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The Labor leader has come back from his summer break with a different approach to advice and a scheme to change his image. By Karen Middleton.

The remaking of Opposition Leader Bill Shorten

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten during question time last month.
Credit: AAP IMAGE / MICK TSIKAS

Bill Shorten knows exactly how many days he has been opposition leader.

“We’ve been working for two years – two-and-a-half years – 885 days,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “But anyway, who’s counting?”

He denies marking off each 24-hour period like a man doing time. “It’s not like a Count of Monte Cristo sort of scenario.” 

In this election year, the opposition leader remains well behind Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on personal voter approval, as measured by every published opinion poll. 

But in the past two months, something has shifted in Shorten himself. While he still trails Turnbull significantly – in the latest Fairfax Ipsos poll, there are 39 points between them as preferred prime minister – the trend in support for Shorten has an upward tick.

“He’s got his confidence back,” one senior Labor MP observes, with a degree of relief. “He’s a confidence player.”

Over the summer, serious rumblings began in senior ranks of the Labor Party, especially in New South Wales, about Shorten’s leadership.

There was no ultimatum issued and it didn’t get as far as lining up an alternative candidate: those involved were well aware of the risks in reopening the revolving doors of the recent past.

But there was considerable concern that Shorten’s low poll ratings and lack of cut-through meant something needed to change urgently in 2016. Surprisingly to many, something has.

“This is an election year with big things at stake,” he says. “Talking to people has got me much more, I think, into the swing of communicating with Australians in a way which gets them to listen. Hopefully.” 

Since November, Shorten has conducted 15 town hall meetings in regional centres. He says eyeballing people and hearing from them directly – warts and all – has made a difference to the way he presents himself.

“I think it has,” he says. “I think it makes me more election match fit, so to speak.”

Sources close to the opposition leader say he has also changed the way he draws on advice and has refined the sources of it.

Shorten does not accept the proposition entirely: “I’m still open to a whole range of ideas. Perhaps what it is is that I’m clearer about what I think this election will be fought about. I’m not closed off to anyone.” 

Among the advice he has taken is to ditch the rote-learned messages, which tend to make a politician sound wooden or robotic. Instead, he is trying to trust his own intellect and just chat.

That doesn’t mean Labor is no longer using research to test ideas and phrases – including his line that Turnbull is “shrinking into the job”. But Shorten has changed his delivery. He’s road-testing some of those lines into a more usable form. It seems to be working.

“I like unscripted big meetings where people can say whatever they want,” he says. “I get a lot of insight out of it. It allows me to connect with people more than a 15-second nightly news grab.”

Suddenly, he is a zinger-free zone – almost. In railing against Turnbull in parliament this week, Shorten accused the prime minister of inaction by saying he was “putting the vain back in ‘weathervane’ ”. Boom boom.

Shorten also insists contact with ordinary people has given him clarity. “I’m much clearer about what I think the important issues are in this election.” 

They are the same issues they’ve always been: education, health, economic management. But his contact with what he says is a wide range of Australians has prompted him to refine how he presents them. 

When Turnbull encountered the outspoken Raylene, a voter from Victor Harbor, on a visit to Whyalla in South Australia recently, Shorten found the scene familiar.

“She was reflecting concern about trade, jobs, a changing world. And keeping pace with change,” Shorten said. “… I’ve spoken to a hundred Raylenes. And do you know what? They’ve got a point. I thought Mr Turnbull brushed them off too much.” 

It’s what you would expect a politician to say about his rival, a rival to whom he now always refers – carefully, in public – by the formal honorific and not just the friendly first name.

Shorten has been emboldened by his own encounters with the likes of Raylene. “It helps me test our ideas, see what works and what doesn’t work,” he says. “It keeps you grounded, too.”

Thinking more

Simon Banks, managing director of Labor-aligned lobbying firm Hawker Britton, believes Shorten has also learnt to make more time to think.

“It’s not just the advice you receive, it’s how you process it,” he says. “It’s very hard in modern politics to find the time to do it. But good leaders do it. And he has.”

Labor opted to jettison the standard small-target strategy and instead make bold pronouncements on economic policy to tackle head-on one of its most vulnerable policy areas. It has made a raft of policy announcements including a proposed crackdown on multinational tax avoidance, reduced concessions on high-income earners’ superannuation, and a controversial plan to reduce access to negative gearing.

The government has attacked Labor’s plans as a recipe for destroying the economy.

“It is a very big challenge for us to establish some strong economic management credibility,” one senior Labor figure says. “We’ve had to do stuff like that.”

Labor is also seeking to exploit public confusion over the government’s economic policies. Shadow families minister Jenny Macklin took the opportunity when unveiling a policy agenda paper on tackling inequality – the result of two years of consultations. 

 “Australia needs big ideas,” Macklin said. “And it is clear that the Turnbull Liberal government does not have a plan to help Australians prepare for the future with confidence.” 

Shorten has taken to heart Turnbull’s own declaration that confidence is key. That was evident in his decision to exert himself recently in personally selecting Indigenous leader and friend of more than a decade, Patrick Dodson, to fill a senate vacancy being left by the sudden retirement of West Australian Labor senator Joe Bullock.

The decision was challenged privately – but not in public.

“You don’t often get an opportunity to fill an unexpired portion of a senate spot,” Shorten tells The Saturday Paper. “It was no one’s seat. There would be no…” He pauses to choose his next words: “You know, the various factions would lay claim to it, but I’ve got an opportunity to make a real captain’s pick.”

Factions did lay claim to it. Some in the Right remain unhappy about his choice and the manner of it. But he won unanimous backing in the party forums that counted.

