abbott, there were more than a few Australian political apparatchiki who thought that the memorably popular former prime minister had overstepped some imaginary mark of restraint expected from an elder statesman. And yet the observation is inescapable for anyone alive and awake between the fall of the Keating Government in 1996, and today’s scrappy formation of political skirmish lines in Australia.

There were two signal events in Australian politics during the last decade that encapsulate and symbolise just how dangerously vacuous Australian politicians have become during the long years of John Howard’s petit bourgeois reign of mediocrity. Almost as if Howard had infected the entire political cohort with his banality and barren parochialism.

The first of these events came on 7 December 2010, when Prime Minister Julia Gillard, a trained lawyer, pronounced Julian Assange guilty of unspecified charges on national television, at a time when not even the USA’s fire-breathing Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had fabricated specific allegations, even if she was making significant and menacing threats that Assange faced summary life-long incarceration and torture if ever delivered into US custody. The point, though, is that a lawyer, speaking as prime minister, declaring the guilt of an Australian citizen before any charges are preferred, is a monumentally incompetent and monstrously unethical transgression.[8] If Gillard ever deserved to be patronised as an authoritarian, ignorant schoolmarm, this was certainly a more worthy trigger than the snickering imbecility of her misogynistic political opponents. In one short segment of TV actuality Gillard and effectively exiled a citizen by guaranteeing to hand him over to the US as a guilty party and under terms of Australia’s extradition treaty with the USA. With a prime minister like that, which independently thinking Australian needs enemies with more baleful credentials? Former Labor spin doctor Bob Ellis, an admitted controversialist, nevertheless seems to have summarised the character of such a leader rather well in his book Suddenly, Last Winter, in which he described her as the leader of a Victorian Left ‘mousepack’ of timid and ineffective Labor politicians. His critique of her personally was as cutting as it seems irrefutable:

She hasn’t, I think, read a novel or seen a film with subtitles and I doubt if she has read Encounter or the New Statesman or Vanity Fair or Harper’s or the London Review of Books or The New York Review of Books and therefore she doesn’t have hinterland. She has not much except a kindergarten sandpit response to things — ‘Nyah Nyah you’re just jealous because I’m Prime Minister and you’re not’.

Civilised people already have their hands over their faces when she speaks! [9]

In comparison Ellis was almost flattering about the then opposition leader Tony Abbott, but this orientation cannot eliminate an enduring memory of Abbott as a man barely in control of himself, when, for about 30 seconds, it looked like he was about to punch a television journalist, Mark Riley, for trying to beat up an unfortunate remark into a television spectacle.[10]

That narrowly avoided disaster aside, the second incident standing as a symbol of execrable political talent in Australia was the cringingly embarrassing farce of Prime Minister Tony Abbott using the international G20 forum, hosted in Brisbane during November 2014, to play partisan Australian politics. He whined at an audience of world leaders, complaining how unfair it was that the Senate prevented him from destroying Australia’s universal healthcare system, Medicare, by introducing fees, while proudly boasting about the concentration camp solution to refugee boat arrivals.[11] The assembled leaders listening to this self-pitying drivel must have been almost as embarrassed for Australians as we were ourselves to witness our prime minister conduct himself like such a doltish yokel.

Abbott and his advisers seemed either unaware that they had made an enemy of the US President by refusing his request to put climate change on the official G20 agenda,[12] or acted deliberately to snub him. Either cause led to inevitable odium, with Obama simply side-stepping Abbott, knowing the world media would give him all the platform he needed. So he made his long-planned remarks on that subject to an audience at the University of Queensland instead,[13] in which he delivered nuanced backhanders to Australia not just on climate change, but on regional policy as well.[14] Any half-awake Australian high school student watching this disastrous performance by Abbott might well have concluded our politicians must all be emotionally and intellectually retarded to allow a bumpkin like him to be the PM.

