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Grattan on Friday: Shorten faces rough seas as he enters his third leadership year

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is looking at his third year being vastly harder than he might have hoped. Tracey Nearmy/AAP

Joe Hockey liked to say, in the economic context, that a rising tide lifts all boats. There is now a new political tide in federal politics after the change to Malcolm Turnbull and one big question is whether Opposition Leader Bill Shorten can rise with it to remain competitive.

Shorten, having seen off a prime minister, next week will mark his second anniversary as opposition leader. But he is looking at his third year being vastly harder than he might have hoped.

Only a few weeks ago he was, on the polling, a strong prospect to win the next election. Tony Abbott always argued he could beat him but most Liberals feared the worst, and this drove the leadership switch. Now, although it is many months out, the general belief is that Shorten is likely to lose.

In a sense we’re seeing a return to normal expectations. When the Abbott government came in with a hefty majority, it appeared set for more than one term. It was only after things turned so bad that being a single termer became a serious prospect.

To win, the ALP requires (ahead of redistribution adjustments) 21 seats and a uniform 4.3% swing. ABC election analyst Antony Green says the change of prime minister seems to put Labor back into the post-election position of “needing two terms to get back into government”. Green points out that under Abbott “Labor looked like making unexpected gains in Victoria and South Australia. They may be off the agenda – so Labor would have to make bigger gains in New South Wales and Queensland.” NSW carries the challenge for the ALP of Mike Baird’s popularity.

Even before the arrival of Turnbull PM, Shorten had his problems. The two-party polls were consistently good – when he challenged Abbott, Turnbull cited the Coalition trailing in 30 consecutive Newspolls. But Shorten’s approval was poor. Although polling experts say there is no correlation between an opposition leader’s approval and the two-party vote, low approval generates negative publicity in the poll-driven media.

In a two-horse race, however, Shorten looked OK against the nag, and was often ahead as preferred prime minister. Once the showpony entered the ring, the story changed.

Apart from the electorate’s lack of enthusiasm for him, Shorten has also carried the baggage of his past, on display at the royal commission into union corruption.

Now his difficulties are severalfold greater. Previously, Labor was painting the contest as the future versus the past. Suddenly Shorten is struggling against being seen as yesterday’s man. A face-off between a centrist and an ideologically driven right-winger has become centrist versus centrist. Shorten has already, for example, lost his advantage of championing public transport, to a prime minister who catches trams and trains.

In many areas Shorten and Turnbull will be competing a similar ground, which will sharpen the attention on leadership.

Labor itself says one of Shorten’s problems is that people don’t know him. That mattered less when the attention was mostly on Abbott but becomes more important when he’s up against an attractive opponent – although it is worth remembering that gloss can tarnish, as Turnbull found when opposition leader and his ratings tumbled.

There is also the challenge of getting people to warm to Shorten.

Tony Mitchelmore, from Visibility, a market research company specialising in qualitative research, who has worked for Labor in multiple federal and state elections, says: “If it’s a head-to-head thing on personality, leadership, it’s a difficult battle for him. Lots of people don’t know about him. He has difficulty cutting through. I don’t think they find him that genuine or inspiring. It’s interesting he’s pleading for a contest of ideas because he knows the difficulty of competing in the presidential frame with Turnbull.

"The strongest claim he can make is to be seen to have a credible plan to sustain the country after the mining boom, at a time when swinging voters are uncertain about the nation’s economic future,” Mitchelmore says.

On the positive side, the replacement of Abbott has lifted one pressure on Shorten – over national security issues. Abbott was constantly trying to wedge Labor, with Shorten equally determinedly trying to avoid the wedges, which stretched the patience of Labor’s left. Turnbull is not playing the security card.

The other recent break Shorten has had is that he is unlikely to be called back to the union royal commission. This week’s deadline for parties to ask to cross-examine him over his Australian Workers Union days passed with no request being made. But the commission still presents a problem, not only for what it might eventually say in its report about him, but immediately as more evidence comes out against corrupt officials in the CFMEU, a union he needs to cut loose.

Shorten has reacted to the change of prime minister by stepping up his announcement of policy, the latest being Thursday’s details of a plan for Infrastructure Australia to become a A$10 billion infrastructure bank. He has no other choice, but Labor is aware that people are not taking much notice of its policy detail – apart from the government, which can get plenty of target practice.

Next week he will make some changes to his frontbench, with Jim Chalmers and Katy Gallagher – both strong talent – replacing people who are not contesting the election. He has indicated the reshuffle will be minor. If he were wise he would take the opportunity for a bigger overhaul to sharpen a team that needs the best performers in the right positions.

This week’s Essential poll question on which party people would trust most to handle various issues shows Labor’s weaknesses, strengths and potential opportunities. Labor was behind the Liberals 23-41% on management of the economy, and 20-38% on political leadership. It led on “a fair industrial relations system” (38-27%) – suggesting penalty rates is tricky ground for the Coalition – and on Australian jobs and protection of local industries (35-28%). An expected key election issue – ensuring a fair taxation system – saw a dead heat (31% each), leaving the tax debate potentially very open.

As it surveys its new circumstances, Labor identifies what it thinks could be two possible weaknesses in Turnbull: he might not be able to meet current high expectations, and he may be seen as out of touch with ordinary people, although when Essential asked about this latter in September Shorten and Turnbull were both on 46%.

Within Labor, most say Shorten’s leadership is safe, especially given the rules Kevin Rudd brought in to protect leaders from coups. One source says “he’s safe as long as he’s competitive in the polls”. It’s noted that Anthony Albanese, beaten by Shorten in 2013, keeps his profile up. But Albanese is no Turnbull.

The early polls, great for Turnbull’s personal popularity, have moved the Coalition from behind to a modest two-party lead. Between now and Christmas will test whether that lead turns into a decisive one.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest, Cities Minister Jamie Briggs, here.

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