CANBERRA OBSERVED by our national correspondentNews Weekly
Shorten's relentless negativity spells trouble for Labor
, April 11, 2015
Bill Shorten should be grateful to ex-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for his decision to change ALP rules to ensure the longevity of an incumbent leader of the parliamentary Labor Party.
The rules were sold as being part of a “democratisation” of the Labor Party, which would give the rank-and-file a say in the leadership for the first time.
In fact, the rules make it extremely difficult to remove a leader, even one who is not performing well.
Mr Shorten fits into this category.
Eighteen months into the job and the Opposition leader has done little other than to perfect the art of cheap shots against the government and run Budget interference.
Indeed, had the Rudd rules not been implemented, Mr Shorten would now be facing his own internal leadership murmurings from the likes of the more politically savvy and combative Anthony Albanese, and the ambitious Tanya Plibersek and Chris Bowen.
Instead, Mr Shorten is almost guaranteed a rails run to the election. If he loses, he will be dumped immediately.
Should he win, he will be taking into government one of the weakest frontbenches the federal ALP has had for decades.
In the lead-up to, and soon after, the last election, the best and most experienced of the Labor Party decided to quit politics altogether. Martin Ferguson, Simon Crean, Julia Gillard, John Faulkner and Greg Combet have left a major gap in the federal ranks.
Mr Shorten’s team by contrast are happy to play the “gotcha” politics where every mis-statement and verbal fumble is blown out of proportion, while refusing to engage in serious policy debate.
As an Opposition, Mr Shorten’s ministerial team has been successful only in the sense of having sustained the tactic of being spoilers.
Mr Shorten declared 2015 “the year of ideas”, the mid-period of the election cycle, when Labor would begin to “roll out” policy ideas in preparation for a return to government. A quarter of the way through the year, ideas continue to be notable for their absence.
Commentators argue that Mr Shorten is only adopting the tactics that were used by Tony Abbott as Opposition leader, when he refused to give the Gillard government an inch.
There is truth in this. However, the difference is that the Gillard government was a minority government that enjoyed its privileges on the Treasury benches as a result of the decisions of two “conservative” rural MPs who chose to side with Labor, against the will of their own electorates.
But putting Mr Abbott’s own hardline tactics as Opposition leader aside, the Coalition government now faces a serious long-term issue with its Budget that Mr Shorten and his team refuse to engage in.
The unprecedented boom years are definitely over and the nation has to be more realistic about what it can afford to give its people in terms of pensions, allowances, payments and subsidies.
It is clear that governments (of both persuasions) spent more than they should have done when revenue from the mining sector was pouring in.
But telling any group in the community that their income is going to be trimmed is an extremely difficult message to sell.
Mr Shorten, though, continues to tell the community it can have everything — higher pensions, universal medical care without limits, uncapped university places, etc.
But, to make things worse, Mr Shorten’s policy is to block any attempt to fix the government’s revenue problems, such as broadening or raising the goods and services tax (GST) or even reinstating indexation of fuel excise.
The Shorten tactics are grossly irresponsible, and ultimately do damage to himself, because the problems will not only not go away, but will be even worse by the time the Labor Party comes to power.
Even the left-leaning media are starting to wise up to the shallowness of the Shorten lines, which are not much more than a daily swipe at the government at easy media conferences where he is permitted to provide a “grab” for radio and the nightly news.
But recent extended interviews with Mr Shorten by the ABC, where he has been asked to flesh out what he believes, have been an embarrassment.
Mr Shorten is fast approaching the moment of truth as Opposition leader.
True, the tactics of being a small target, blocking everything and attacking the government at every turn, may work.
Mr Shorten could easily be Prime Minister in less than 18 months’ time.
But he will be trying to manage a Budget which will be deteriorating further, and which will lack any capacity to act as a shock-absorber for an economic downturn. In the end, he will be shown to have no real ideas besides platitudes.