AMID ELECTION-WINNING poll leads, a hostile Senate shredding the government’s legislative agenda and a “smart” strategy to play the Prime Minister’s own game — ceaseless negativity and obstruction in opposition — a change in political dynamics in the past week signals danger for Bill Shorten. Self-congratulatory backslapping, surfing complacently toward the next election, is well and good. Arriving in one piece requires something more.
I’m not going to spend too long on this, but we do like to keep our finger on the pulse; I have been thinking for a few days about some of the ramifications of Clive Palmer’s decision to rescind the mining tax — providing greater budget savings than his original position offered, albeit still some billions of dollars less than the government had hoped to book — and Andrew Bolt, in today’s edition of the Herald Sun in Melbourne, has put it quite succinctly in one of his columns. You can read this article here.
The reason I am commenting on one of Bolt’s pieces today, very simply, is because it fits one of the themes we have been developing in this column since Shorten became the “leader” of the ALP: namely, that he is a political calamity in the making for Labor, and a one-way ticket to nowhere should that party persevere with him at its helm.
In this context, Bolt makes an excellent central point, which condensed to its core is this: Palmer — whilst by no means providing the Abbott government with a rubber stamp, blank cheque, carte blanche, or any other platitude that appeals to you — has nonetheless apparently decided that providing some degree of functionality to the government is better than none at all.
Bolt uses the same word to describe Palmer that I have — a wrecker — and notes that Palmer has begun to facilitate passage of certain Abbott government measures that he categorically and publicly refused to allow to pass to begin with. Bolt fails to note that even this degree of acquiescence to the government is costing money the government doesn’t have, but the point is nonetheless salient.
The motivation for Palmer to change his tune could stem from any of a number of things: the abusive and explosive tirade he launched against the Chinese and the consequent need to retrieve his standing could do it; research showing the Palmer vote beginning to fall as people tire of his endless antics and stunts could do it too.
Whatever the reason — or reasons — it seems clear there has been a subtle but unmistakable paradigm shift in the fat billionaire’s modus operandi.
I found myself in discussion yesterday with a reader who wanted to talk about the merits of a “just say no” strategy, and whether it would work as well for the ALP as it purportedly did for the Coalition when it was in opposition. My initial comment was that in Abbott, any “oppositionist” strategy that was pursued was executed by a Rhodes scholar, whereas Shorten is no intellectual colossus. But there’s a bit more to it than that.
For one thing, Abbott’s strategy wasn’t to refuse everything; rather, quite a lot of Labor legislation either passed with Coalition support or was permitted to do so after amendments that were mutually agreeable. By contrast, Labor under Shorten opposes everything.
Everything, that is (for another thing) except those bills that increase government spending; everything else — especially bills that make cuts to expenditure — is voted against. This even extends to Labor’s own election pledges that formed its final, half-arsed attempt to convince people it was serious about fixing the federal budget that had been comprehensively trashed on its watch.
Which leads to the third point I would make: not merely content to vote against their own party’s election promises, Shorten and Labor refuse to acknowledge the government’s mandate to deliver promises of its own that were taken to last year’s election. The attempts made by Labor to stymie the abolition of the mining and carbon taxes are the most obvious cases in point.
What all of this means — and this forms the other half of Bolt’s thesis — is that with Palmer now playing at least a hybrid ball code with the government, the legs have been kicked out from beneath the Labor Party table upon which the strategy of voting down everything in sight (barring spending increases) rests.
Labor has shown, by its voting record in opposition, that it cannot be trusted to deliver on its own promises, and dangerously cavalier about allowing the elected government to deliver upon its own. After all, some day Labor may again form government. Its behaviour during this latest phase in the wilderness will go a long way toward dictating how long that period lasts, and even how much good will (if any) a potential future Labor government is able to carry with it into office.
Specifically, Shorten has pledged to reintroduce all of the Gillard-era initiatives the Liberal Party was explicitly elected to rescind; how a carbon tax and a mining tax, for example, might help engineer electoral victory — when the weight of anecdotal evidence is that voters regard these policies as anathema is overwhelming — is unclear.
Yet Shorten has committed Labor to them. Any U-turn closer to the election, when Labor’s poll numbers aren’t looking so rosy and nerves begin to fray, will hand the Liberals a potent weapon with which to bludgeon the ALP’s credibility.
And that leaves Labor in the “hole” Bolt alludes to: what will it promise when it next faces the electorate?
To date, the only “new” policy offered by Shorten is the abolition of the Private Health Insurance Rebate; we have covered this populist but unbelievably destructive idea in the past. But for those readers who missed such discussions, without increasing the Medicare levy from 2% to perhaps 5%, the practical effect of this ridiculous idea will be to rip so much money out of the health system, as the co-funding that holders of private health policies effectively invest is withdrawn, that the public health system will collapse.
So much for Shorten’s populist health policy. Few people (beyond the chatterati and the chardonnay drunks with too much money to care) will tolerate a 3% income tax rise to make up the difference. Nobody will tolerate the government-sanctioned collapse of the health system. If this is “new” Labor thinking, then Labor must think again.
But the implicit message Bolt conveys is precisely this; with the ability to block everything now unable to be relied upon given Palmer’s change of tack, the problems many of us foresaw Shorten intersecting with now become current.
Labor won’t pass savings measures it promised, and now voting to allow those of the government to pass would put a big dint in Labor’s credibility.
The Labor vote — still sitting around 35% — is far too low for the narrow two-party leads it is recording to be viewed as reliable or durable in any way.
And Shorten’s foolish idea of playing copycat to a strategy that even Tony Abbott did not take to the extremes Shorten has been prepared to has seen Clive Palmer cut the ground out from beneath his feet.
Shorten’s challenge — if he really is serious about becoming Prime Minister — is to begin the arduous, torturous process of developing fresh Labor policies from scratch: a process that takes time, will cause no end of ructions within the Labor Party on the way through and therefore no end of poor press, and which, by its nature, could make Labor’s political position much worse before the desired dividend is eventually delivered.
(The Liberals’ Economic Action Plan — which evolved into John Hewson’s Fightback! manifesto — is a good example of this; it cost Hewson the 1993 election. Yet Fightback! was more or less implemented in full, without the label, by the Howard government after 1996).
Shorten is cornered.
Having exhibited precisely zero appetite for the hard grind of policy work for the duration of his parliamentary career to date, he has a choice; to continue to coast effortlessly — literally — toward the next election in the hope what he is doing continues to keep Labor a nose in front of the polls; or to knuckle under and begin telling people what they can expect by electing him.
The first option is a recipe for disaster; the portents of the second — with the proffered mix to date of rejected Gillard policies and obliterating the health system — are not good.
Should Shorten accept it, his mission is to rule a line under the past 12 months, and to get on with developing the suite of new policies Labor will next adopt in government.
I wouldn’t bet my house on anything changing. After all, Shorten isn’t a leader’s bootlace. The easy option and a photo opportunity are always preferable to him, when someone else can be co-opted to do the hard work.
It is much easier to develop an excessive estimation of oneself and to play silly games. Yet as Bolt writes today, the game is over for Bill Shorten.