With an appalling approval rating, but protected by Labor’s leadership rules, Bill Shorten must persuade the public he’s a man of ideas. By Sophie Morris.

Bill Shorten’s life with a 17 per cent approval rating

Labor leader Bill Shorten during a caucus meeting.
Labor leader Bill Shorten during a caucus meeting.

As captain’s calls go, it was hardly big or budget-breaking. Still, Bill Shorten’s decision to champion a reduction in the voting age to 16 put some of his colleagues’ noses out of joint.

“I believe that it is important we tackle the apathy and cynicism of young people towards politics,” the Labor leader said, after announcing the push at a Young Labor conference last weekend.

If Shorten does consult his colleagues, he’ll hear concerns that enfranchising 16- to 18-year-olds would favour the Greens over Labor. “It’s a gimmick,” says one Labor MP. “A thought bubble,” adds another. “Ridiculous,” says a third.

Others point out it is still just a discussion paper, not a policy, which is why it did not go to shadow cabinet. 

“He was floating an idea. He hasn’t said he’s committed to it,” said Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese in the leader’s defence, when asked on radio on Wednesday if Shorten’s strategy was born of “sheer desperation or a lack of the spotlight”.

“The fact that we’re discussing it now shows it was effective,” added Albanese.

Although many of the Labor MPs past and present to whom The Saturday Paper spoke for this story wanted to see more big policy ideas from Shorten, lowering the voting age was not what most had in mind.

Two years into his time as opposition leader, Shorten’s job abruptly became a whole lot harder when Malcolm Turnbull seized the prime ministership on September 14, ending the divisive politics of the Abbott era and overtaking Labor’s poll lead.

Turnbull is not just trumping Shorten in the personality stakes, but he’s also veering into Labor territory, staking out innovation and public transport as his pet policies.

And even as Turnbull prepares the ground for an increased GST, he’s leavening that message with Labor-style rhetoric. “Fairness is absolutely critical,” says Turnbull, describing the goal as keeping Australia a “high-wage, generous social-welfare-net, First World economy”.

The hardheads in Labor insist it is good the change has happened now, rather than later, arguing the shine will come off Turnbull when he is forced to move from rhetoric to reality and make decisions that will inevitably disappoint some voters.

In the meantime, it is a frustrating period for Shorten. Labor’s resistance to Abbott’s agenda played some part in his undoing, but there will be little credit in it for Shorten and that period is now over, forcing the opposition to recalibrate its strategy.

Labor made early attacks on Turnbull over his personal wealth, attacks the new prime minister adroitly dodged, but which Labor’s brains trust considers were still effective in shaping his image.

Turnbull is winning praise for not being Tony Abbott and for changing the tone of debate, while a lousy 17 per cent of Newspoll respondents last month named Shorten as preferred prime minister. That’s not necessarily an insurmountable hurdle to eventual success, as John Howard – who was dubbed “Mr 18 per cent” by The Bulletin magazine in 1988 – might attest. But it’s cold comfort: it took Howard another eight years and various setbacks to become prime minister from there.

In these dark days, Bob Carr has some words of reassurance for Shorten.

The former New South Wales premier and federal Labor minister, who left parliament in 2013, knows what it’s like to be opposition leader when a government switches to a more popular frontman.

“When the [NSW] Liberals dumped Nick Greiner in 1992 and they put John Fahey in, all of a sudden people were lecturing me on how we hadn’t been prepared for a change in leadership,” he says.

“The political climate can change again if Turnbull fails to deliver on political expectations that are now running strong.”

He argues Labor must be ready for this, urging it to get out in front on policy debates including climate change and foreign affairs.

“For example, Labor could be publicly challenging Turnbull to adopt nationally the NSW GGAS scheme,” says Carr, referring to the greenhouse gas reduction scheme he introduced as premier in 2003, requiring power distributors to trade permits if they exceed per-capita emissions limits.

1 . Caucus rules

If such dismal polling were to continue, a leader’s longevity would normally be in question, but Shorten’s position has been secured by rules Kevin Rudd introduced to prevent Labor rolling its leaders.

As a freshly reinstalled prime minister with an election looming, Rudd was able to force through the changes at a special caucus meeting in July 2013. 

Under the Rudd rules, a leadership spill can only occur if 60 per cent of the caucus sign a petition to bring on a ballot. If Labor is in government, the threshold is higher, at 75 per cent. This has not been written into the ALP’s constitution, meaning it can still theoretically be voided by a caucus vote.

The changes were not universally supported by his colleagues. 

Greg Combet, another frontbencher who left parliament at the 2013 election, says he argued against requiring more than half of caucus to demand a vote on the leadership. 

“When I was a member of caucus and Rudd proposed these rule changes, what I opposed was the necessity for a higher than simple majority threshold for a change in leadership,” Combet tells The Saturday Paper.

“The simple fact of the matter is that if the leader does not enjoy a simple majority of support in the Labor caucus, it’s unworkable.”

At this stage, the assumption in the party is that Shorten will lead Labor to the election. Indeed, there is a sense of resignation. When people talk of leadership change, it’s generally a post-election proposition, with murmurings that the NSW Right is firming behind Albanese.

As well as giving some job security to a Labor leader, the Rudd rules were the first step to greater involvement of rank-and-file members, by giving them an equal say with the caucus in choosing the leader. 

