Bill Shorten at the People’s Climate Rally in Melbourne last November.

In defence of Bill Shorten


The Labor leader has done better than anyone expected.

WITH friends like Gary Gray, who needs enemies?

The soon-to-retire Labor MP did Bill Shorten no favours last week when he opined that it was “highly unlikely” Labor would win the federal election.

Gray is a hard-headed former national Labor secretary, so he knows better than most the realities of what it takes to win an election campaign. No doubt he was articulating what many on the Labor side of politics are also thinking, and it was a refreshing moment of honesty from a politician.

But to speak out publicly in such a way amounted to an act of betrayal in the eyes of many.

It is one of the unbreakable rules of politics that no matter how bad things look, you should never concede defeat until the votes have been counted. No doubt, Bill Shorten’s Labor will be the underdog in this year’s election, but comments like Gray’s don’t help, whatever the context.

Thankless task

You can’t help but feel for Shorten. The job of opposition leader is a thankless task at the best of times.

In Parliament, the Opposition Leader sits just a metre or so across the table from the Prime Minister, but in reality, the gap between the two jobs is greater than the Grand Canyon.

While the government naturally sets the agenda by governing, the role of the opposition far too often ends up to carp and criticise from the sidelines — or at least, that’s how it looks to the politically disengaged public, who make up the majority of voters.

Every morning Shorten wakes up knowing he will be pilloried from all sides. Each new poll brings bad news, and cowardly members of his own caucus anonymously brief the Press Gallery about his shortcomings.

The majority of the ALP’s rank and file membership did not even want him as leader in the first place.

But to his credit, every day Shorten puts his game face on and commits himself to the task of offering an alternative vision for the nation and critiquing that of the government.

The achievement of unseating a first-term Prime Minister only two years into office cannot be overstated.

No-one can fault Shorten for his work ethic, and indeed, he has actually done much better than anyone expected.

When he became leader at the tail end of 2013, he inherited a shattered and divided party which had been routed by the Tony Abbott juggernaut.

Many (this writer included) questioned why someone as ambitious as Shorten would put their hand up for the job of opposition leader at that time, when it seemed likely that Labor was consigned to spending many years in the wilderness.

No first-term opposition leader has won government since Federation. The party was deeply wounded by the fratricide of the Rudd-Gillard years and its signature policies — such as the Gonski schools funding and the carbon price — were about to be dismantled by Abbott.

On the left the Greens were cannibalising Labor’s traditional support base.

The selfish thing for Shorten to do would have been to let someone else be given the job of repairing the wreckage and sit back and bide his time until Labor was once again in an electable position.

But instead, Shorten chose to roll up his sleeves and lead the rebuilding of Labor.

He now has the runs on the board.

For most of his period as opposition leader, Shorten has had Labor in front of the Coalition in the polls, and last year he claimed the not-inconsiderable scalp of Abbott.

Abbott’s demise may have been largely of his own doing, but was also the result of unrelenting scrutiny that the Shorten-led opposition gave to his flawed policies and decisions, and Shorten’s pursuit of the then-PM to portray of him as an incompetent leader out of touch with the general public.

This achievement of unseating a first-term Prime Minister only two years into office cannot be overstated.

Polls only tell part of the story

It is hardly Shorten’s fault that Labor now finds itself back where it is, trailing the government 48 to 52 in the latest Fairfax-Ipsos poll.

The Turnbull leadership coup has delivered exactly the type of circuit breaker that the Coalition needed, and they have been rewarded in the polls.

Shorten’s personal net approval rating is doggedly in negative territory at -25, while Malcolm Turnbull’s is +38.

But the polls only tell part of the story. In the real world, Shorten is ploughing on as a good opposition leader.

Cowardly policy backdowns by the Turnbull government — the most significant being the decision to abandon a rise in the GST in the face of Labor’s determination to campaign against it up until election day — are a mark of Shorten’s effectiveness.

Shorten has brought discipline and unity to Labor. For the most part, the poisonous backstabbing that characterised the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years has gone. Opposition MPs are on message and unusually loyal in public.

Shorten’s authority as leader has been tested — none more so than at last year’s ALP national conference — but he has emerged having survived all challenges pretty much unscathed.

No-one can fault Shorten for his work ethic, and indeed, he has actually done much better than anyone expected.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Labor has been developing coherent and credible policies. The reforms to property negative gearing announced at the recent NSW ALP conference are a game changer, and it is now Labor setting the economic agenda, forcing the government to engage on the issue.

By contrast, the Turnbull government looks in increasing disarray.

Voters are tiring of Turnbull’s all talk and no action.

Turnbull remains shackled to the policies and ideologies of his predecessor and cannot escape them without risking a backbench revolt. Meanwhile, the retreat on the GST reveals his government to be shy of making any bold, politically-risky new announcements.

Cracks are also appearing in Turnbull’s own relationship with the public. Rather than the Messiah many people hoped him to be, Turnbull is turning out to be just another smooth-talking politician.

Yet, the fact remains that he comfortably leads the polls. So Gary Gray wasn’t totally wrong when he made his comments last week — but he probably should have kept them to himself.

Shorten deserves a chance

Well over a decade ago, when he was still a mostly-unknown national secretary of the AWU, people were already talking about Bill Shorten as a future PM.

2016 may not be his year, but it is far too early to say Shorten will never be Prime Minister of Australia.

John Howard was a loser in his first stint as opposition leader and provides a role model of persistence and doggedness in that role.

Win or lose in 2016, Bill Shorten has probably earned another chance later in his career.

Originally published at workinglife.org.au on February 22, 2016.

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