Game on. The Liberal’s party room decision to replace Tony Abbott with Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister has transformed the next federal election. If Turnbull does enjoy an expected honeymoon hard questions will be asked of Bill Shorten’s Labor opposition. How would a Shorten government operate and what would its policy priorities entail? How carefully has it planned for transition to government and critically analysed the failings of the Rudd-Gillard era and even of the Abbott years? Is Labor actually ready to govern again so soon after 2013? Bill Shorten tells The Saturday Paper that his party has “learnt the lessons” of recent administrations. “We have done the hard policy yards in opposition to regain the trust of voters.”
A Shorten government would in likelihood signal a departure from the style of recent administrations of both political persuasions. Rudd-Gillard cabinet minister Greg Combet says that if Shorten won at the next election, his government would “reflect the priorities, experience and character” of a man who spent his “working life in the real economy”. Of Shorten, Combet says: “He knows business and unions and is an experienced negotiator of change.”
Michael Cooney, Julia Gillard’s former speechwriter, argues that Shorten’s “temperament” contrasts starkly with the now-deceased Abbott government, pointing towards his record of tangible policy results and openness to new ideas. Other observers concurred, citing Shorten’s zealous pursuit of the National Disability Insurance Scheme as a parliamentary secretary in the first Rudd government. Graeme Innes, disability discrimination commissioner from 2005 to 2014, singles out Shorten’s ability to bring a broad range of individuals to the policymaking table. “He didn’t just meet with disability sector,” Innes remarks of the NDIS experience, but “converted a range of stories into a coherent policy vision and followed through with action.”
But Shorten’s experience of government – brief and defined by his role in the dramas of the Rudd-Gillard years – may be less instructive than the tenor of his union career. When Shorten joined the Australian Workers’ Union in 1994, after a brief legal career, he stepped into a bloody civil war occasioned by the AWU’s amalgamation the previous year with a fellow travelling right-wing union. It soon became apparent that Shorten had a knack for resolving conflict. In particular he brokered a peace in a violent industrial war between fruit pickers and growers in the Goulburn Valley. Popular among organisers and ordinary members – the latter dubbed him “King Billy” –Shorten was appointed Victorian state secretary at age 31, whereupon he rebuilt the fractious branch. Few were surprised when he became national secretary in mid-2001. Former secretary of the Electrical Trades Union Dean Mighell, a sometimes rival and friend, once remarked of his subsequent six-year reign, “He’s taken a very ordinary trade union and given it a lot more respect.” The question, however, is whether he can do likewise in the nation’s top job.
Partly as a reaction to the tumult of recent politics, and as a reflection of Shorten’s instincts, Monash University’s Nick Economou predicts a cautious approach to government. Shorten would act as a managerial leader, rather than a policy obsessive with a penchant for micromanaging ministers and staffers. And there will be plenty of policy challenges, whichever party occupies the treasury benches.
The Australian economy is fragile to say the least. The ranks of the unemployed will grow with the end of car-making industry. Mantras of “jobs and growth” will not be enough. So what would a Labor government do? Many believe Shorten would emulate Bob Hawke’s consensus approach to developing public policy. Combet makes this point, suggesting that the same qualities reside in colleagues with cabinet experience, such as Chris Bowen, Tony Burke, Jenny Macklin, Tanya Plibersek, Mark Dreyfus and Penny Wong. In his most pointed comments, Combet predicts “a much more stable and mature approach to government than was the case in the period 2007 to 2013”. Considering the senior members of the party, deputy leader Plibersek, told me: “The fact that everyone in our leadership group has young children gives us good perspective. Thinking about the kind of Australia we want our kids to grow up in keeps us focused on the things that really matter – like health, education, jobs, our environment.”
Many observers I spoke to insisted that Shorten Labor must focus its attentions on restoring economic confidence and wages growth, paired with job creation and job security. Boosting flagging productivity is a priority. The member for Gellibrand, Tim Watts, a rising star from Labor’s class of 2013, highlights Shorten’s belief that productivity is determined by factors other than taxation and industrial relations, hence his embrace of computer training from early childhood. Key will be Shorten and his shadow treasurer Bowen’s ability to react to global economic conditions and forge a productive working relationship with business. On the latter, the auguries are favourable: for all the concerns over Labor’s economic proscriptions, the absence of public criticism by business of Shorten is revealing. Monash University’s Paul Strangio insists that a Shorten administration would be highly contingent on a range of unknowns such as the economy and make-up of parliament. The nature of any mandate is critical. Opposition leader Abbott, in Strangio’s view, “booby trapped” his government, leading to the catastrophic May 2014 budget. Shorten says he is aware of this danger and wants to lead a government that can navigate Australia’s future opportunities: “I’m not running for office in 2007 or 2013. A government I lead will always have one eye fixed on 2030.”
