Bandwagon Bill Can Shorten save Labor?


Bill Shorten is no Bob Hawke for better and worse. But just now, Shorten’s campaign to become Labor Prime Minister is threatening to crash through Kim Beazley’s latest attempt to assert himself as a viable Labor leader.

And that says plenty about the parlous state of the Federal ALP.

Bill Shorten

Just how serious is the Bill Shorten bandwagon? Well, serious enough for Beazley to whip down to Beaconsfield yesterday for a ‘private’ meeting with the three public faces of the mine rescue: Shorten, and the celebrity miners Brant and Todd. A meeting that turned, inevitably, into a full-blown photo op, so the cameras could record how well Beazley and Shorten get along together.

Like Todd and Brant racing up the mineshaft to freedom after their rescue last Monday, Shorten is on the rise. The only question is, how far and how fast?

It’s one thing for an astute maverick like Barnaby Joyce to anoint Shorten as the next Labor leader (link here). But the rumblings from the NSW Right of the ALP this week signal a seismic shift at least equal to the one in Beaconsfield that gave Shorten his recent stint in the spotlight. The Right want Shorten in federal Parliament as soon as possible to take up the attack on key issues like IR, to add much-needed punch to Labor’s lacklustre front bench and turn up the heat on Beazley.

The NSW Premier Morris Iemma said it all on yesterday’s Daily Telegraph front page splash: ‘Bill for PM’ (link here): ‘While backing Mr Beazley, Premier Morris Iemma said he believed Mr Shorten had what it took a natural to succeed Mr Beazley.’

Shorten’s a natural while Beazley’s a Well, he’s trying hard.

Yesterday’s Newspoll, showing Labor level with the Coalition on a two-Party preferred basis, is encouraging for those who argue that rising interest rates and declining consumer confidence have swamped Costello’s Budget giveaways, and that they vindicated Beazley’s strategy, unveiled in last Thursday’s Budget reply, of accepting tax cuts while attacking the lack of an economic vision.

But the Newspoll result was swamped by today’s leaked internal polling showing that Beazley is unelectable. (link here) It’s a time-honoured way of undermining a Labor leader it happened to Simon Crean, and now it’s happening to Kim.

Beazley’s plan to capture The Lodge, (link here) is to park his swag in ‘middle Australia’ and wait patiently for the economic apolcalypse. Meanwhile, he’s entertaining us all with his new character: Kim Beazley, man of the people.

‘Fair dinkum!’ cried Kim, ‘this Treasurer’s like a poker machine ‘ (link here) He’s giving a good impression of a politician grimly struggling to squeeze himself into a fresh marketing niche the kitchen tables of heavily-mortgaged middle-class Australians, comfortably isolated from the rest of the world but in dread of losing their jobs to the foreign hordes sweeping through the TAFE sector and stealing their children’s future.

But does anyone believe there’s any chance of sharing a shandy down at the RSL with the patrician Opposition Leader unless he’s been ordered there by his minders, desperate for a happy snap in the papers of Kim ‘connecting’ with the people?

Beazley is a Labor Leader without labour credentials. He mouths the words, but can Dinkum Kim inspire the troops? Yesterday’s call for Bill Shorten to jump straight into Federal Parliament carries so much punch because it’s clear to many in the union movement that Kim cannot inspire them.

But as things stand, the Shorten leap won’t happen. Bob Sercombe, defeated by Shorten for pre-selection in the Victorian seat of Maribyrnong, will not stand aside for a by-election he’d die first (mind you, in Victoria’s bloody internal Labor battles ).

Shorten will have to bide his time for the move to Canberra, as Labor’s next big thing. Never mind the leadership, what Labor needs right now, as it struggles to respond to the Government’s totemic assault on the IR system, is a strong union movement.

And that’s not a bad thing for Shorten, the man who’s shown he can galvanise the union movement at Beaconsfield over the past fortnight the only credible figure taking on Howard’s IR push and demonstrating what unions can do for society.

There are parallels between Shorten and the last union boss to lead Federal Labor to victory. Shorten was unafraid to use his Hawke-like ability to bring big business and the union movement together (he used his mate Dick Pratt’s private jet to get to Beaconsfield and ‘encouraged’ mine owner Macquarie Bank to put together a package giving the workers part-ownership of any future operation).

The man even has a tax plan. This week, Shorten gave an interview on ABC Radio’s ‘Sunday Profile’ (link here) outlining his plan to cut the top income tax rate to 30 cents in the dollar, and declaring: ‘Any defender of the current tax system lines up with the late Kerry Bullmore Packer, who said you have to be a mug to pay tax.’

Shorten, the cross-over politician, married Liberal MP Julian Beale’s daughter, bemusing the Bruvvers. But right now, they can’t take their eyes off him.

The union movement has missed the golden opportunity presented by the new IR legislation. Ever since the bad old days of the BLF and the Painters and Dockers, unions have been seen by blue-collar workers and the middle-class Left as corrupt or as increasingly irrelevant; a breeding ground for political opportunists.

Bill Kelty’s relationship with Keating, and Simon Crean’s with Hawke, did nothing to dispell this.

So where is the campaign that tells the battlers: ‘You need to join because only we can help you! in the fight against this draconian legislation’? The campaign that declares: ‘The union movement has changed it now has integrity, honesty, is more professional and can really help you in a one-sided war against the bosses’?

A campaign along these lines an aggressive, well-aimed recruitment drive goes a generation beyond the rearguard action being fought now. It’s a chance for unions to turn the negative into the positive. A chance for Shorten and savvy union leaders like Greg Combet to remind Australians why the Labor movement is still relevant.

And it would be a better use of Shorten’s time, in the long run, than taking the fight up to the Government in Parliament.

Fast-forward to 2010. PM Costello is on the nose the commodity boom is over, interest rates are up, as is unemployment, courtesy of the Government’s failure to invest in education.

As an established Labor frontbencher, Bill Shorten is well placed to take advantage of these circumstances by appealing to the greedy aspirationals and Labor’s forgotten people, the disadvantaged and disenfranchised egregiously ignored by Beazley and Latham.

He has the potential given times that suit him to build on Hawke’s legacy. Maybe with Julia Gillard as his Deputy.

When Labor has won from Opposition, it’s been with an overarching theme of national redemption, fitting the troubled times: ‘It’s Time’ in 1972 and ‘Bringing Australians Together’ in 1983.

Labor should remember that small targets and posturing for th
e middle ground don’t tap into the national psyche. Voters reject pale imitations of the ruling Party. A charismatic leader with a compelling story doesn’t hurt, either.

Bill Shorten is 39, and knows time is on his side. He needs the chance to serve a parliamentary apprenticeship even if it’s only one term. Newcomers to the House on the Hill need to learn its rhythms and procedures. It’s a peculiar beast that can destroy the unprepared, because it exposes people to scrutiny they’ve never experienced before.

It is a destroyer of the messiah-syndrome. Hawke was a magnificent pretender and a brilliant Prime Minister, because he thrived with the reins of power when he had the job given to him.

But it took the powerbroking might of Robert Ray and Graham Richardson to seize those reins for him. And it took a new generation of frontbench talent to create Labor’s most successful administration. Hawke and Keating 1983-96 was not a two-man band.

Those who would do the dirty work for Shorten when he makes the jump to Canberra must first learn these lessons.

There are enough ambitious spoilers in Caucus with their own agendas to put the brakes on Bill when he gets there. But in politics, momentum is a powerful thing, and right now, Shorten’s got it.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.