Bill Shorten’s final pitch emphasises Labor’s social policies – especially those with which Malcolm Turnbull might agree. By Karen Middleton.

Bill Shorten: ‘I’m proud of our plans...’

Bill Shorten.

Labor leader Bill Shorten put himself into training for this federal election campaign more than a year before it began.

A regimen of walking and then running with a personal trainer paid off in the form of better endurance and the loss of 10 kilos. And the experience of addressing and fielding unscripted questions from voters at dozens of town-hall meetings for months gave him practice at expecting the unexpected.

Shorten is widely seen as having run a better-than-solid campaign and has revealed more of himself in a more authentic way during the past eight weeks than voters might have seen before.

“I’m proud of my team and I’m proud of our plans for Australia,” he told The Saturday Paper.

Labor’s risky early release of some of those plans was designed to tell voters it was not afraid of scrutiny. That appeared to largely pay off, with some of its proposals – including a proposed crackdown of tax avoidance by multinational companies – being adopted by the Coalition.

Labor managed to reset the debate mid-campaign with a focus on its popular promise to set up a royal commission into the banking sector, a pledge that struck a chord with angry customers. It also swung the national conversation onto its traditionally safe turf of education and then health, especially with a promise to lift the freeze on Medicare rebates that the government had said it would continue.

Bill Shorten boasted he would release 100 positive policies. “I didn’t ask for an eight-week campaign, but I’ve relished the opportunity to talk to so many people,” he told The Saturday Paper.

“I’ve met tens of thousands of people and listened to thousands of Australians – it’s been brilliant. I’m confident that we have the best ideas for Australia. People want to see Medicare protected. They want to see better schools for their kids. They want to see a government prepared to stand up for jobs in Australia. That’s what Labor is offering.”

But Labor’s sudden switch to a scare campaign about the privatisation of Medicare in the final fortnight, while apparently effective on the ground, also attracted criticisms of dishonesty after the Coalition flatly denied the allegations.

And Labor’s belated admission that it would endorse some measures from the now-infamous 2014 Coalition budget, which it had steadfastly opposed in parliament, as well as confirmation it would deliver yawning deficits before the budget headed back to balance, reignited debate about its economic credibility.Its policy to restrict negative gearing tax concessions to the purchase of newly built homes also proved controversial.

Shorten sought to address that as the campaign rounded the final bend this week. “Labor will serve the interests of all Australians,” he told journalists on Thursday. “I want to make it very clear to Australians that we are ready for government.”

While the Liberals are believed to have outspent Labor in campaign advertising, Labor was able to mobilise both human and financial support from the union movement, which had members staffing the phones and cold-calling voters in marginal seats, emphasising the negative as much as the positive.

While Labor has sought to associate itself with some of the Coalition’s policies – and its reputation – on economic management and immigration, it has also deliberately tried to differentiate on other issues, including climate change.

Shorten announced a plan to re-introduce an emissions trading scheme – the issue that became pivotal in the demise of the previous Labor government. The policy was spruiked because Labor supports it and because Malcolm Turnbull does, too, but can’t say so.

Labor has tried wherever possible to highlight areas in which it believes the Liberal leader has had to walk away from, or modify, his own beliefs to appease the conservatives in his own party.

“Australians are disappointed in Malcolm Turnbull,” Shorten told The Saturday Paper. “The man hasn’t matched the hype.”

But, according to the published opinion polls, despite some improvement on the Labor leader’s part, Turnbull’s approval rating has remained higher than Shorten’s throughout the campaign.

Some policy issues have proved problematic for Labor, factionally and geographically. The party has had to manage strongly differing views among its own constituents on the pace and nature of urban development, primarily the WestConnex road project linking Sydney’s west to the city. Many inner-city residents oppose the project, while support is much stronger in the western suburbs among those facing a long commute.

In inner-city seats in Sydney and Melbourne, Labor incumbents have faced a serious Greens threat, making their policy pronunciations more complicated.

The fraught debate over asylum seekers has also raised questions over whether members of Labor’s Left faction will continue to support the party’s policy to allow boat turn-backs, adopted at its national conference last year but still causing concern for some.

Senior left-wing frontbencher Anthony Albanese voted against it. He says he will abide by the party’s policy.

As it does for the Coalition, this issue threatens to re-emerge after the election and more fully reveal divisions that have been papered over.

As Shorten’s campaign drew to a close, he faced criticism for telling the National Press Club that the “defining moment” was Turnbull’s remark that political parties didn’t always do what they promised, when the comment was actually made in relation to the Labor Party. The message was reinforced by so-called robocalls to voters – automated calls that played a recording of the Turnbull comment and then followed it with a voice saying “It’s hard to believe he said that, isn’t it?”

It prompted the Coalition – and some journalists – to suggest it smacked of desperation. Shorten is already facing questions about his own future, which assume he won’t win today’s election.

Under Labor Party rules pushed through during Kevin Rudd’s second run as prime minister, an election loss automatically triggers a leadership ballot.

Albanese, Shorten’s former rival for the leadership, may decide to recontest. He’s declining to say. 

If Labor loses, the closeness of the result – that is, the size of the loss – will determine whether Shorten’s colleagues believe he’s done enough to deserve another go.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 2, 2016 as "‘I’m proud of our plans...’". Subscribe here.

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