In what was a surprise to everyone but the man himself, Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten celebrated 100 days in Australian politics’ most difficult job last weekend.
Well, ‘celebrated’ might be an overstatement. Shorten marked the first 100 days with a series of media interviews outlining his achievements so far.
Okay, ‘achievements’ might be stretching the boundaries of credulity. In reality Shorten (or his media adviser) grasped the hoary old “100 days” contrivance to secure interviews with a bunch of political journalists looking for something, anything, to fill a few column inches during the tumbleweed-strewn days before federal parliament resumes in early February.
The series of interviews probably came as a relief to Labor supporters who’d seriously begun to wonder whether young Bill was up to the job, based on his lack of visibility over the past few weeks as the Abbott government lurched from Bernardi’s denunciation of single parents and Pyne’s latest foray in the culture wars to Morrison’s total re-invention of the words honesty and transparency.
Granted, some may have assuaged their concerns with the political adage that one does not interfere when one’s opponent is doing such a good job of ballsing things up on their own. Even so, the handy reminder that a federal opposition does exist will take a load off the minds of party supporters and political pundits alike.
For, as they say, the stronger the opposition, the better the government: so it’s nice to know we at least have one.
Other than declaring Tony Abbott a ‘oncer’ prime minister and that he can limit the current Coalition government to one term, the most intriguing thing to emerge from Shorten’s summer fireside chats is that he appears to be adopting the Kevin Rudd style of opposition leader rather than the Tony Abbott model.
This will also come as a relief to many voters who are well past saturation level when it comes to the Abbott style of relentlessly negative campaigning. These voters will welcome Shorten adopting the Rudd approach (which frankly is based on the Howard method) where good government policies will be supported on their merits while those being opposed just for the sake of opposition will be minimised.
Shorten told one media outlet on the weekend that he was “not going to just say no to everything” and was open to reform as long as Labor judged it was in the best interests of the economy and would not result in major job losses.
This moderate approach to opposition worked well for Howard, contributing at the time to his Honest John persona, but Kevin Rudd refined the tactic to its ultimate potential. Rudd was so successful in reducing the points of difference between himself and Howard to a few iconic issues (the Kyoto Protocol, WorkChoices and asylum seekers), that his approach was dubbed a me-too campaign.
The tactic delivered for Rudd in 2007, but some political observers and operatives are concerned that it’s lost its voter appeal since Tony Abbott rewrote the political rulebook with the longest (and most successful) negative campaign ever, spanning from his ascension to opposition leader in 2009 to the 2013 federal election that tossed out the Gillard-Rudd government.
Whether Shorten can reset the tone of political debate by reverting to a more civil approach to opposition is one of the many fascinating questions that will arise during this first year of the new parliamentary term.
In the meantime, Shorten has sketched out his preferred political battleground for the coming year – jobs, cuts, and broken promises – while pre-emptively cutting short any expectation the opposition will deliver alternative policies before having ‘extensively consulted’ with the Australian people.
In short, young Bill is positioning himself as the defender of the Australian people against the ravages of the Abbott Government.
But by flagging that he may also support reasonable economic reforms put forward by the government, Shorten’s tenure could go either way. It could prove to be a spectacular juggling act or simply be an unmitigated disaster.
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*Paula Matthewson has worked in and around federal politics for nearly 25 years, variously as a media adviser and lobbyist but now as a freelance writer. She’s been tweeting and blogging about politics, the media and social media since 2009, and in 2013 founded the popular group blog AusOpinion. She blogs at Drag0nista’s Blog and tweets as @Drag0nista.