Taken together, the Gillard and Abbott blunders signify a much larger problem in Australian politics. Certainly the talent pool must be very shallow indeed for leaders with such atrociously bad judgement to be chosen by their parties in the first place. Worse, though, is the realisation that they were able to stumble into these monumental miscalculations despite legions of advisers and cabinet colleagues whose job it is to prevent their commanders from disgracing themselves so badly. What calibre of political and public service support staff do we have that they cannot protect the nation from the grotesque incompetence the Gillard and Abbott misadventures represent? It seems the entire edifice of politics has degenerated into shameful, Hogarthian dysfunction of barely civilised buffoons comporting themselves as if competing for prizes in vulgarity and conspicuous contempt for the electorate.

That is the tableau in which we see positioned our Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and his opponent, ALP leader Bill Shorten.


Leaving aside that News Corporation cannot be trusted to recognise any kind of reality, given that it is the world’s premier vehicle for climate change denial, a persistent advocate for the ‘trickle-down’ theory of economics dismissed as gibberish by every sane adult on the planet, and its owner’s rather blatantly transparent ownership of the Coalition, the recent Galaxy Poll it commissioned, reported on 18 September,[15] should be taken with a pinch of salt, and maybe also with a shot of Tequila, and enough of a bite at a lemon to motivate that pursed-lipped Bronwyn Bishop facial expression sometimes referred to colloquially as a ‘cat’s bum’. Nevertheless, the poll showed the Coalition leading Labor for the first time in months, and Turnbull leading Shorten as preferred leader, with 27 per cent of even self-identified Labor voters being more partial to Turnbull than their own anointed leader.[16]

Conventional wisdom is that incoming leaders are given a chance by innately fair-minded Aussie voters to prove their mettle. Turnbull was always more popular with the electorate than among his own political confreres, probably because he is highly visible as an urbane, smart man, and for his history as a passionate and unexpected conservative champion of republicanism. A cause sunk by the then Coalition Prime Minister John Howard in offering a referendum in 1999 in which the only option was to say yes or no to a model of a president elected by parliament; a direct election model was never permitted to be put to a referendum vote because it was widely tipped it might have succeeded at the ballot box.

Turnbull emerged from this exercise as an underdog hero, and was seen by millions of citizens taking a blowtorch to pompous and facile Coalition monarchists, notably Tony Abbott.

Nevertheless, Turnbull is not the liberal some commentators seem to think he is. He sports distinctly neo-classical economic credentials — not quite as plutocratic as some of the Republican and Tory reactionaries, but not liberal enough, or concerned enough to represent the interests of ordinary Australians, to reject the Berlin-Washington consensus that maintains austerity programs in order to fund ongoing and obscene global wealth concentration.

Malcolm Turnbull may not have come from a privileged background, but doors seemed to open to him wherever he turned. The Economist noted that ‘in the late 1970s Mr Turnbull was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, where a don wrote of him that he was “always going to enter life’s rooms without knocking”.’[17]

As a lawyer he worked for Kerry Packer, whom he defended against corruption allegations brought by the Costigan Royal Commission — an inquiry initiated to smear the union movement, but used by its commissioner to delve into a range of issues that became deeply embarrassing to the Liberal Party that had established it.[18]

Parallel careers as a lawyer, merchant banker, and entrepreneur made him enormously wealthy, created a vast and considerable network of contacts among the rich and powerful, and led him into public life, where he became known as an intellectual and engaging face of the Coalition when he engineered ousting a sitting Liberal Party member to be elected to Parliament, serving as a junior minister in the Howard Government.[19]

Of particular interest in the present context is his partnership in New York firm Goldman Sachs, of whose Australian branch he was chairman and managing director. Goldman Sachs was a pioneer of, and central actor in the disastrous robber baron capitalism that arose from Reaganomics, embracing practices such as asset stripping, ‘privatisation’ as euphemism for stealing public assets, colluding in rent-seeking corporate cartel behaviours, tax evasion on a gigantic scale, and the destruction of the American middle class by way of the vastly corrupt machinations that eventually led to the global financial crisis beginning in 2007, and not yet ended in some parts of the world.

