Inside Story

Labor’s turn?

Is a Shorten prime ministership just a matter of time?

Peter Brent 19 January 2018 1041 words

On message: Labor leader Bill Shorten. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

If you squint hard enough, you can see the next change of federal government on the horizon — later this year, or next. In these post-GFC times, and remembering the fates of recent state and territory administrations, two terms isn’t a bad run for this government. A Labor government got six years in 2007, the Coalition got five or six in 2013, now it’s Labor’s turn again.

Thanks to Kevin Rudd, the history books will very likely record the next Labor prime minister as one William Richard “Bill” Shorten. The rule changes Rudd rammed through during his brief return to the prime ministership in mid 2013, designed to allay voter fears of a continuing turnstile if he was re-elected, provided a sturdy stabiliser for his successor.

The concept of momentum is largely an illusion when it comes to electoral behaviour, but it is hugely important in bringing about party leadership changes, given that they usually happen via the media. MPs reach a point where they decide this thing is going to happen whether they like it or not, and they’d better get it over and done with rather than prolong the damage.

The requirement that a spill can be triggered only by a petition signed by 60 per cent of caucus (or 75 per cent if the party is in government) provides a high threshold, especially because it then triggers a drawn-out vote of party members and MPs. It’s anything but a quick, clean hit; it offers contestants no guaranteed outcome and little incentive to background, agitate, and chip, chip away.

Yes, Shorten has suffered some media murmuring on occasion — generally (subtly) in favour of Anthony Albanese — but it has never built up a head of steam. Without the Rudd rules, he would probably have lasted less than a term.

Shorten is disciplined, on message and not unphotogenic. Since the better-than-expected 2016 election result (doing a Corbyn before Corbyn), and taking into account election results in other countries in recent years, it’s difficult to criticise his neglect of that once crucial area of perceived economic competence. It just doesn’t matter much anymore.

He excites no one, seems rollie-paper-thin in personality, comes across as a scheming apparatchik from central casting and doesn’t do sincerity well. But so what? Didn’t Australians elect the massively unloved Tony Abbott as prime minister?

Shorten first came to attention after the Mark Latham election in 2004, the worst result for any opposition since 1977. As AWU national secretary, he showcased his credentials by attacking Labor from the right — a well-worn track to leadership already trodden by, among others, the then leader. In a fantastical reading of the disastrous election, he explained that Labor had been, yes, captured by the inner-city crowd, had overly prioritised Indigenous affairs and asylum seekers, and had ignored everyday Australians who go to church. “If they want to win, Labor has to appeal to the centre,” he intoned.

On cue, commentators cooed: here was a Labor leader of the future — which was, of course, correct, though some changes on view had intervened.

So yes, Bill has a touch of the charlatan about him, but don’t they all? He’s just more obvious than most. He has low approval ratings but that’s not an obstacle: Gough Whitlam, it is remembered by no one, languished in the thirties through much of 1972, and was duly elected to office. (Prime minister McMahon’s rating was generally even lower.)

What will the next Labor government be like? Answering that would be pure guesswork; governments rarely end up much resembling what they appeared to offer in opposition. Campaigns are designed not so much as plans of action as devices to win (or retain) office. Parties make promises they know they won’t keep, and they change their minds about others. Labor’s frontbench is mostly smart and competent, and they’ll tend to do as bureaucrats advise. They’ll have some ideas of their own. Most important of all, the world throws events at governments, and their reactions end up defining them.

But we can anticipate some tangibles of their tenure. Victory will come from low primary votes, likely in the mid to high thirties, for both major parties. There’ll be a big Senate crossbench, perhaps not as large as today’s (produced by a double dissolution with a low quota), but numerous enough to make life difficult. If the new Labor government is lucky, it and the Greens will form a majority; if it’s unlucky (on legislation the Coalition opposes) no other routes to the magic number thirty-nine will exist. And if it’s really unlucky, it’ll need the Greens plus others.

As the Gillard government found, having to rely on the Greens to pass legislation makes it difficult, if not impossible, to strike out and truly forge an identity. And the union movement, as always, will claim much responsibility for the election result and demand policy compensation.

Those workable Senates faced by the Hawke and Howard governments, with the balance usually held by the reasonably centrist Democrats, are gone, perhaps forever. (From July 2008, the Rudd government faced the trickiest upper chamber in living memory: every single member of the crossbench — Greens plus Nick Xenophon plus Steve Fielding — was needed for a majority.) Our Senate, arguably the most powerful upper house in any of the planet’s parliamentary systems, and our deadly combination of electoral systems for the two chambers will continue to frustrate policy-making.

Like Abbott in opposition, Shorten pretends that fiscal challenges can be easily rectified. But reality will bite after the change. (See broken promises, above.) Most of all, circumstances — an upticking world economy here, a war there — will determine the nature and longevity of the next government. Hacking into spending or increasing taxes to improve the budget by ten to twenty billion dollars requires Herculean political effort. But a spot of internationally fuelled growth can see an equivalent amount written up in annual government revenue, with no change to policy.

Economics will mostly determine length in office. If Labor is around long enough, and Shorten wears out his welcome, then those cumbersome leadership regulations — three quarters of Caucus is an absurdly high hurdle — might more easily be disposed of. ●