The Labor Party have now lost two unloseable elections in a row. In 2016, it was the party that had “learnt its lesson” on stability versus the increasingly divided party plagued with a spate of resignations, cabinet reshuffles, and a “cruel and unfair” budget. But it wasn’t, really. It was a contest between the silver tongued, slick, confident Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten, who at the time could have been mistaken for a wet piece of paper you’d find in your pants after they’ve gone through the wash.
And now, on Saturday, it was the party with a vision for the future of Australia, with a plan to revitalise public healthcare, to fix the mess that the Liberals made of the NBN, to ensure stability (not necessarily growth) in the housing market, and to end an unsustainable tax loophole costing the budget $6bn a year up against the party of “look it’s just common sense!” The Victorian and Queensland state elections of 2018 saw Labor governments re-elected, with a huge swing towards the red team in Victoria. Federal inaction on climate change had pushed the nation to protests. We saw the divisions in the Liberal Party come to a head with two weeks of utter chaos in late 2018, leading to the deposition of Malcolm Turnbull at the hands of Tony Abbott, who was all too happy to resign the party to almost certain defeat only to satiate his hunger for revenge against Turnbull. The previous week’s election should have been a bloodbath for the Coalition. But it wasn’t.
Policy-wise, most Australians would agree with the Labor platform, which echoed the Hawke-Keating economic reformation but with a distinct modern twist. And yet the party of warring factions, an unstable coalition agreement that was almost torn up only a few months ago, brazen cronyism, infrastructure project sabotage, and a deafness to all issues other than the nebulous promise of strong economic management came up from the rear to form government at 7 to 1 odds.
The blame must lie squarely with Bill Shorten. Modern politics has become less about policy and more about identity and optics. Bill Shorten, since assuming the role as leader of the Labor party, has not once polled above the Liberal leader as preferred Prime Minister. Even during the final days of the Abbott reign when public opinion had turned unequivocally against the old regime, he still polled higher than Shorten. Turnbull, even after fizzling out and resigning himself to playing tug-of-war with the Liberal Party factions, polled higher than Shorten. And now Scott Morrison – ScoMo – even after the absolute joke that was the 2018 Liberal leadership spill, polls higher than Shorten.
The sad fact of the matter is that Shorten was never leadership material, especially not in the modern age of personal politics. And while his party’s loyalty and commitment to stability must be commended, ultimately it has proven to be their undoing at two unloseable elections.
Ask anyone who isn’t a Labor shill what they think of Bill Shorten. You’ll get a response along the lines of: “I can’t trust what he says,” or, “I dunno, there’s just something about him aye.” But that’s the problem. There isn’t something about him, there’s nothing about him.
Bill Shorten has consistently come off as uncharismatic, insincere and out of touch. His oration is reminiscent of a school captain forced to recite a speech for ANZAC day assembly written by a pompous deputy principal; it is clunky, stunted and monotonous. His facial expressions, tone and rhythm all give off the vibe that he either doesn’t want to be there or does not speak with conviction. Neither of these are necessarily true, but it is the image he has put out for himself. Compare this to the passionate almost-rants of Scott Morrison both on the campaign trail and during Question Time, and he comes off as an actual personality, not a text-to-speech bot.
Bill Shorten’s history as a union boss also did him no favours. The Murdoch press was able to leverage this as ‘evidence’ that he was in the pocket of the union movement, and that a Shorten-led Labor government would mean an Australia run by – and for – said unions. God forbid! You’ll hear criticisms of Bill like: “He’s never worked a day in his life,” and these are a result of this press-led anti-union scare campaign. It seems in the eyes of the Australian public, you’ve only worked if you’ve used a jackhammer or worn hi-vis. And despite a multi-million dollar witch-hunt conducted by the Abbott Government into union corruption, not a single shred of evidence was found linking Shorten or his time at the AWU to any wrongdoing. The damage to his reputation was already done, however, and it seems that it was irreversible.
Tying into this is Tall Poppy Syndrome – a uniquely Australian phenomenon where the public, as a rule of thumb, try to discredit and look down upon wealthy and successful public figures. Malcolm Turnbull was a victim of this just as much as Shorten. Both leaders were relentlessly mocked and ridiculed for their failed attempts at seeming personally in touch with middle Australia. Take for example, the ridicule he received for eating a hot dog the ‘wrong’ way, and the equally ridiculous image of him applying sunscreen with his knuckles. The media jumped on to these almost immediately, citing them as examples that Bill had no idea how real Australians go about their daily business, as if it matters how you eat a damn hot dog. And while Turnbull was mocked for living in a big fuckoff Northern Beaches mansion, he was able to use his wit and slick used-car salesman charisma to fend off and deflect criticisms that he was just another elitist member of the Australian upper class. Bill’s lack of charisma and ability to deflect criticisms effectively only solidified public opinion that he was not ‘one of us.’
We saw a radical change in Bill starting around the end of last year. It appeared as if his handlers had given him some coaching as his speeches became more passionate, his wit and charm increased exponentially, and we saw more of a Rudd-esque attempt to get down and dirty with locals in various electorates. His appearance on Q&A was exemplary of this. After 5 years in opposition, however, changing tune mere months out from an election was merely too little, too late.
The Australian public is extremely quick to judge and recalcitrant to having their minds changed. It was apparent even from the day he won the Labor leadership spill against Anthony Albanese that he would never be Prime Minister of Australia. The almost unyielding five year media assault on his personal character and public life only ensured that this would be the case.
That said, would Shorten have made a good Prime Minister if given the chance? Probably. He had the leadership experience from his union days, had proven that he could hold together the various factions inside the Labor Party, had a vision for Australia that most could get behind, and seemed to be making a genuine attempt at becoming more down-to-earth and relatable to the Australian populace. We probably would have seen Shorten come into his own, and maybe even secure a second term come 2022 if he was able to continue on the path he had started down last year and prove that Labor could deliver on the many promises it made during this campaign.
Ultimately, he wasn’t the Bill Australia couldn’t afford. He was the Bill it simply didn’t want.