Turnbull had left the firm by the time the most blatantly criminal activities occurred, but it should not be swept under the rug, as it is in all Australian media, that Turnbull’s training in economics, and how it can be used to despoil entire national economies for short-term but ultimately nihilistic private gain, comes from that genealogy. When Turnbull now says that the principal flaw in Abbott’s economic management strategy was not policy, but a failure to sell the message well enough, no one should be confused that this means he agrees with all the worst aspects of asset stripping the national economy, removing any public benefit components to create a brutally stratified class-based society in which quality of life for the vast majority will always be reduced to maintain luxuries for the privileged few. It is not surprising that Turnbull himself is part of that narrow privileged elite, and perhaps the parliamentarian at the most distance from ordinary Australians; the average Australian salary of $75k would hardly stretch to renting a large cardboard box in his electorate, let alone a mortgage.

Turnbull talked about his commitment to ‘the markets’ in his first speech after being elected to the leadership of his party and the prime ministership. A few days ago the Australian Tax Office responded to questions in the Senate by admitting that 22 per cent of private corporations with turnovers of $100 million or more paid no tax in 2014.[20] If Turnbull’s commitment to the markets is to aid and abet tax avoidance and fraud, his mandate to demand higher taxes and falling living standards for the least wealthy Australians will be no better than his predecessor’s. Already his new treasurer, Scott Morrison, has suggested that Australia has no revenue problem, but that it does have a spending problem,[21] and that spending cuts are necessary. This comment came almost at the same time as Finance Minister Josh Frydenberg seriously proposed to use a $5 billion taxpayer North Australia Fund to subsidise new coal mining ventures.[22] What sort of commitment to markets can reconcile subsidising a private venture, notionally based on the principle of taking risks to earn profits, when talking austerity to the poorest citizens? And what does it say about Turnbull’s credentials in his stated aim to restore the Coalition’s tarnished environmental credentials?

What opposition?

Even if Turnbull were to act as the kind of treasonous handmaiden of international robber barons typical of American Republicans and British Tories, though, Labor could not take too much comfort from such a public image. Shorten and his ALP Right faction has shown every sign of being just as beholden to that economic line as the most Right plutocrat claque anywhere.

Inexplicably still often referred to as a kind of Labor ‘Wunderkind’, Kevin Rudd pioneered the tactic of ‘equalling’ any Howard Coalition policy during the 2007 election, effectively devolving the contest to one of personalities, not platforms. As it turned out, Rudd was more ‘Kind’ (child) than ‘Wunder’ (wonder). But he won the Howard gamble on the basis that he was not quite as geriatric as the stale Coalition PM. In pursuing the same strategy, Shorten was on pretty safe ground with the enormously unpopular Abbott, but now that he’s pitted against Turnbull, the same bet seems quite risky. ALP policy appears identical to the Coalition’s in all but cosmetic respects. If that doesn’t change, a gray, anodyne man like Shorten cannot win against the charismatic and urbane Turnbull.

Add to that Shorten’s indelibly stained public image as a corrupt and mercenary union boss. It doesn’t really matter whether there is legal or absolute truth to such a perception. Only the perception counts. When he appeared on the 21 September ABC Q&A programme, he seemed in control, thoughtful, and to the point … until it came to questions about his rôle as a union negotiator.

The questions about payments from private firms to the AWU brought him undone. He became visibly agitated, as far as that is possible for the usually somnolent Shorten, and he rambled almost incoherently[23] instead of confessing what anyone who has ever worked in industrial relations already knows: unions with coverage for big projects have always demanded ‘protection’ money, even if it is disguised as funding for programmes like workplace health and safety training, or other legitimate causes. (The question then should be why the money is paid to the union directly rather than put into an arms-length fund; the obvious answer is that the money actually has little to do with legitimate causes or expenses. It is a form of extorted membership fee.)

To deny known conventional practices is almost to invite disappointment if the Heydon Royal Commission investigating trade union corruption finds otherwise, as it well might. Shorten would have been better off stating succinctly that unions do negotiate such arrangements to fund worker education and training, but that he was not the negotiator for that part of the union’s interaction with the Thiess John Holland consortium on the EastLink project. That is, he would have been better off giving this response if it could not later be contradicted by a credible witness.

