The Politics    Monday, August 17, 2015

Bill Shorten’s prospects

By Sean Kelly

Is Bill Shorten this generation’s John Hewson, or its Tony Abbott?

Winston Churchill said once, quoting some anonymous wit, that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

I feel much the same about attempts to apply the lessons of history to politics. Historical analogies are a dime a dozen and come with immediate and inevitable ripostes from those wishing to make the opposite point: you’re forgetting that X was facing a very different set of challenges, and had a loyal deputy, and anyway there were eight months, not six months, until an election had to be called …

And yet: how else to try to make sense of current events other than through examining what has already occurred?

And so to today’s dubious historical analogy.

Another poll came out today. I don’t like to give too much credence to a single poll, but we are now seeing a clear trend across several polls: the Liberal Party has been losing votes since May. There are also suggestions, though it’s early to be sure, that Bill Shorten has started to recover a little personal support after a pretty dreadful few months since February.

A lot of discussion has focused on Abbott, and rightly so: he is the prime minister. But I want to switch focus to Shorten today.

Shorten has occupied a slightly odd spot in the political landscape for some time now. It’s hard to find commentators who have been overly impressed with him. Some have savaged his public performances. There has been an assumption, sometimes implied and sometimes explicit, that Shorten is only succeeding via Abbott’s failure, and that he is incapable of turning early success into election victory. There have been reports that Abbott himself was confident that he could go into an election campaign at 48–52 behind and still beat Shorten.

This view seems to have taken hold outside of Canberra circles, too: I find myself in a fair few political discussions, and I have discovered very few people willing to say they believe Shorten will win the next election. And for a long time Coalition MPs have been telling each other that he is unelectable.

If this widely held view turns out at the next election to be correct, then Shorten will be the John Hewson of his generation. The political parable Hewson is usually wheeled out for concerns the advisability of unveiling detailed policy – in Hewson’s case, his GST Fightback! package – before an election.

But the other thing worth remembering about Hewson is that his personal approval ratings were terrible. He was widely disliked, and then-PM Paul Keating did everything he could to build on that.

Does the analogy work? Well, as with all historical analogies, only partially. Shorten has enjoyed some quite positive ratings at times – but since February his support has fallen dramatically. His ratings are not quite as bad as Hewson’s, but then again, recently they’ve come close.

Now you might say, well, sure, but Shorten is facing an incredibly unpopular prime minister. Hewson was too. Paul Keating suffered terrible personal approval ratings in the year before the 1993 election. Sometimes Keating did a little better than Hewson – but then so too has Abbott sometimes done a little better than Shorten.

That is the political analogy the Liberals (or at least Abbott’s supporters) will be hoping is accurate: Shorten as beneficiary of an unloved government, but finally unable to triumph. 

Labor, on the other hand (or at least Shorten’s supporters) will be looking at a much more recent political analogy: opposition leader Shorten as opposition leader Abbott (2013 Abbott, not 2010 Abbott democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time see, this is why analogies are problematic). Abbott, like Shorten, was thought for a long time by his opponents to be unelectable. Abbott’s personal approval ratings as opposition leader, like Shorten’s, were pretty awful for quite a while – though Shorten has a while to go to catch up to Abbott. Abbott was even a long way behind Kevin Rudd mark II shortly before the 2013 election – and still managed to win.

And so both parties will be asking themselves the question: which analogy does Shorten fit? Hewson or Abbott?

Shorten, of course, has had a good few weeks. Any damage from his appearance before the Trade Union Royal Commission has largely been derailed by the scandal over the commissioner, Dyson Heydon. He has made a well-received announcement on climate change and gone some way towards neutralising asylum seekers as an election issue by keeping open the option of boat turnbacks. Meanwhile, Abbott has had the month from hell, with debacles over Bronwyn Bishop, same-sex marriage, and now Heydon.

All that makes the Shorten–Abbott analogy seem just a little more reasonable at this point in time than Shorten–Hewson.

There is another analogy that will be in the back of some people’s minds. In February of 1983, prime minister Malcolm Fraser called an election, thinking he would be up against Labor leader Bill Hayden, who he had a reasonable chance of beating. On the day Fraser called an election, the Labor Party voted in a new leader: Bob Hawke. Hawke beat Fraser easily.

If the Liberal Party replaces Abbott with Malcolm Turnbull, then Bill Shorten might yet become the Malcolm Fraser of his generation, defeated by an opponent he hoped never to face. With one big difference, of course – Fraser got to be PM.


Today’s links

A date for the Canning by-election has been set: 19 September.

A private member’s bill to legalise same-sex marriage was introduced into parliament today. Liberal ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Christopher Pyne turned up in the House – the only Liberal ministers to do so – to register their support (though if it comes to a vote they will be unable to vote for it, given the demands of cabinet solidarity).

ICYMI, a Mark Latham saga has been unfolding over the past few days. First Mark Di Stefano at BuzzFeed found out that an apparent Latham parody account on Twitter was actually, probably, run by Latham. Latham’s employer, the Australian Financial Review, came under pressure over the affair. The Twitter account then claimed it was run by “Mitch Carter, legend”, a Latham mate. Then more evidence turned up. On Sunday, Mark Latham resigned from his columnist job. Finally that was announced today.

Ray Hadley vs Malcolm Turnbull

Trade Union Royal Commissioner Dyson Heydon released correspondence over the Liberal Party fundraiser he was originally scheduled to speak at (he later withdrew). That release was in response to an ACTU request. The correspondence didn’t appear to help him much – one email came with an attached invitation on Liberal Party letterhead.  At the time of writing the Commission is due to reconvene (at 4pm) to discuss what comes next. Also, it turned out Heydon was on the panel that awarded Tony Abbott a Rhodes scholarship in 1980.

Social Services Minister Scott Morrison dismissed concerns over changes to paid parental leave, saying the matter was a “first world issue”.

Chris Berg at the IPA writes: “Constitutional conservatism was once a matter of deep Liberal identity. Now it's just another political trick for short-term gain.”

Naomi Klein on Tony Abbott.

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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