On the Left, former senator Louise Pratt, who lost out to Bullock in a factional deal, was keen to fill the spot. It’s understood on the night the Dodson appointment was announced, she was unable to get a call through to Shorten. 

Pratt has now been promised the fourth spot on Labor’s senate ticket, a position that is not normally winnable for Labor, based on historical voting patterns. 

But in a particular irony, it will likely become winnable in a double dissolution election under the soon-to-be-imposed senate voting rules that will make it harder for smaller parties and independents to win seats on very low primary votes – rules Labor is opposing. 

WA Labor may yet deliver more unrest, following retired former federal minister Stephen Smith’s failed attempt to oust state Labor leader Mark McGowan this week.

The Saturday Paper understands those state Labor MPs who urged Smith to mount his unorthodox challenge from outside the parliament included both backbenchers and shadow ministers.

Supporters of the move say business leaders have urged Labor to replace McGowan because of their belief that Labor is well placed to win the state election in a year’s time but that its leader is too compliant to the wishes of West Australian unions, when public asset management and debt reduction are likely to be the biggest issues for government. 

In the failed coup, supporters say, Smith could have had between 10 and 12 votes in the 16-member caucus, but none spoke up. They expect to encourage him to make a second attempt before next year’s election.

It’s a sign Labor has not entirely dispensed with the idea of deposing leaders who either don’t perform – McGowan has actually led Labor into a potentially winning position – or who become a risk. 

It’s a given that voters are seeking what Simon Banks describes as “stable and steady leadership”. He says the huge support for Turnbull’s elevation federally indicated they believed he would deliver it. “They are still desperately hoping that he will turn up with something,” Banks says.

In the meantime, Shorten has decided to play to his own strengths – drawing on his background as a union leader who took energy from addressing crowds in workplaces.

At one of his recent town hall meetings, in Lismore in northern NSW, Shorten declared this was the model he planned for his election campaign – old-style public meetings, taking all comers.

Coalition sources have told The Saturday Paper Turnbull is planning to depart from the standard campaign playbook, too. Instead of the usual hell-for-leather campaign habit of racing around the country, with multiple events on a single day, often in more than one city, and a captive media pack in tow, he is proposing to slow down and limit himself to investing more time in one or two daily events. Turnbull is determined to do things differently and his handling of tax policy formulation is presented as an example.

His officials insist that behind closed doors the government is doing the hard policy work on tax reform and, unlike some of those who have gone before them, actually wants to give thought to the policy first and craft the sales message later.

As plans go, it is a logical one. But it doesn’t address the vacuum created in debate while everyone waits for the policy, carefully crafted as it may be.

And that has also benefited the opposition leader.

When public criticism began to emerge that Turnbull wasn’t doing anything – a criticism the prime minister roundly rejects as not reflecting reality – opposition strategists couldn’t believe their good fortune.

“I thought when Malcolm – or Mr Turnbull – took over, while it would be harder for me, we’d take politics to a better place,” Shorten says. “He just hasn’t. But we have. We think that we’re talking about ideas which are relevant to the social and economic future of Australia.”

Turnbull moved to seize back the debate on the economy this week, unveiling a new “effects test” to foster competition, and answering allegations of inaction with evidence of work. “This is yet again a case of my government taking long overdue reforms out of the too-hard basket and getting on with the job,” the prime minister said.

Being bold

Shorten recognised – even before Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott and Labor’s fortunes plunged – that his party needed to be bold on policy. But his own presentation of that policy was what was lacking.

After a long holiday over summer, his political year got off to an inauspicious start. On visiting a Woolworths supermarket in the national capital’s satellite town of Queanbeyan, he was mocked for the standard of his small talk.

“I came back to work on January 11 and I stood talking to a shopper about what sort of lettuce she liked,” he says. 

Now he can joke about the jokes. “I take an interest in shopping.”

The event was about the government’s then-proposed rise in the goods and services tax, but it was a reminder that the manner of message delivery was as important as the policy substance. Shorten was widely derided for asking a women about lettuce preferences and, worse, not being able to name a lettuce himself.

In more recent weeks, after more contact with voters away from the television cameras, he has been reminded again to be himself. 

“People aren’t interested in lines,” Simon Banks says. “They want a conversation.”

In this week’s address to the National Press Club, Shorten revealed that when he ran for the leadership against frontbench colleague Anthony Albanese in late 2013 – in which Albanese secured the rank-and-file popular vote but Shorten won in the parliamentary caucus – he wrote a list of the ways he describes himself. 

“I’m a unionist, I’m Labor, I’m a husband, I’m a father,” he said. 

He was, he wrote, the descendant of “unsuccessful goldminers”. 

His father had been a fitter and turner and then a ship’s engineer, his mother a teacher and university lecturer. 

He listed a belief in an Australian republic, same-sex marriage, Indigenous constitutional recognition, gender equality and the need to provide opportunity. 

He was an “internationalist” who didn’t believe in a “fortress Australia mentality” or being frightened of the neighbours. 

“I don’t have to pretend to be who I’m not,” he told the press club crowd. “My Labor Party doesn’t have to pretend [to be] who it is not. Isn’t that one of the great challenges of leadership? It is hard to lead a nation when you have to pretend to be something that you’re not.”

He didn’t want to be someone who failed to “give this privilege of being opposition leader absolutely everything”.

“So if you’ve got good ideas, why not talk about them? I think voters are looking for more authenticity, more sincerity. I think they’re disillusioned with politics in Australia. I want to help combat the cynicism that Australians can’t control their politics or have a say over the future of the country… Put your ideas out on the table.”

According to polls published this week, 22 per cent of the country is with him. Which, for Shorten, is a record.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 19, 2016 as "The remaking of Bill Shorten". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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