What he did instead is likely to be seen by dispassionate observers as a man avoiding an honest answer, and seeking cover by the silly strategy of excusing activities he denies ever took place. That’s not just amateur hour for a politician, but actually the closest thing to a mea culpa short of a less loquacious acknowledgement that he was part of, or knew of, the sweetheart deal.

Shorten was right to reject automatically accepting an adverse finding by the Heydon Commission as cause for his resignation. The Commission was indeed set up quite deliberately as a vehicle to smear unions, and Shorten personally. It has already achieved the effect of creating a permanent doubt about the propriety of Shorten’s union activities by wrong-footing him into performances like the one on the Q&A programme. But this was always a greater risk because of Shorten’s own personal shallowness. Compare him to someone like Bob Hawke (former prime minister and former ACTU president), or even the less lavishly fêted Greg Combet (former minister and former ACTU secretary), both of whom were involved in far more questionable union deals, and you see a man out of his depth. Someone unable to respond confidently and competently to the kind of direct and combative questions he should have expected, and for which he has had years to prepare.

It does not help that other union leaders have been found guilty of financial improprieties and questionable conduct in unrelated investigations. Unjust though it may be, many people are likely to conflate diverse findings into a perception that all unions and their leaders are inherently corrupt and not to be trusted. The best outcome for Shorten is that Heydon acts in a way to create further doubt about his judgement, the way his participation in Liberal Party fundraisers painted him as a grateful recipient of party patronage. But if anyone from Thiess or John Holland contradicts Shorten in evidence before the commission, his reputation will not be just murky. To make matters worse, the party is visibly at odds with itself on the matter of union influence in its internal governance. Former ACTU President and Labor minister Martin Ferguson faced a move to have him expelled from the party by union officials, and publicly criticised the level of influence some unions exert over parliamentarians.[24]

Worst of all, there has never been a credible rebuttal of allegations that Shorten inspired or benefited from electoral fraud that saw him narrowly edge out the Left’s Anthony Albanese as Labor leader. In October 2013 the ALP conducted a federal leadership ballot under new rules whereby half the votes would be cast by ordinary party members, and the other half by the parliamentary caucus of sitting Labor members.[25] This was the first time the leader was not elected solely by the parliamentary caucus and the party machine deals directing the caucus.

The ‘ordinary members’, however, included union affiliates, and questions inside the party persist about special weightings given to union bloc votes, and about branch proxy voting, whereby individual members were persuaded to allow someone else to vote on their behalf. In the past there have been branch stacking and other irregularities whereby non-existent members, or members living outside certain electorates, cast votes, by proxy or otherwise, in favour of unions and/or factions. That history is hard to forget in the hardball politics the party plays against itself.

An example of the Byzantine and internecine skulduggery that characterises the ALP begins with Machiavellian shenanigans centred on the NSW state seat of Auburn, in which a Right faction aspirant, Hicham Zraika, tried to branch stack his way to eliminating the sitting member, Barbara Perry, who defended herself vigorously enough to bulldozed out of her seat by even more brutal tactics, allowing NSW ALP leader Luke Foley to move from an upper house to a safe lower house seat. It is unclear how the NSW Labor Right would expect this not to be seen by a neutral observer as corrupt and ruthless political assassination, and a mockery of the idea that the ALP represents people rather than its own interests. An internal ALP investigation found ‘irregularities’. Reports at the time were sketchy, and details released by the ALP are limited, but it transpires that Michael Buckland, a staffer to Labor Senator Sam Dastyari, had requested ‘address changes’, which saw ballot papers diverted to Auburn Councillor Hicham Zraika, who was challenging Perry for preselection. Zraika was found guilty of ‘unworthy conduct’ by branch stacking during the Auburn preselection, and suspended from the party for six months.[26] Dastyari is a member of the powerful NSW Right faction backing Shorten against Anthony Albanese, and Foley against Perry. That’s how things are done in the ALP.

