The Politics    Friday, July 24, 2015

Bill Shorten clears his first hurdle of the weekend

By Sean Kelly

One test down, several still to go

What a difference a couple of days makes.

Yesterday I sat down to watch Bill Shorten’s Wednesday night interview with Leigh Sales (thanks, internet). I watched it again just now to be sure. It was bad. But watching it, I felt some sympathy for Shorten, because his failings were not the result of anything he had done obviously wrong. He had reasonable answers to most questions. It wasn’t that he was unprepared, or lost his mind on the spot and said something crazy, as we’ve seen Tony Abbott do on the same program. If you only read the transcript you might think it was fine.

But despite perfect adequacy on these conventional criteria, I found Shorten utterly unconvincing. There was an amorphous wetness to him. He paused too long between clauses. The effect was of a poor actor in an unconvincing screen test, someone so focused on remembering his lines he forgets to actually mean the things he’s saying.

Some weeks, interviews on 7.30 are important – luckily for Shorten, not so much this week. That’s a matter of context: any interviews this week pale in comparison to the Olympic-sized hurdle of Shorten’s speech to the ALP national conference.

That speech took place this morning. Shorten was speaking to a room full of Labor supporters – not all of whom are entirely happy with him right now. There has been some discontent over his position on asylum seeker boat turnbacks. Not everyone there agrees with his stance that Labor MPs should have a conscience vote on same-sex marriage (as opposed to being bound to vote in favour of it). So while they could be expected to clap and cheer, he couldn’t afford to give them any reason to walk off afterwards muttering to themselves (and to journalists) about what a poor showing he’d made.

I watched on TV. It was the best I’ve seen Shorten with a prepared speech. (He can be good without one.) He was serious where he needed to be, self-aware without being self-conscious, and there was variation for dramatic effect. He’s never going to be one of the all-time great orators, but it was good enough. He demonstrated something his party needed him to prove before the election campaign, whenever that is: that he can do a set piece well. Yes, they’re artificial creations of the political world, these launches and conferences and so forth, but they’re an embedded part of the campaign cycle and if you can’t pull them off your future in politics is limited.

Shorten didn’t have any huge new announcements for the speech. I had expected that he would, and this could have been a weakness. I still think it’s important that he announce more new policies soon. But the benefit of this approach was that he was able to articulate Labor’s existing policies (some unveiled this week) as a cohesive policy platform, rather than having them all overshadowed by a single shiny announcement that might then be picked apart. (Remember Kevin Rudd’s “50,000 new green jobs” pledge? If you don’t, that’s because it was a disaster.)

Shorten had four aims for this speech.

The first: to show he could deliver a speech. Tick.

The second: to not screw up, to avoid gaffes or silly omissions or idiocies. It’s true he didn’t really mention asylum seeker policy – presumably for the obvious reason that it risked boos and hisses (and he got some of those even with this tiny reference) – but that was a fair strategic decision for a party entirely split on the issue.

The third: to remind people of the strengths of his past, making an implicit contrast with the recent Trade Union Royal Commission controversy. He (and a video screened just beforehand) hammered his role as a union leader at the Beaconsfield mine disaster, and emphasised his role in the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

The fourth: to try to make the “future” brand his own. It’s one of the underrated benefits of party conference speeches that they allow a leader to remind people – including journalists – of their entire array of policies. I’ve said on several occasions that Shorten hasn’t announced many inspirational new policies. But brought together in one place it began to seem like a solid political platform was taking shape: a target for Australia’s energy to be 50% renewable, a target for 50% of Labor MPs to be women, a republic by 2020 (the timing here is new), constitutional recognition of indigenous people, a leader who supports same-sex marriage. Shorten confirmed that he was willing to fight an election dominated by climate-change policy.

There’s nothing subtle about this strategy, nor should there be: the whole point is for people – voters, journalists, and his own occasionally nervous backbench – to notice it. Shorten spelled it out: “Never has the choice between a Labor party planning for the future, and a Liberal party stuck in the past, been more stark.”

The conference isn’t over. There are two days to go, and difficult debates over same-sex marriage, asylum seekers, and party reform still to come. This was just the first hurdle. But Shorten jumped it. He looked pleased. Let’s see how he looks in 48 hours.


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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