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Despite a quiet start to opposition, Labor has a plan to win back government, and it relies on one man: Tony Abbott. By Sophie Morris.

Inside Bill Shorten’s party war room

Opposition leader Bill Shorten addressing teachers earlier this month.
Credit: AAPIMAGE

In backrooms, they are calling it the “betrayal moment”. Everything in the federal Labor Party’s parliamentary strategy is geared towards it: the moment voters realise the government they have is not the one they thought they were electing last September. The “betrayal moment” is the centerpiece of Bill Shorten’s game plan.

“We’re determined to make sure the government keeps its promises,” Shorten said in an interview with The Saturday Paper. “And if they don’t keep their promises, or if they have twisted priorities, we’ll chase them.”

After Labor lost the federal election, strategists in the party met to discuss the best approach to win back government. The Saturday Paper understands they identified three core messages they believed Tony Abbott had relied on to win the election: that an Abbott government would be calm and methodical; that it would be an “adult” government; and as a government of no surprises and no excuses, it would keep its promises.

From there, Labor’s strategists have set about devising a plan to expose each of these themes as untrue. The goal is to establish the case that Abbott and the Coalition cannot be trusted.

In the lead-up to the release of the Commission of Audit’s report on May 1, and the federal budget on May 13, Labor hopes to turn back on Abbott the public fury it felt in government over Julia Gillard’s introduction of a price on carbon after promising there would be no carbon tax.

The opposition calculates that this fury will be even more rancorous when directed at the Coalition, because voters will detect a whiff of hypocrisy, which Labor hopes could irreparably damage the government.

The strategy is as much defensive as offensive.

Labor knows the government has set a time bomb with its royal commission into union corruption, which started hearings this month and will report by year’s end. In the months ahead, it could detonate and severely wound the ALP and its union supporters, who contribute millions of dollars to the party.

“There’s some trepidation,” one Labor source says. “We don’t know where we might be within a year.”

Party reforms

Running alongside Labor’s strategy is the program of party reforms Shorten unveiled this week: easier and cheaper membership, a say in some preselections and appointments to the national conference, and removal of the requirement that still exists in some branches for members to belong to a union.

Outlining the proposals on Tuesday, he said the party was fighting a crisis of apathy and must reinvent itself to survive.

 He admits his push to reform Labor could see unions pull millions of dollars in financial support from the party, but he is ready for that.

“If some people, because I want to diffuse power to more people, choose not to support the Labor party, that’s their choice,” he told The Saturday Paper. “I can’t make somebody give money to the Labor party.”

Shorten’s proposals for party reform are broad enough that former leader Mark Latham has declared the leader may be the party’s “surprise saviour”, but vague enough that the inevitable bickering has been relatively muted.

To those who believe he should have gone further and tackled unions’ control of state conferences, Shorten argues that his proposals will change the party’s culture by allowing for direct election of delegates to its national conference and increased rank-and-file involvement in preselections.

“I’m a life member of a trade union. I have been my whole working life,” says Shorten, a former Australian Workers Union national secretary. “But no leader before me has proposed taking away a say in preselections, or reducing power in preselections, the way I have.”

The power of unions and factions within Labor was underlined by the debacle in Western Australia, when a deal between two factions led to the elevation of union chief Joe Bullock to the number one spot on the senate ticket, above serving senator Louise Pratt. Labor won just 21 per cent of the primary vote and only one seat.

Shorten wants to double party membership to 100,000 and deepen engagement of the rank-and-file – goals which some MPs believe clash and could even open up opportunities for unions to increase their influence by stacking branches.

The system of primaries in the United States, in which Democrat members preselect candidates, is heavily influenced by union voting blocs.

Senior sources suggest Shorten’s suite of reforms will find support, though there will first be arguments over the details at state conferences, starting with Victoria in May and in New South Wales mid-year, and in the lead-up to national conference next year. 

A showdown is likely in NSW, where the right-wing state secretary, Jamie Clements, is resisting a proposal from left-wing senator John Faulkner for rank-and-file preselection for the state upper house and federal senate.

Clements has been given a role in advising Shorten on how to make Labor’s national conference more democratic, in a move that some interpreted as a smart ploy to engage a reform critic but which one MP likened to “putting Dracula in charge of guarding the blood bank”.   

Queensland has already adopted preselection models similar to what Shorten is proposing.

In a bid to broaden Labor’s appeal, he has nominated small business as one of the “new constituencies” he hopes to lure away from the Coalition. He describes a plan detailed in the lead-up to the WA senate election re-run, to reduce paperwork for businesses with turnover of less than $2 million by giving them the option to fill in business activity statements annually, rather than quarterly. It is a proposal he is likely to mention often in the months ahead.