Subsequently, and unrelated to these machinations except for similarities in tactics, NSW ALP Assistant Secretary John Graham and ALP national executive member Tim Ayres, who is also NSW Secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, wrote to ALP General Secretary Jamie Clements to hold a wider investigation into possible irregularities in the ALP leadership ballot.[27] And here the trail of reportage and disclosed information ends. The liability for Shorten is that such machinations as have been proven are typical of his faction, and will continue to fuel speculation that there are bigger undisclosed ‘irregularities’. That makes unproven allegations, particularly those not investigated publicly and transparently, difficult to refute or put to rest. It also plays to the decades-old Menzian accusation of the ALP’s un-elected ‘faceless men’ meeting secretly in smoke-filled rooms to determine what the parliamentary party would be permitted to do, and not to do.

In purely political terms, all these matters might be trivial if Shorten had emerged as a vigorous Labor leader instead of the infighter who is invisible and ineffective as a contender for the prime ministership. Shorten would not be out of place at all in a minor ministerial post within the Coalition government. And that is the threat to the ALP: what incentive is there for Australian voters to reject the Coalition when the alternative appears to be just a watered-down version of it? Party strategists cannot but have taken note that the political territory to the Right is fully colonised, well into the badlands of malevolently irrational crypto-fascism. Nor could the same strategists not have been arrested by the unexpected and breath-taking popularity of an openly socialist contender in the US Democrat primary, or the overwhelming popular support that elected a traditional socialist to the leadership of the British Labour party. Can Shorten, and his faction, move grudgingly to the Left, even if only to win government?

So far Shorten’s biggest political asset was Tony Abbott himself, who represented and symbolised a kind of arrogant, aloof, callous disregard for a ‘middle’ Australian consensus on what constitutes fairness and national interest. Instead he was seen as serving the interests only of the already powerful, and even then only a small group of them, with prominent and repeated photographs showing him in the company of patrons like mining magnate Gina Rinehart, channelling the Star Wars fable’s Jabba the Hutt, and Rupert Murdoch, who increasingly resembles Darth Sidious. It was Abbott’s inability to recognise how he consistently offended the ‘Middle Australia’ consensus, which has been part of his own party’s mythos since the Menzies era, and how that helped to undo him. A leader whose power rests on marginal seats must be sensitive to what his backbenchers are telling him about local politics. Any leader who fails to do that risks losing not just the leadership, but government for the party as a whole. Neither Abbott, nor Newman, seemed capable of sublimating their own preferred ideologies, or the shopping lists of their wealthy patrons, to grapple with an electoral politics of actually representing real people. And if not real people, then at least listening to MPs who risk losing their seats for not being seen to represent their constituents when voting a party line increasingly alienated from real people’s concerns.

That, too, is Shorten’s weakness. The recent 100-page profile of him by journalist David Marr for Quarterly Essay apparently echoes some of these concerns, adding that Shorten has not rid himself of a perception that he is a conniver who betrayed two previous leaders and will not flinch to do whatever is necessary to advance his own interests in future:

One of the persistent criticisms of Shorten from friends and colleagues is identified: “All of his life Shorten has left behind people who feel betrayed by him.’’ Shorten denies he has “dazzled and dumped” people who are no longer useful to him. [28]

However, in public life, perception is everything, and perception can be the most unforgiving of yardsticks against which to measure merit or the support necessary to achieve success. Right now Shorten’s two biggest assets are the relative difficulty of dislodging him under the new ALP rules about electing the leader, and possibly a nihilistic streak in the ALP that might see it persist with an impotent leader, preferring to lose an election to acting in the national interest. This would be a return to a self-destructive streak in the ALP not seen since the 1950s and ‘60s. It would deny the party any chance at being led by someone able to mobilise the rank and file party members to mount an effective campaign next year. That is, of course, if Turnbull doesn’t capitalise on his position sooner to call an early election before Shorten has any chance at all to develop a strategy that does not rely solely on the shortcomings of a feckless opponent.

Last month Shorten was all set to defeat Abbott at the next election without having to lift a finger. Today it is tempting to see him as a pitiably lonely figure in a desolate landscape with no friends anywhere, and only enemies lurking just below the horizon.





























[This post is original content from Minority Reports at]

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