The Politics    Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Shorten could actually win this thing

By Sean Kelly

For the first time, Labor are looking like a chance

In the third week of the 2010 election campaign Labor was, it seemed certain, heading for defeat. After devastating leaks against Julia Gillard, the party’s national secretary had stopped even bothering with the nightly polls run during most campaigns. The party was too far behind to waste the money. I was travelling with Gillard. The mood was grim. The media was, understandably, consumed with the Rudd–Gillard soap opera.

The only way we could see to shift momentum was to bring the focus of the campaign right back to policy. The policies didn’t have to be big-bang; there was a concern that after all the big “vision” of the Rudd years they wouldn’t be believed. They had to be detailed and thorough and credible.

On the Sunday two weeks out from polling day we began with a small but clear announcement about kids being required to attend school if they wanted to play team sport. That was followed on the Monday by a bigger announcement about incentives and transparency in schools. The media saw what was happening and responded: “Labor’s policy push” read one banner headline.

That was the result of a good political decision and smart work from our policy team. But we also got very, very lucky. On that same Sunday, the Liberal party had their launch. Tony Abbott decided not to announce any new policies. In some campaigns that would have worked a treat. But that year it played right into our hands. Gillard would not have won a second term if all of those elements had not converged.

This is exactly what’s happening to Bill Shorten right now.

I am as surprised as anyone. Regular readers know I’ve been consistently sceptical about Shorten’s chances. But it really does seem that Bill’s gone and made himself electable.

Newspoll today showed Labor pulling ahead of the government for the first time during Malcolm Turnbull’s reign. Of course you should never pay attention to a single poll, but we are now seeing a clear trend, in Newspoll at least. This election is a contest.

Part of that has been due to Turnbull. By doing very little to date he’s left a vacuum for Shorten to fill, just as Abbott did for Gillard in 2010. That’s the luck part. But Shorten has done the prep to get himself there.

The policy announcement normally pointed to as a turning point is Labor’s negative gearing announcement. It was essential, sending a signal to the electorate that Labor has a plan, of sorts, which is better than the absence of a plan being offered by the government right now. It also came in the same week that the PM abandoned changes to the GST. I wrote at the time, “If Bill Shorten ends up with credit for his party’s policy suite, and if Turnbull suffers for his party’s current policy vacuum, this week will have been the beginning.”

But I suspect the more important announcement in the long run will be Labor’s decision to commit to funding the entire Gonski education package. It was a classic case of long-run preparation leading to an important result, with the opposition’s policy team steadily putting together $100 billion in revenue and savings it could put towards spending.

And look what that announcement buys Labor now. It gives them a ready-made argument every time Turnbull argues the $80 billion promised by Julia Gillard for health and education was a “fantasy”. “We’ve found a way to pay for it,” Shorten can say. “Why can’t you?”

It means, too, that Labor’s attacks on the mooted Turnbull plan for the commonwealth to stop funding public schools have much more punch, because they’re not just attacks: they are a comparison of two plans.

Labor is benefiting, too, from the fact much of its team, both MPs and staffers, has recent experience of government. Working in government can make you fat and complacent; but it is also the only way to appreciate the focus and intensity that otherwise comes only with an election campaign. The government has looked chaotic in past weeks, thanks largely to tensions between Turnbull and Scott Morrison. As Dennis Shanahan makes clear in this piece, Labor’s communications efforts, in contrast, have been disciplined and co-ordinated. I recently heard a journalist describe Labor’s media team (some of whom I’ve worked with) as relentless, and that will only pick up in coming weeks.

Turnbull right now is relying on one thing, and that’s his preferred prime minister numbers, where he is still comfortably ahead of Shorten. Every chance they get, his ministers – and Turnbull himself – are reminding voters of the explicit choice between Mal and Bill.

I’m beginning to wonder if this isn’t as helpful as they think.

Shorten has never been hugely popular with voters. I suspect many had made their mind up about him. He needs people to take another look. And that, unwittingly, is what Turnbull and his team are implicitly suggesting they do.

A good line for Labor, by the way, on exactly this front, came from a government MP today, who told Fairfax: “The only narrative going is that the PM is a charmer.”

A good attack line reinforces both your opponent’s weakness and your own strength. Think Kevin Rudd calling John Howard a “clever politician”. It seemed polite, while at the same time implying Howard was cunning while Rudd was honest and authentic.

Shorten, it is fair to say, is not seen as charming by the electorate. But what he has been for two and a half years now is steady. He hasn’t made any devastating mistakes. He’s not loved, but neither is he seen as absurd. He has rolled out enough policy to have a ring of credibility. To have any chance of winning Shorten’s team need to find a way to make this a strength, in contrast with Turnbull, who has laid himself open to the charge of being just a charmer.

The opposition will need more policy, and some more gifts from the PM, to overcome voters’ reluctance to return to Labor so soon. Turnbull is still the favourite. But for the first time Bill Shorten is looking like a chance.


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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