The Politics    Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A tale of two leaders

By Sean Kelly

Abbott and Shorten are showing new sides of themselves

Inevitably, with time, leaders change. Often that’s simply a matter of settling in: give anyone long enough in a job and they’ll start acting like themselves eventually. Sometimes the change is forced by circumstance.

This week’s sitting of parliament has given us some new information on both Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Opposition leader Bill Shorten.

The news on Abbott is simple but important: he’s become more confident.

There was a lot of focus over the past week on the leak to Fairfax of a detailed account of cabinet proceedings. It wasn’t a particularly flattering leak for Abbott, as it suggested that he was prepared to use national security as a political tool, and that he hadn’t learned to consult properly with his colleagues.

Abbott’s response to the leak got a lot of attention too, as it deserved, with its gothic threats of personal and political consequences for ministers caught leaking.

But the main take-away for me was that Abbott simply wouldn’t have had the guts to make that threat a few months ago, either side of the February almost-spill. The weakness of a weak PM is only emphasised by corny attempts to look strong. But by yesterday, Abbott wasn’t a weak PM anymore. Improving poll numbers, a reasonably successful budget, and backbench support for his approach to national security have all given his trademark swagger a sincerity that’s been lacking for some time.

Confidence matters in politics. The second half of the Abbott government’s first term might be quite different from the initial 18 months.

Bill Shorten has been on the other end of Abbott’s improving poll numbers. While Labor remains ahead on overall votes, Shorten’s personal popularity has fallen. At the same time, his favourite plaything – Abbott’s first, failed budget – has been largely taken away from him.

Many things can happen to leaders when their opposite number strengthens, but broadly there are only two ways to go: they can collapse into pieces or they can smarten up under pressure.

Early signs are that Shorten is doing the latter.

All this week Shorten has been teased by the government, who have cheerfully begged him to hurry up and pass the government’s small business budget measures. Today he caught the PM out, putting a motion into parliament that would have allowed the small business measures to be passed by the House of Representatives immediately. The government, surprised, voted against the motion, and looked silly doing so. When asked why, all they could say was that the Senate wouldn’t be able to vote this week anyway – which of course was equally true on Monday and Tuesday when they called for Labor to pass the bill immediately.

Shorten showed a similar tactical acuity last week. Marriage equality, which should have been a strength for Labor, was fast becoming the opposite, with the Greens bringing forward debate on their own bill and Labor’s left campaigning for a binding vote on the issue. Shorten announced he would introduce his own bill – and with that announcement, and the actual introduction of the bill a week later, and the positive publicity that attended each of those moments, he ensured Labor’s partial ownership of the policy, and forced a reluctant prime minister to respond.

A strengthened PM and an enlivened opposition leader. The lead-up to the next election could be interesting.


Today’s links

In one of the prouder legislative moments in this country, Eddie McGuire has been officially condemned by the NSW parliament for being a “continual boofhead”, over his ridiculous comments on Adam Goodes’ dance last weekend. Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham gets the credit for putting it up for a vote.

Industry minister Ian Macfarlane has said reports of the national security leak from cabinet last week were “very accurate”, which is a little embarrassing for his prime minister, who called them false. Malcolm Turnbull has denied being behind the leak, as has Julie Bishop.

And Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has said the Coalition may take superannuation changes to the next election, even though his prime minister has said they won’t.

A Dickensian character named “Blatter” would have met his end long ago. Today Sepp Blatter resigned as head of FIFA, just a few days after being re-elected to the position. There are reports he is the subject of an FBI investigation.

Australia’s economy grew faster than expected last quarter.

A new analysis finds the budget hit to payments will see families lose up to $84.

Australia’s top foreign affairs bureaucrat has said Australia’s ambassador to France did not formally offer his resignation after the prime minister’s travelling party earlier this year asked the ambassador’s same-sex partner to wait in the car rather than greet the PM. However, he refused to say whether the resignation had been “canvassed” in any way.

Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty, has called for an end to the culture of victim-blaming.

Ross Gittins on why a really unfair budget is better than a mildly unfair budget.

Paul Kelly on the death of big ideas.

Newspapers today offer their readers a chance to revisit the bitter personal divisions of the Rudd–Gillard years, an opportunity afforded by the coming screening of ABC documentary The Killing Season. Malcolm Farr on Labor’s need for catharsis.

“So white” actor Emma Stone (those are her words, not mine) is in a new movie, playing a quarter-Chinese, quarter-Hawaiian character. 

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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