The Politics    Monday, May 8, 2017

Shorten makes some mistakes

By Sean Kelly

Shorten makes some mistakes
And the problem with THAT ad

This was supposed to be a dangerous week for Malcolm Turnbull. And it still might be. But in the meantime it’s turned into quite a risky time to be Bill Shorten.

This is partly because of the mistakes he’s made. But mistakes can always be fixed. The greater problem for Shorten is the deeper fault lines those mistakes point to.

Last night a new Labor ad was shown as part of Channel Nine’s news coverage. The ad, designed to air in marginal seats, promotes Labor’s “Australia First” policy package. In it, Shorten stands to one side of the screen, while to his right stand 12 Australians. Of those 12 Australians, nearly all of them are white.

Shorten was typically quick to recognise the mistake, calling the “lack of diversity” a “bad oversight that won’t happen again”. But by then a miniature firestorm had taken off.

Asked today whether the ad was racist, Shorten called that suggestion “rubbish”. But it’s his denial that is rubbish. If you broadcast a political ad telling voters that your government will “employ Australians first”, and then coat the screen with white people, the message is pretty clear, and it’s pretty clearly racist.

Nor is this a surprise. The intent of Shorten’s “Australia first” policy – like Turnbull’s mirror-image “Australians first” policy – has always been to play to the resentment Australians feel about foreign Australians taking their jobs. Race is a part of that. If that wasn’t clear before the ad, it’s crystal clear now.

This is the second mistake Shorten has made in a week, though I doubt he would agree the first was an error.

Last week, after initially indicating there may be bipartisanship on the government’s schools funding package, Shorten came out against any changes to funding for Catholic schools.

You can understand Labor’s thinking. Once Turnbull had backflipped on Gonski, the Opposition’s biggest remaining attack on the government’s schools policy was the $22 billion difference between Labor’s funding and the government’s. Labor was always going to bang that drum as hard as it could, and fair enough. Despite the insistence of some that it’s only $22 billion out of $264 billion, spread across ten years, it’s still a hefty sum of money – it is, in fact, 10% of the overall funding package. That will make a difference to schools. Labor’s complaints on this are legitimate, and voters, accustomed to believing Labor on education, would have accepted them.

But if we’re going to pony up the $22 billion anyway, strategists would have said, and that’s according to the old formula where the Catholic schools get a greater share of the package, why wouldn’t we bang the Catholic drum anyway? Given we’re already spending that cash?

But the Catholic schools are acting cynically. In claiming “cuts” to funding – despite the fact they are in fact receiving an increase – they are doing what every organisation that wants government money does, which is to make up numbers to suit them. The alleged “cuts” are based on a projected funding growth figure of 1.95% from 2021. Treasury says [$] it’ll be 3.3%. Now, it’s true that Treasury has got a few things wrong in recent years – but still, given the choice between economic forecasts done by a church or by Treasury, I’m going with Treasury.

Labor, in backing the overegged claims that Catholic school fees will rise astronomically, has gone with the church instead, the same side Tony Abbott has chosen. What does that tell you?

The problem for Shorten here is simple: he looks cynical. He looks like a typical politician, willing to say what needs to be said if it will get him a vote. And the problem with that is that it’s the message his opponents have been pushing for some time. In a vitriolic attack in March this year, Turnbull called Shorten a “phoney”. In February, he called him a “fake”. Political attacks rarely come from nowhere – they tend to reflect what politicians are being told by focus groups.

All this in turn is only a problem if the errors of this week are repeated, and at a time when the prime minister recovers a bit of standing. We don’t know yet whether either of those will come to pass.

His own image is not the only reason Shorten must tread carefully. He has been an incredibly effective Opposition leader, and as such has earned a fair bit of leeway. But senior Left figure and occasional leadership rival Anthony Albanese was quick to condemn the ad today as a “shocker” that “should never have been shown”. Last year Albanese warned the party must “be careful” about attacking foreign workers, comments that came shortly after Shorten attracted criticism for his own comments about foreign workers.

Recently, Shorten and his treasury spokesman Chris Bowen have antagonised Labor’s Left by refusing to countenance adopting the “Buffett rule”, imposing a minimum tax rate on rich people. The Left has been testing its strength for some time now. If it gets the sense it is being treated as a “junior partner” in Labor’s march towards government, my guess is the pushback will be pretty hard.

These are all fairly minor concerns at this stage – mere straws in the wind. The difficulty comes if Turnbull’s solid few weeks translate into improved polling numbers. At that point Shorten will face a difficult choice. Keep doing what’s worked so far and risk being left behind as Turnbull changes up? Or shift your strategy to counter a newly energised prime minister?

Shorten will be hoping those questions stay hypothetical.

In other news

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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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