“We have to keep talking about it,” he says. “Labor needs to be wary of a sort of shoot-and-scoot policy approach, where we shoot out an idea and move onto the next issue the next day.”

Repetition is the key in opposition, as Abbott demonstrated. So, too, Shorten has begun repeating ad nauseum his attack on the government’s “twisted priorities” and “broken promises”.

Labor’s attack strategy is about to become more explicit and more aggressive, mirroring the approach that the Coalition took in opposition.

Shorten is not a pugilist like Abbott. Nor is he a wily street fighter like Anthony Albanese, whom he defeated in last year’s leadership ballot. He prefers talk of consensus to combat. But the strategy devised by opposition hardheads last year is pushing him to adopt a more aggressive approach.

Labor’s role as opposition is already under threat from a noisy senate crossbench, with Clive Palmer showing this week he is prepared to throw his weight around to get what he wants when the new senate convenes from July.

The attack strategy began when Abbott stood up to move bills abolishing the carbon tax as his first order of business in the new parliament. Labor ensured that there was chaos and disorder in the chamber. This was the first sign that opposition was not going to gift the government the calm and orderly parliament it desired.

The next goal was to debunk the Coalition claim that the adults were back in charge. Every time there is the hint of something juvenile from the government, Labor’s tacticians are onto it and eager to draw attention to it.

Nicknames are the most obvious example.

So it was that the first dissent motion against Speaker Bronwyn Bishop was over her failure to censure the government for dubbing the opposition leader “Electricity Bill”.

Similarly, when the government’s leader of the house Christopher Pyne referred to Shorten as “Mr Potato Head”, the manager of opposition business in the house, Tony Burke, leapt to his feet to lodge a protest that had little to do with parliament’s standing orders and everything to do with drawing attention to Pyne’s childishness.

“If this is an example of the adults being in charge, the minister should be asked to sit down,” Burke declared.

But most important by far is the third of the three Coalition messages targeted by Labor, relating to its election promises.

Drilling home the message

In the early months of the government, Labor strategists believed it was too soon to accuse the Coalition of breaking promises. But nevertheless the troops were told to drill home the message that, across a range of policies, “this is not what they said they would do before the election”.

That language then morphed into talk of “nasty surprises” and “pathetic excuses”. In the past two weeks, it has intensified again, with Labor frontbenchers warning the government is preparing to break its promises.

“They’re building the alibi to justify broken promises by saying there’s a state of emergency,” says Shorten.

Treasurer Joe Hockey’s repeated warnings of budget pain and personal responsibility seem tailor-made for the Labor attack. The prime minister is already on the defensive. “We are going to keep our commitments,” Abbott said on Wednesday. “If there is one thing that we learnt from the fate of the former government, you cannot say one thing before an election and do the opposite immediately afterwards.”

Before the election, Abbott pledged “no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no changes to pensions, no changes to GST and no cuts to the ABC or the SBS”.

Those pre-election pledges sounded ironclad, so any revision or retreat by the Coalition will require some explaining. Labor will be seeking to deny the government any room for explanation, just as the Coalition did not accept that Gillard’s “no carbon tax” vow was made in the context of a promise to price carbon. It remains to be seen whether this “betrayal moment” eventuates.

As well as attacking, Labor also needs to defend the legacy it left after six years in government, which is remembered more at this stage for disunity and divisions than policy achievements. Shorten says that, in the long term, the Rudd–Gillard government’s achievements will be remembered, citing the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the apology to the Stolen Generations and greater federal involvement in funding schools.

Labor has embarked on a process of policy review and begun distancing itself from some measures that it introduced in government, including cuts to single parent payments.

Now it is also trying to build a defence of its economic record, using question time recently to try to make a case that Hockey had deliberately overstated the extent of the deficit to manufacture a crisis that would justify cuts. In an admission of sorts that Labor failed to properly sell its economic achievements in office, strategists now realise they need to better explain what Labor did in government and why it was responsible.

Shorten says he has begun laying out Labor’s agenda, including a rapprochement with the resources sector, talking about the importance of science and innovation, appealing to small business and now enacting party reforms.

It would be unusual for the first opposition leader after losing government to lead the party back to power at first oppportunity. Shorten knows he has a mammoth task ahead of him. But at least he enjoys more security in the role than his predecessors, thanks to Kevin Rudd’s requiring a vote of rank-and-file party members as well as caucus to remove a leader.

Shorten won the caucus leadership ballot, but not the rank-and-file. Yet he may be the leader who devolves even more power to the party’s members.

“It is a long way back for Labor,” Shorten says, “but that journey has started.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 26, 2014 as "Inside Shorten’s party war room". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.