On Bill Shorten
Unpublished opinion piece, late November 2004
Enough of Bill Shorten -
please! No recent opinion page in the country has been free of gushing reports
of the 37 year old Australian Workers Union national secretary and his ideas for
the future of the Labor Party. His Fabian society speech has had more leaks than
Gerard Henderson in the
Sydney Morning Herald finds Shorten “impressive”.
A “future Labor leader", opines The Ausralian’s Glenn Milne. “One of
the new generation that Labor looks to for its future", enthuses the
Age’s Michelle Grattan.
So what has Shorten saying?
Well, for one thing he thinks Federal Labor really shouldn’t have talked so
much during the election campaign about “Iraq and refugees”. Sloganising on
the preferability of increased services over tax-cuts was never going to be a
winner. And one should never, every treat “with disdain” people who want to
get married, go to church and send their kids to a private school.
So Shorten’s partial to
straw men. And his recipe for success for the federal opposition is this: ditch
the inner city chardonnay set and get back to basics.
In short: "if they want to win, Labor has to appeal to the
Journalists, agog at these linear revelations, are pretending such things
have never been said before; but of course they have, many times.
In fact, the "become John Howard to beat John Howard" strategy has
been tried, and its embodiment was the current Labor leader Mark Latham. In
earlier incarnations Latham publicly expressed views much the same as
Shorten’s today, and was similarly feted by individuals and organisations who
would never actually wish for an ALP win.
And until five to six on the evening of October 9, the consensus was indeed
that Labor’s muscular new leader had forced a long-needed cultural change onto
his party, dragging it into the suburban sunlight. On some issues he had even
out-Howarded the man himself, and this would, if not win the election, then
certainly come close.
When that template crashed, and the largest pro-government swings were among
those very mortgage belts, accepted wisdom quickly evolved: Labor’s campaign
was always too latte-soaked.
If someone wants to pretend the ALP ran the campaign on refugees and
reconciliation, they’re entitled to their fantasies. But in the real world,
Latham lost largely because he didn’t differentiate himself enough. Yes, an
opposition must occupy the acceptable middle ground of Australian politics, and
Latham, like all his predecessors back to Bill Hayden, is firmly there. They
should treat no-one with disdain. But they’ve got to be different to the
government - not just in policy, because voters aren’t dills and don’t
expect promises to be kept – but in what the opposition leader is “about”.
It’s what Howard did in 1996 and Bob Hawke in 1983.
It’s one thing to recognise that the topic of mandatory detention is an
electoral killer for the ALP. But the serial capitulation on issues like gay
marriages was not just wimpy – it was counterproductive. Australians are
conservative, but they’re not mean-spirited, and automatically falling into
line on every social issue simply boosts the incumbent. Latham spent so much
time avoiding the dreaded wedge he forgot to explain why he was different.
(Having the scariest personality since John Hewson didn’t help either.)
But the AWU secretary thinks Latham should be even more like Howard.
So take Bill Shorten. I’m begging you! If the ALP follows his
prescriptions they’ll just keep losing.