Yesterday at the National Press Club, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten put the collywobbles up the conservatives who make up the bulk of Coalition voters by talking about change. Not his change, of course, but that which Shorten claims the Abbott government is going to inflict on the Australian populace.
For if there’s one thing conservatives don’t like, it’s change. They take comfort from the status quo, and when faced with change they get anxious. If this anxiety reaches a high enough level, conservatives can feel resentful and eventually turn on whomever they think is responsible for causing the upheaval.
So this was a curious feature in what was otherwise a pedestrian first speech as Opposition Leader to the NPC.
The speech ostensibly was an attempt to frame how the opposition would (and the media ‘should’) judge the upcoming May federal budget. Proving that Treasurer Joe Hockey’s rather jaded debt and deficit routine still stings, Shorten provided another defense of Labor’s spending record and regaled listeners with the well-worn story of how Kevin and Wayne saved us from the GFC.
“The Liberals see the 2014 Budget as a political opportunity to tip a bucket on Labor’s economic record and to falsify the past,” Shorten warned. “I will not let this go unchallenged.”
The Opposition Leader listed four criteria on which the budget would be judged, because “every budget is a window onto a government’s soul”. (Yes, he really did say that). These KPIs are that: Australia must remain in the world’s 10 wealthiest countries, the Coalition must deliver the one million new jobs they promised, Australia must retain our AAA credit rating, and taxes must not increase as a percentage of GDP.
Significantly, these are not necessarily measures of good economic management, and therefore not really about the budget at all, but rather tests of whether Abbott has fulfilled his election promises.
Perhaps recognising that broken promises don’t always put off voters, the Opposition Leader also scattered allusions throughout his speech to the changes Abbott will wreak, and the concerns Shorten holds for those who will either be adversely affected or left behind:
“…I have also seen the consequences of people being left stranded by change. Too often these are the people who can least afford to lose out: older Australians, Australians on a fixed income, Australians with fewer transferable skills and Australians with disabilities…
“A government’s priorities can determine whether people are the victims of change – or its beneficiaries. That is why the choices the Government must make in its upcoming Budget are so important. There is a bleak, hopeless brand of Darwinism that argues adapting to economic change requires deep cuts to services, longer unemployment queues, lower wages and lower levels of government support. We utterly reject this.”
“I want an Australia that shares the benefits of change with everyone. An Australia where economic transformation is not seen as an inevitable cause of unemployment and social dislocation but an agent of opportunity…
“Because the way a government responds to change – and anticipates change – is the best measure of its values, and conclusive proof of its priorities. In the last six months – Tony Abbott has failed to show leadership on how to handle change for all.”
So Shorten took great pains to warn that the winds of change were upon us, and that, really, conservatives aren’t all that bad:
“I do have respect for conservatives. I admire the sheer persistence of John Howard. And I do have respect for Tony Abbott – of course I do. But that doesn’t mean I have to agree with him – or imitate his idea of leadership.”
He later pressed the point again, saying “I don’t dismiss people because they’re not traditional Labor voters.”
It will be fascinating to see whether this tactic bears fruit. The first measure of its success could be the Senate election re-run in WA where Labor already is polling strong. Wobbly conservatives may not be prepared to shift their vote to Labor though, and may end up switching to Clive Palmer’s candidates instead.
If that occurs it could have been misguided for Shorten to test-drive his ‘beware the change’ campaign so early. A better use of Shorten’s speech would have been to explain what he and his party stand for. This is more likely what poll-weary voters in Western Australia were looking for.
Sure, Shorten treated listeners to a grocery list of what the Labor Party believes in: economic growth, job creation, increased living standards, migration, multiculturalism, good unions (not bad union officials), ideas, profits, and not treating employers as the enemy. Bundled together, Shorten described these beliefs as ‘delivering prosperity with fairness’.
The Opposition Leader also outlined his own vision for the party: to reach out to new constituencies in order to represent the diversity of modern Australia, and to be the champion of small business, science and innovation, equal pay for women, and the regions.
But it’s likely voters who are unhappy with the Coalition government are looking for more than fine words from Shorten. Now more than ever, they’re conscious of the chasm that yawns between political rhetoric and action.
Labor voters who’d drifted away during the Rudd-Gillard war would have at least been heartened by Shorten admitting the party needed to build a modern, outward-looking, confident and democratic party. And in answer to a question, Shorten also indicated he’d have more to say soon on ‘modernising’ Labor’s relationship with unions.
Kevin Rudd and Simon Crean were the last Labor leaders to try tampering with the nexus between unions and the ALP – and both were cut down by the unions in retaliation.
Shorten’s message to beware the winds of change may spread further than he first intended. So it will be interesting to see whether unions or conservatives become the most spooked by the Opposition Leader’s foreboding NPC proclamations.
*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.