Paul Bongiorno
Shorten picking up the Bill

There’s a new spring in Bill Shorten’s step. The Labor leader is convinced he has “future-framed” the political debate in a way that leaves Tony Abbott looking very yesterday on key issues that count for contemporary Australians. His confidence is boosted by last weekend’s party national conference, which saw his leadership credentials enhanced and gave him major policy ammunition in his bid for The Lodge. Firm policies on climate change, asylum seekers, marriage equality and women were all endorsed.

Government taunts that he stands for nothing no longer have the same ring to them. In fact, it is now the prime minister who is under pressure to come up with something more than national security as his calling card. Labor strategists also believe Abbott’s style as a political street brawler has worn very thin with voters. Even though Shorten’s personal numbers slumped after his appearance before the unions royal commission, about 20 per cent of voters are still parked in the don’t-know column. In other words: the jury is still out on Shorten, the verdict on Abbott is locked in. The real clincher is the entrenched lead the ALP maintains in the opinion polls. A despondent Liberal backbencher says the electorate may not like the opposition leader much but they dislike the prime minister even more.

If the government’s plan was to vacate the stage and let Labor brawling persuade voters that it is an unelectable rabble, it failed. Two opinion polls this week saw the opposition boost its lead. It seems Australians can distinguish between democratic debate and disunity, especially if the arguments lead to policies the community broadly supports.

The adrenalin rush and emotion of the marriage equality debate at the conference was a case in point. Right there in front of the TV cameras protagonists were rushing into huddles to come up with a last-minute resolution that the party could wear. In the end Shorten got his free vote with a shot clock attached. Come 2019, Labor MPs will be bound to support same-sex marriage. It is seen as a human right – a view shared by about 70 per cent of Australians.

Conservative Liberals immediately argued the conference had let Abbott off the hook. He no longer looked the odd one out by refusing a free vote to his parliamentarians. Labor’s Tanya Plibersek dismissed the argument as the most ridiculous excuse she has ever heard. She sees it, along with talk of a plebiscite, as a prime minister grasping at any excuse to prevent a change most want or at least can live with. She told the ABC that if Abbott stuck by his previous assurances “we [could] have marriage equality by Christmas”. Conservatives such as Cory Bernardi have pledged to fight with “all their might” any move to facilitate a free vote. That is inviting a huge showdown when parliament returns on August 10. So far, Liberals backing a change have refrained from public debate. But they will not tolerate being played for mugs.

Abbott’s intransigence is seen as his “apology moment”. John Howard’s stubborn refusal to apologise to the Stolen Generations was symptomatic of him being out of touch with the national sentiment. Labor is certainly picking up on the theme. Bill Shorten says most Australians know Abbott is stuck in the past.

Ironically, there is one issue where the prime minister is fully aware of community sentiment and sympathetic to it. It’s just that he is torn between conflicting loyalties, and Labor has cut him no slack. This issue, of course, is Bronwyn Bishop. Shorten says Abbott’s failure to sack the speaker is a failure of leadership, undermining people’s confidence in our parliamentary democracy.

The PM had to know his old ally was damaging his government. The Essential Poll found just 19 per cent of voters thought she should remain in the job. The brazen hypocrisy of her extravagant travel and entitlements claims is fuelling their anger. What makes it worse is that as speaker she is meant to uphold the integrity and good name of the parliament. Abbott has taken the extraordinary step of putting her “on probation”. He has already required her to repay the $5000 for the helicopter ride between Melbourne and Geelong, with a 25 per cent penalty on top. She did this reluctantly. The fact that the speaker saw nothing immediately wrong with her attending a Liberal Party fundraiser as if it were an official event says everything about her abuse of the position she holds.

No one in government can pretend anymore that they pay even lip service to the impartiality and dignity of the office. Bishop – like her “political love child”, as Abbott once described himself – plays her politics very hard. In her three decades in the parliament she has never allowed her targets the benefit of the doubt. Her early pursuit of tax commissioner Trevor Boucher in senate estimates still disgusts many in Canberra. Her aggression is a crude attempt at attention seeking. She mercilessly attacked the senior public servant for doing his unpopular job of collecting tax from wealthy individuals and businesses.

At the time of going to print, Bishop was digging in, in typical fashion. After sounding out colleagues she got the message she was in deep trouble. A belated abject apology to the Australian people, saying sorry to father-confessor Alan Jones on 2GB, the apology she said was unnecessary only two weeks ago, was the latest ploy to keep her job and substantial perks. Weighing on Abbott’s mind, no doubt, would be the fact that unless she willingly resigned, the only way to get rid of her would be by a vote in the parliament. She surely would not survive it, but it would be a dramatic humiliation for her and the prime minister.

Perhaps with this in mind, leader of the house Christopher Pyne was outspoken in his defence of Bishop. He even claimed she was doing a good job as speaker. This was derided by independent MP Andrew Wilkie. He told Sky News her blatant bias was beyond a joke. In his opinion, revelations that her abuse of travel entitlements was a habit going back years was the last straw. He and Clive Palmer are foreshadowing a no-confidence motion in her should she still be standing when the house resumes.

A very cheeky Malcolm Turnbull took none-too-subtle advantage of the situation. The keen public transport user tweeted a picture of himself and local Liberal member Sarah Henderson at South Geelong train station. The putative replacement prime minister joked there was no aerial component to his travel down from Melbourne.

There is no doubt Labor would have to rethink its election strategy if the Liberals returned to Turnbull as leader. He, unlike Abbott, is completely contemporary on climate change and marriage equality. Labor’s new timetable for a republic is also closer to his thinking. The thought is dawning on some backbenchers who gave Abbott a second chance in February that he has failed to become a convincing prime minister. He is a perpetual opposition leader with a very thin agenda for the future. So thin it has allowed Labor to grab the political initiative and to define him as backward-looking. The two-party polling consistently shows that his scares have lost potency, that campaigning on what he won’t do is failing to capture the imagination. Indeed it is frustrating his business supporters, who are demanding more. Though he has improved his position as preferred prime minister, it has not delivered the government political ascendancy.

After his conference boost, Shorten has served notice he won’t jump with fright every time Abbott says boo. The Labor leader was sure-footed in his rejection of the prime minister’s overblown attack on his renewable energy target. The $60 billion cost was dismissed as “made up”. He said the Abbott team was not offering a plan on renewable energy: “They’re just trying to scare people and invent nonsense price tags for changes which are inevitable and are in Australia’s best long-term interests.”

It was the Liberals on the back foot after the Labor leader promised, to enthusiastic applause at his conference, that within 10 years 50 per cent of its representation in parliament would be women. That had even Pyne admitting his party would have to do better, though he ruled out quotas as a Labor thing. Merit was his preferred benchmark, as it has been for two decades, with fewer Liberal women apparently making the grade. Just 22 per cent of Liberals in parliament are female, compared with Labor’s 45 per cent. Pyne’s colleague, Sharman Stone, blew the quota argument out of the water. She pointed out that the Coalition embraces a quota to the last decimal point when it determines how many Nationals get into cabinet. Her frustration at the government’s macho culture in parliament had her calling for the abolition of question time as an unedifying slugfest. Hardly a vote of confidence in her prime minister or his hand-picked speaker.

Labor has begun to show a political adroitness many thought beyond it. And maybe Shorten’s political luck has returned. Who would have thought the Abbott government’s first year would be the hash it was, and now he has the Bronwyn Bishop saga.

How long that lasts is anybody’s guess.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 1, 2015 as "Picking up the Bill".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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