To that end, he stresses that part of a broader policy narrative aimed at restoring long-term growth will include carbon pricing and renewable energy; engaging Asia; investing in science, technology, engineering and maths and; tackling violence against women. Doubts, however, remain as to Labor’s vulnerability on the twin issues of debt and deficits and economic management. It was significant that Turnbull’s party room pitch on the day of his successful challenge to Abbott’s leadership touched on these challenges.
Cognisant of this threat, Shorten issues what might be the most significant statement on Labor’s fiscal record since the party’s defeat in 2013: “I’m honest enough to say to the Australian people that not every dollar spent during the last Labor government was spent as best it could. There were programs – well-intentioned and absolutely necessary programs – that could have been better implemented. I care about how these dollars spent because money spent wisely – on education, health and a range of programs – can transform people’s lives. But I will not accept that Labor caused the current budget deficit – the Coalition has doubled the deficit since the last election. And I will not apologise for Labor steering the country through the global financial crisis when our opponents led by the now Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would have let the economy slide into recession causing untold devastation. If anything we should apologise for not applying the blowtorch to the gross fiscal ill-discipline of the last Coalition government, when he bequeathed the country with a structural deficit, and the situation now where an incompetent government is only making the situation worse. A Shorten Labor government will do every in its powers to repair the budget bottom line, to advance Australia beyond the mining boom – fairly, responsibly, and with a view to the best interests of all Australians.”
But whatever the best policy intentions Shorten might have, if he won the next election, his government would find itself operating in a climate where many believe that Australia has become ungovernable. Then there is the problem of expectations that have dogged the ALP since the time of Whitlam: quite aside from voters, the ALP’s membership expects a fast-moving, transformative government. But, as Economou insists, the priorities of its increasingly middle-class, inner-city ranks do not always accord with the aspirations of suburban Australia, where elections are decided.
Prosecuting a reform agenda, as the Abbott government and its predecessors discovered, is as much about getting internal processes right. Robust, orderly cabinet debate, political scientist Judith Brett tells me, buttressed the successful Hawke, Howard and Menzies governments, where ideas were properly road-tested before being sold to the public. Shorten says he would bring to cabinet the same “chairman’s style” approach he has employed in opposition. Watts praises the current collegiality found among caucus. “You feel like you get a hearing from Bill,” he says, which “engenders loyalty from MPs”. Here, Mathew Tinkler, Shorten’s well-regarded former chief of staff, points to Shorten’s ability to draw on a “broad range of views and frank advice” from outside his office and parliamentary colleagues. Three of the past four prime ministers, including Turnbull, have promised to reassert the primacy of cabinet and avoid pandering to the demands of the 24/7 news cycle. Most struggled: unsurprising given that the trend towards the centralisation of policy co-ordination and power in the Prime Minister’s Office actually began with Whitlam. Structural changes to the public service, the disruptive effects of communication technology, globalisation and the “hollowing” out of the major parties in favour of leader-centred electoral-professional organisations, have each conspired to transform institutions that once acted as a brake on domineering prime ministers. Can Shorten break the mould? Strangio is sceptical. The key is having the right staffers in the right positions, he says, who can focus the leader’s attention on what Julia Gillard in her recent memoir lamented as a struggle to prioritise “the significant over the urgent”.
Shorten has long worn the tag Machiavellian. Ironically, given the international economy and local political flux, it is a badge he might wear with pride. Machiavelli’s The Prince is a misunderstood political treatise. He argued that successful leadership does not necessarily involve steadfast character or moral virtue, hence the association of his name with the dark arts of palace intrigue. But for Machiavelli, princely prudence was above all desirable – the knowledge of how to act according to circumstances, of when to be kind or cruel, when to be temperate and when to inspire fear. Prudence, he insisted, means understanding the times which, in turn, requires a certain level of self-understanding and self-knowledge. Facing a resurgent Turnbull-led government, a leadership shift that makes his job much harder, we will soon discover whether Bill Shorten is truly Machiavellian enough to claim the nation’s top job.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 19, 2015 as "Shorten selling". Subscribe here.