The Politics    Thursday, July 9, 2015


By Sean Kelly

Bill Shorten has been talking to two very different audiences this week

Early on in the second day of Bill Shorten’s appearance before the Trade Union Royal Commission, the commissioner himself ensured the day would play badly for Shorten.

Commissioner Dyson Heydon said, commenting on Shorten’s style of giving answers:

You, if I can be frank about it, have been criticised in the newspapers in the last few weeks and I think it is generally believed that you have come in here in the hope that you will be able to rebut that criticism, or a lot of it. I am not very troubled about that, though I can understand that you are, and it is legitimate for you to use this occasion to achieve your ends in that regard.

What I am concerned about more is your credibility as a witness … It is in your interest to curb these, to some extent, extraneous answers.

Heydon didn’t directly question Shorten’s credibility – he verbally tiptoed around such directness, as might be expected of a veteran barrister. But Heydon did say the Opposition leader’s credibility was at stake. And in using that word he gave the media sufficient excuse to say he was questioning Shorten’s credibility – an excuse some outlets leapt on.

Which is not to say Heydon’s words weren’t serious. They were. In effect he told Shorten to hurry up, to answer the question without providing infinite context, and suggested that if he did not then he might struggle to effectively answer the implied accusations against him. From the man with oversight of the Commission, that is advice to be taken seriously (and it is certainly newsworthy).

I think what is interesting about the commissioner’s words, besides the immediate news angle, is the way they show up the dual task that Shorten is facing.

Shorten, of course, is aware that everything he says will be immediately delivered to the public by the flock of journalists attending the hearings. It will then be sliced and diced by analysts, as well as by his political allies and opponents.

When he answers a question, he is conscious not only of the legal strategy that is being enacted, but of the wider audience to his words, the public. Beneath the questions of counsel assisting the Commission, Jeremy Stoljar, Shorten (often rightly) sees sinister implications, and conclusions that easily could be drawn by non-experts without explanatory context. As a politician he duly sets about supplying that context: correcting, clarifying, minimising.

Those may be useful political instincts (though, as anyone who has sat through a modern press conference can attest, they can be mightily frustrating too). They can also sometimes move the discussion closer to the truth. But in a courtroom or quasi-courtroom they can be counter-productive, which is exactly what Heydon was pointing out.

And that is Shorten’s dilemma, which comes from the two goals he is being forced to pursue. He must survive this week, which means explaining his actions to the media and the public so that he is not fatally wounded in the short-term media skirmishes. But he must also come out of the Commission’s final report looking rosy, because that report will ultimately decide whether or not he can put the various implications and imputations behind him once and for all.

It’s a difficult juggling act. On the short-term media front, it’s fair to say that Shorten has had a bad couple of days. I also suspect the injuries will not linger, unless an early election prevents a resolution: nothing fatally damaging has emerged and Shorten has performed reasonably well. (Though Shorten may be called to provide more testimony.) On the result of the war itself, the delivery of the Commission’s report is some time away. We will not know how Shorten has fared until then.

The need for that juggling act also points to the argument I touched on yesterday, which is that the Commission faces a schism of its own, caught between uncovering genuine systemic corruption and the political need to deliver high-profile scalps. At times the latter has undermined the more important former task. That is a great pity, but it has also been inevitable since the moment the prime minister established the Commission for political purposes of his own.


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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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