Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

Bill Shorten: What’s love got to do with it?

BILL Shorten does politics the hard way. He does not ask to be loved.

Which is fortunate, because - family and friends aside - he's not too loveable, or even widely liked. He's not even trusted.

It is remarkable therefore that Australia appears resigned to installing Shorten as the 31st prime minister. People are worried, the warnings are sounding, yet no one's running for higher ground. This feels like a preordained event for which there's no stopping.

Newspoll has been telling the same story for a long time: people don't like Bill but they will vote Labor. So, should Shorten win, having continually rated as the less-preferred PM to Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison (although not to Tony Abbott), Labor will elevate him to a special place in its pantheon - the man who won without love.

Labor will sell it as proof that people want policy over personality; and if he delivers clear majority rule rather minority government, Shorten will not be plagued by questions of legitimacy like so many other recent PMs.

The decade of rolling-door leaders could end with a Shorten prime ministership.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten announcing Labor's $14 billion education plan to fund more than 13,000 extra teachers on Wednesday. Picture: AAP Image/Wayne Taylor
Opposition leader Bill Shorten announcing Labor's $14 billion education plan to fund more than 13,000 extra teachers on Wednesday. Picture: AAP Image/Wayne Taylor

Of course, a lot can happen between now and the likely May 2019 federal election.

Scott Morrison has been smiling lately, a lot, presenting as the accidental PM who never asked for the job. Now that he's got it, weirdly enough, it's as though a weight has been lifted from him.

This is in direct countermeasure to Shorten, who through a taut grin carries what sometimes looks like contained aloofness. This may just be Shorten's mannerism of raising his chin, especially when taking fire. It may be his seething ambition, which no mannerism can conceal. He has the stony aura that all decisions are beyond discussion.

This is where he could struggle if he is to lead the country rather than a party: making a convincing case that he represents all Australians, of all income levels, rather than just those he perceives as living on low wages or with infringed working rights.

As he gets closer to the Lodge, making sure all young Australians have access to quality education has become a key pledge and takes him onto his preferred battleground.

He has promised $14bn for public schools over 10 years, and $1.75bn to get three-year-olds into the education system. This is an assault on what he sees as private-school privilege and an attempt to assure lower-income families that Labor has their back.

It's a courageous long-term play, because it is middle-income Australians who will be asked to pay for these measures as Shorten abolishes negative gearing for all but new home builds and ends franking dividends for retirees.

 

Scott Morrison is settling in to his new role as Prime Minister. Picture: AAP Image/Joel Carrett
Scott Morrison is settling in to his new role as Prime Minister. Picture: AAP Image/Joel Carrett

 

 

As to whether three-year-olds need to enter formal learning just because other countries do it, that's something parents will have to decide. Says Shorten: "The number of Chinese three-year-olds in preschool is greater than the entire population of Australia."

Being more like China is an interesting aspiration.

The deepest worry is for those who have worked hard and saved a bit, whether taking decades to buy a family home or holding modest investment portfolios. The fear is that Shorten wants to strip those assets and send people off to fade away in a half-pension, half-super, half-life.

He certainly believes in wealth redistribution, but pinning him down on such matters is hard. The Australian noted recently in an editorial that Shorten deploys guerilla tactics by making announcements after which he "melts away into the background to let the government deal with his traps and challenges".

The strategy causes maximum confusion because there are no half measures and little accompanying persuasive argument. It's all or nothing. Shorten's plan to abolish negative gearing for investors on existing properties is such a case.

It does seem objectionable that people can negatively gear eight or nine properties, but why not allow one or two? After all, many people do not consider themselves sophisticated investors and have little faith in financial advisers. They only trust bricks and mortar.

For five years, Shorten has enjoyed the benefit of the Liberal leadership distractions, allowing him to stay low and debate little. There will unlikely be any eleventh-hour makeover of Shorten, where he tries to reinvent a more moderate version of himself. He's going with what he's got. He's the policy guy, and he's coming at Morrison hard.

 

Malcolm Turnbull unloads during Question Time, February 2017. Picture: Kym Smith
Malcolm Turnbull unloads during Question Time, February 2017. Picture: Kym Smith

Turnbull tried to address Shorten's easy run in a 10-minute parliamentary mauling of February, 2017, where he accused Shorten of selling out union workers while he dined with and accepted free travel from billionaire mates.

"Social-climbing sycophant," roared Turnbull. Shorten's chin raised on cue as Turnbull got his own back for all the Harbourside Mansion digs. It was an unrestrained and vicious flogging.

"This simpering sycophant," said Turnbull, "blowing hard in the House of Representatives and sucking hard in the living rooms of Melbourne."

Turnbull was off the dial. To the average punter, the words carried sexual insinuation. Barnaby Joyce was in hysterics. To his credit, Josh Frydenberg, now Liberal Party deputy, looked uncomfortable.

Shorten absorbed it, wearing his tight smile. It was one of those moments that made you wonder why people enter politics, and what kind of mental-health damage such brutal exposure might bring. Though you never wonder or worry about Shorten too long. His desire to run the country, and to change it, is too visceral.

What you really wonder is how much he feels at all.

* Bill Shorten was invited over a fortnight to put his views for this story. His staff said he did not have the time.



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