Democratisation of preselection processes is something Combet strongly supports, but he points to the outcome of the recent Labour leadership ballot in Britain as a warning sign that engaging rank-and-file members in a leadership vote must be “balanced with common sense”.

Two days before Turnbull ousted Abbott, democratic socialist Jeremy Corbyn, a left-winger who supports the renationalisation of public utilities, won a landslide victory in the ballot of Labour supporters. Thousands who had paid just £3 to sign up were eligible to vote. 

“It’s hard to see how he [Corbyn] is going to be electable, and yet he is the result of a completely democratised process from Labour supporters in Britain,” says Combet.

“The one thing you have to be very careful of is to not end up with a Labor leader who may not enjoy strong support from Labor parliamentarians and caucus. That’s just self-defeating. I’m quite concerned for the British Labour party on that front. At the moment, it’s hard to see him being competitive with David Cameron and Labor needs to be cautious in Australia not to go too far down that path, either.”

2 . Questioning the pact

Some current MPs are also questioning whether the Rudd stability pact is serving the party well. “Those rules were put in place to give the leader three years to be brave and not worry about people panicking after a couple of Newspolls,” says one Labor MP. “What’s the point of having rules to secure the leadership if you don’t use that chance to be brave?”    

Within the party, views vary as to whether Shorten is delivering on his promise of a “year of ideas”. A range of policy positions have been announced, covering topics including university funding, science teaching and coding in schools, and sourcing 50 per cent of all energy from renewables by 2030, as well as detailed plans to wind back superannuation tax breaks and close multinational tax loopholes.

Another thorny policy dilemma was resolved at the ALP’s national conference in July, when Shorten negotiated a position that would allow a Labor government to lift the refugee intake but turn back asylum-seeker boats.

But Shorten had raised expectations of more. “It was a bit too grand in the first place,” says one MP, who fears the “year of ideas” promise just served to highlight Labor’s limitations in this regard.

Others say Labor is ready for the contest of ideas that has replaced the clash with Abbott.

As Labor mounts an argument that lifting the GST would be regressive and inequitable, there will also be pressure on it to outline its own alternative package, to propose rather than just oppose.

Insisting that Labor’s stance on the GST is principled – and not just a “scare campaign” – assistant shadow treasurer Andrew Leigh says much thought and consultation is going into tax reform. “One of the things you can do much better in opposition than in government is to spend a lot of time talking to people,” Leigh says. “We’ve tried to go through a real reform process, not just think things up in back rooms but taking the time to have those conversations.”

Simon Crean, another former Labor leader who knows what it’s like to struggle to get your message out in opposition, is encouraged by policy announcements in recent months.

He says Labor must not now be spooked by the transformed political landscape since Turnbull’s rise, but should instead see it as an opportunity.

Crean argues that previous Labor governments pioneered the consensus model Turnbull is now adopting and Shorten must now reclaim it and not fall into the trap of just opposing.

“It’s not just about personality, it’s more fundamentally about the policy prescription,” says Crean. “It’s a policy prescription that is about releasing the potential of the economy and understanding the most successful periods were when we created the consensus model.

“Labor developed it and I think we are more inherently trusted with it, but Labor needs to reassert that brand and reassert it in the national interest.”

3 . Falling short

On one of the first goals Shorten set, he seems to have failed, or at least under-delivered.

He sounded brave in April last year when he outlined a push for wide-ranging party reforms to empower party members, reduce the influence of factional powerbrokers and overhaul preselections.

The goal was to modernise the party and build and broaden its membership beyond the union movement. The debate about party reforms always resurfaces when Labor is in opposition, but it had an added urgency this time, given the focus of union malfeasance at the royal commission and the decline in membership of unions, which now represents just 14 per cent of workers.

Despite Shorten’s ambitions, progress has been limited. Calls for reform are again brewing, amid branch-stacking allegations in Victoria and factional wrangling in Western Australia, where the national executive intervened this week after Left-aligned unions threatened the preselection of frontbencher Gary Gray.

Combet, a former Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary, says it is essential to open up preselections, rather than having them determined by factional bosses, and the party should be trying various models for community engagement at this level.

“We’re not appealing to a wide enough pool of potential parliamentarians who have broader experience of the economy and society,” says Combet. “We’re not attracting enough people with a bit broader experience than some of the narrow confines of the labour movement.”

The ALP’s national president, Mark Butler, was disappointed that the Labor conference rejected moves to give rank-and-file members a direct vote in senate preselections, which are often used to reward factional players.

“I was pretty mortified the conference did not accept that and I’ll continue to argue for it,” he says.

Butler, who is also Labor’s climate spokesman, takes a philosophical view about the Turnbull honeymoon, saying it will leave Labor in the shadows for a while.

“It’s hard to make an impact in the polls while the honeymoon is on but it doesn’t mean you don’t continue to get ideas out there and continue to develop policies,” he says. “Because ultimately, the honeymoon will end.”

While Turnbull has been using his honeymoon to talk about tax, it was Shorten who went to the Pacific this week and danced with flowers in his hair.

The topic of Shorten’s listening tour was climate change, though Butler remains tight-lipped on when we’ll see more details of that much-anticipated policy.

Perhaps not until the honeymoon is over, whenever that may be.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 7, 2015 as "Leading a life at 17 per cent".

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

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