Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Bill Shorten’s strategies paying off

The atmosphere was electric when Labor’s victorious Batman candidate, Ged Kearney, entered the room flanked by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. You would think they had just won the general election rather than retained a seat they had held for the past 50 years.

But this was no ordinary byelection result. The Greens were on the cusp of finally seizing the seat after a 10 per cent swing their way at the 2016 election. Labor polling indicated it was on track to win in the final week of the campaign but no one was willing to ditch the underdog tag. Having learnt from the overly optimistic approach in the Bennelong byelection, Shorten, in his doorstops, was emphasising the closeness of the contest and reasons why Labor would lose.

Inexplicably to many in the commentariat, and even in the government, the Labor leader released a controversial taxation policy at the beginning of the week that, horror of horrors, had winners and losers. The biggest winner would be the budget, with revenue enabling spending promises to be made while also helping to repair the budget bottom line. Voters of course would need to be persuaded, and to many it looked as if Shorten had made the biggest mistake of his five-and-a-half-year leadership by daring to scare the horses so close to polling day.

Shorten defied all odds. In doing so he won recognition from many who had written off Labor. Typical was the outspoken conservative commentator Andrew Bolt, who said the Labor leader emerged strengthened by the result and his courage in coming up with a bold policy – one that Bolt doesn’t exactly agree with – was rewarded. Nevertheless, he wrote, it showed Shorten was prepared to stand for something. Bolt compared this unfavourably with the prime minister – a sure indication Malcolm Turnbull has an uphill battle getting a gaggle of high-profile conservative media spruikers onside.

Shorten prides himself on the fact that the successful candidate, former ACTU leader and prominent left-winger Ged Kearney, was his “captain’s pick”. This in itself is remarkable in the context of Labor’s old factional tribalism. Shorten’s history in the party is as a right-wing powerbroker, but here he showed a hard-nosed appreciation of the sort of candidate the electorate needed. Byelections throw individual candidates up in lights in ways general elections don’t.

What we are seeing is a leader absolutely focused on winning the next election and prepared to remove roadblocks to that goal, even if it strains old alliances. Another example of that was his cutting loose New South Wales right-wing powerbroker Sam Dastyari. In doing so, he sacrificed one of his closest supporters in the influential NSW branch of the party.

After the Batman win, an elated Shorten wondered how long people would keep underestimating him. One of his key advisers says the biggest culprit here is, in fact, Malcolm Turnbull. The prime minister’s 2016 election night funk, where he refused for hours to speak on stage, can be explained by the fact someone he believes is beneath him ran him so close to defeat. Shorten’s allies in the caucus say even some of his frontbench colleagues have had to be won over to their leader’s strategic ability and risk-taking. One says the response to the Abbott government’s first budget was a case in point.

Some in shadow cabinet weren’t convinced opposing a new government’s first budget was a good idea. It’s hard to believe now, but then treasurer Joe Hockey’s 2014 effort initially won wide support in the media for its tough but necessary measures. In his reply speech two days later, Shorten slammed it, saying the budget was “built on lies and will make Australia a meaner place”. The budget, he told parliament, broke every pre-election promise Tony Abbott had made and Labor would not have a bar of it. He promised to block a string of measures in the Senate and dared the government to call another election. According to the adviser, “that speech was the beginning of Labor’s recovery”.

The announcement to abandon $60 billion worth of franking credit cashouts survived the voters of Batman unscathed – indeed, the Greens’ promise to defend victims may even have harmed them. As well as this, Shorten’s courting of Catholic parents is credited by him for delivering swings in booths where many kids attended Catholic primary schools. This is overstated, but Catholic principals in the electorate did offer their help, mailing out to parents a letter from the executive director of Catholic Education, Stephen Elder.

That letter referred to Labor’s promise to restore, in the first two years of power, $250 million in Catholic school federal funding “that was cut by the Turnbull government”. Labor was endorsed over the Greens for “strongly believing” that low-fee Catholic schools make a valuable contribution to schooling in Australia. The letter to 5000 parents was followed with 30,000 robocalls to practically every household in the electorate in the final week. Shorten was so thrilled he rang Elder on Saturday night and thanked him for his support.

On Monday, Tony Abbott chimed in to the debate. He told 2GB that if “the government was smart we would have a look at our existing policy”. He said he warned Education Minister Simon Birmingham when “Gonski 2.0” was launched that it was going to make “low-fee schools in middle-class suburbs almost impossible to run”. He cited Catholic primary schools in his electorate having to put up fees by an average of $2000 a student. This, he said, is having a big impact on “families doing it tough”.

Birmingham bristled at the hide of it all. No wonder. He has pumped $6.7 billion more into Catholic schools than was allocated after the cuts in the first Abbott–Hockey budget. The minister told parliament he is applying consistent, transparent principles to education funding, as recommended by Gonski, and is not doing special deals with the Catholics or anyone else. His guiding light is needs-based and will provide Catholic schools with a growth in funding close to 56 per cent over the next decade.

Birmingham’s approach received backing from the peak body representing public school parents. The president of the Australian Council of State School Organisations, Phillip Spratt, attacked Shorten for an “irrational and illogical promise” and for giving a handful of powerful Catholic bishops “a spectacular special deal”. He missed that Labor was also promising to restore in its first two years of coming to government $1.87 billion of Turnbull public school cuts. That estimate is based on Parliamentary Budget Office figures and the Catholic Education Commission, and is confirmed by the Education Department, according to Tanya Plibersek. She is Labor’s shadow education minister and says “there is a $17 billion difference over the decade between Liberal and Labor when it comes to school funding”. The frank admission from one government source was: “Labor always beats the Coalition on education funding.”

There may be some consolation for the Liberals in that the national Catholic Education Commission and other dioceses may not follow Melbourne’s example of militantly campaigning at the general election. No robocalls – but they will still be putting out their assessment on the relevant merits of the parties’ funding policies. They did in 2016 and will do it again – something that has Liberal and National MPs worried.

In May last year, Birmingham assured the government party room he had “the Catholics on side” when he unveiled his Gonski 2.0 model. He didn’t count on being gazumped by Shorten or that “there’s always somebody who can be bought for a few pieces of silver”. If he was referring to Catholic Education’s Stephen Elder, a former state Liberal politician, and Elder’s media strategist, Christian Kerr, who has a long history as a Liberal staffer, he’s up against two hard-nosed and savvy operators.

Not to be caught standing still, in the middle of this week Shorten launched Labor’s health campaign for the next election. Called “Fix Our Hospitals”, it promises to restore $715 million from recurrent funding for hospitals over the next three years and to revert to the Gillard government’s 50-50 funding share of hospitals between the Commonwealth and the states. Turnbull cut it to 40 from Canberra and 60 from the states.

In case you are wondering where Shorten’s money is coming from, by the government’s own reckoning the Labor leader has racked up $200 billion in higher taxes. That’s the way Turnbull and Scott Morrison characterise Shorten’s crackdown on generous tax concessions such as dividend imputation cash payments. The prime minister calls it theft from pensioners and older Australians. Morrison says it’s to fund “reckless spending”. Both arguments have so far failed to impress voters.

Shorten’s next big test could come if the High Court, as Labor now suspects, takes a different view of the “reasonable steps” required to renounce dual citizenship in order to be eligible to sit in parliament.

Three more of his MPs would face byelections. On paper, Susan Lamb in the Queensland seat of Longman would be the most vulnerable, given her thin margin.

But underestimating Shorten’s Labor Party is proving a mug’s game.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 24, 2018 as "Robocall: Birmingham has a new enemy". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.