The Politics    Friday, September 18, 2015

What Labor did next

By Sean Kelly

Shorten vs Turnbull

Regular political occurrences often have a set of rituals that develop alongside them. The budget, for example, wouldn’t be a budget without pre-budget pictures of the treasurer in his office, making final last-minute changes to the all-important document (why this flagrant showboating about disorganisation should be comforting is anyone’s guess). There are the compulsory awkward shots of the treasurer with the prime minister, supposedly chatting lightly about the Joys of Budget Preparation. There is the post-budget media blitz (hello Kochie, Sam, Karl and Lisa!).

When Kevin Rudd was replaced by Julia Gillard the media had to make it up as they went along. Luckily for the sanity of the press gallery, and unfortunately for the country, by now everybody knows the post-coup drill. There will be pics of the new PM riding in their new car. Pics of the new PM in their new office. There will be stories about the new PM’s office appointments, and who will be staying from the old PM’s office. Reshuffle speculation. There will be the first polls, and the first announcements that those polls mean a lot, and the first announcements that they mean very little (more on that later).

And, eventually, there will be questions about what this all means for the Opposition.

Labor knew the Turnbull train was coming, one way or another, and had its slogans ready to go. “It’s the same old stuff rebadged as new.” Tony Abbott in “a nicer suit”. Get it? Malcolm Turnbull is the same as Tony Abbott but with a better grasp of aesthetics.

This was a silly attack (though some of the lines were good). The best political attacks are based on things people already suspect, but need to be reminded of. Think of Kim Beazley having “no ticker”, or Rudd calling John Howard “a very clever politician”.

The problem for Labor is that nobody believes Malcolm Turnbull is Tony Abbott. Saying it repeatedly won’t change that.

There is, however, another argument nestling just beneath this one, which is Labor’s real point: Malcolm Turnbull is not the messiah you (the voter) might think he is. Up until now he’s let you think he is whatever you want him to be. He’s the Wizard of Oz of the Australian parliament. Well now you see the real man standing before you, out from behind the curtain – he’s not the wizard you thought, is he?

This, of course, is an important argument to make. As every commentator in the country has noted, that is now Turnbull’s challenge: how to maintain his air of authenticity while performing the inevitable compromises of politics?

That’s why Shorten’s formulation on Fran Kelly’s show yesterday was far better. It was more complex, not a killer soundbite, certainly not a zinger, but it made the same point in a reasonable way and posed the actual question at the heart of Turnbull’s leadership: “I think there’s going to be quite a few questions – can Malcolm Turnbull move his right-wing Liberal Party to the centre, or has Malcolm Turnbull had to compromise his own views in order to achieve his personal ambition to be prime minister?”

With those words Shorten isn’t trying to tell voters something they know doesn’t quite ring true. He’s reminding them of the very real uncertainty the Turnbull project is built on.

This, of course, is one of Turnbull’s strengths. He excels at explaining, seems to revel in it. (Tanya Plibersek’s accusation this week that he was “mansplaining” was used at the wrong time, but gets at a very real Turnbull weakness, not of sexism but of appearing smugly knowing.) Shorten will now have to match this.

He will have his chance on Monday night, when he appears on Q&A by himself. This is the type of thing Shorten will have to do much more of from here on in. Take risks. Show more of himself to the public.

That’s because the next election is now likely to be more presidential, not less.

With Abbott as leader the Liberals had one major weapon, which, I suspect, would have got them at least close to victory, despite Abbott’s personal drag on the vote: asking people the simple question of whether they were ready to return to the chaos of the Labor years. There would have been rolling ads with footage of Rudd then Gillard then Rudd. Shorten’s role in those leadership changes helped the Liberals, but was not the key ingredient. A campaign like this would have had the added advantage of not being primarily about the unpopular prime minister.

Now that the Liberals have rolled their own first-term PM, this campaign probably doesn’t have the same punch (though there is a chance Turnbull will be seen as the first leader after a long, exhausting era of hyperbolic debate – the Rudd-Gillard-Abbott era – which might still make a version possible). But more to the point, they don’t need to avoid reminding voters of their leader anymore.

The next election will, now, be about the leaders of their respective parties. Hopefully it will also be about their policies.

There might be some skepticism about Turnbull’s presidential potential this week in the wake of fairly minor poll bounces for the Coalition. I think that skepticism is overdone. Past poll bounces for new prime ministers have been more dramatic, but not always as dramatic as all that. Secondly, voters have seen this before. There is every chance they are waiting before making their mind up. Let’s check back in a month or two. I’ve warned in the past about the dangers of snap judgments from commentators following huge political events. Right now that danger is red hot. 


Today’s links

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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