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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Unpublished opinion piece, late November 2004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 the Titanic.

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 centre."

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.

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