It’s Only Day One And Robot Bill Shorten Has Already Short-Circuited My Synapses


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In case you missed it, someone called an election. And thus, today ABC 24-hour has Malcolm Turnbull, Barnaby Joyce, Richard Di Natale and Bill Shorten on a loop.

As a journalist, it’s my job to watch this circus, obsessively, and report on what happens. Long story short: Nothing is happening. At least nothing of substance. Yet.

All we’ve seen so far is slogans, spin and talking points, and the leaders of various parties tell us it’s ‘not about personalities, it’s about policies’. Which is a bloody good thing… because none of them have personalities that most of the rest of us are particularly interested in. Although, I’ll concede Di Natale’s repeated comments about ‘great big carbon emissions’ is pretty clever.

Turnbull chose Queensland to launch the government’s re-election campaign. Specifically, the markets at Rocklea… a semi-industrial suburb in the heart of Brisbane. Because innovation, and economy. And there’s nothing more innovative and economic than fruit and veg.

Shorten also headed to Queensland… a school in Cairns in the far north to be precise, to announce Aboriginal scholarships for the teaching profession. Because jobs.

And this is as far in as I got… Bill Shorten, in Cairns. After his press conference, I decided to take the rest of the afternoon off. Because instead of talking about Aboriginal education, Shorten rabbited on about not putting people smugglers back in business, Aussie kids, tax cuts, the top 1 per cent, Aussie kids, his ‘united Labor team’, Aussie kids, positive policies, and ‘clear, positive, practical policies’.

It actually doesn’t matter what a journalist asks Bill Shorten. The question could be, ‘Hey Bill, everyone thinks you’re an idiot. And by the way, your pants are on fire. What do you think about that?’

He’d still respond – through rictus grin – with a series of scripted, rehearsed, workshopped and focus group-tested half-zingers, all of which make him sound like the world’s most benign killer robot sent back from the future to bore us all to death.

Shorten reminds me of Kim Beazley. Or Kevin Rudd. Or Julia Gillard. Or Simon Crean. Or any host of Labor leader ghosts of elections past. With the exception of Mark Latham who was both real, and stunningly stupid.

Former Labor Opposition leader Mark Latham.
Former Labor Opposition leader Mark Latham.

Shorten appears to have forgotten that part of the reason Julia Gillard – once a vibrant, effusive public speaker – lost so much respect with the Australian populace was because when she became the PM, she transformed into a robot with a stick up her arse, whose every utterance sounded like it had been pre-recorded in a Paddington sound studio and released as part of a drawling beat poetry compilation CD.

In Shorten’s defence, ‘Zinger Bill’ appears to have been killed off for the next 55 days. This is obviously a good thing, and clearly a result of focus groups explain to Labor hacks that Bill Shorten is less funny than cancer. But his replacement is no better. Shorten’s spinners and minders have clearly made a decision to abandon the pointless three word sloganzingers, and keep things ‘serious but positive’ instead. Very, very positive. And clear. And practical. Whilst reminding everyone Tony Abbott was famous for three word slogans, which were nowhere near as funny as his. Or cancer.

In terms of significant things happening, nothing much did today. Except maybe that Labor chose day one to unveil their ‘Aboriginal affairs’ policy. For no apparent reason, because no amount of re-definition will erase the memories of half a million blackfellas, who easily recall Labor’s history of frenetic inaction. As for the rest of the nation… well they don’t much care. Which begs the question ‘why?’.

More significant, perhaps, is the scale of this monumental announcement to drag the mob into university campuses. $4.8 million over four years, to create 400 teaching scholarships. Wow. I think I speak on behalf of all Australians when I say, ‘That’s a surprisingly crappy policy with which to open an election campaign’.

Specifically, it’s $1.2 million a year, for the most impoverished (and unemployed) folk in the country, for arguably the most important area of life – education. In other words, it’s the perfect Labor Aboriginal affairs policy… all sizzle, no sausage… except that the sizzle is basically inaudible.

Seriously folks, does it get any more uninspiring than this? 400 scholarships for Aboriginal teachers over four years. That’s 100 a year, or broken down further, a dozen scholarships for each state and territory, every 12 months. Wow, how are they ever going to fill that many positions? Way to lift a people out of poverty, Bill.

Never mind the fact that innumerable scholarships already exist – at a state and federal level – to encourage Aboriginal people into teaching. Which is obviously a good thing – most important job in the world. But do you actually have anything interesting to say, Bill?

No? Well I do. Two words: NT intervention. Two more words: Jenny Macklin.

The Northern Territory intervention, conceived by the Libs, but voted for by Labor and then rolled out and extended for a decade under Gillard, actually oversaw a rapid decline in school attendance rates across the Northern Territory. Presumably your opening election campaign policy is aimed at undoing some of the damage you caused. Huzah for you. Maybe one of the gaggle of assembled journalists following Robot Bill could actually ask about that during tomorrow’s policy show and tell?

Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Your party’s six years of inaction and deceit in government cannot be un-spun with a two dollar shop policy about getting more blackfellas into teaching. It smells suspiciously like you and your faceless Aboriginal affairs spokesperson, Whateverhisnameis, cooked this little scheme up together on the back of a drink coaster at a Qantas Club, in between party strategy meetings on how to support the ‘boat turnbacks’ without looking like you’re supporting boat turnbacks.

How about a policy to actually get Aboriginal kids to school, given your past policies have driven them away? What about a policy to properly resource remote, regional and urban area schools? How about a policy to create employment in Aboriginal communities, so that once kids leave school they have something to do? Or has Twiggy Forrest been too busy to take your phone calls?

Here’s a crazy idea: How about a policy with substance, like one to reduce the record incarceration rates successive state Labor governments have presided over?

What about a policy to unpick the disastrous Indigenous Advancement Strategy conceived by Tony Abbott, and rolled out by some of the world’s most incompetent bureaucrats, to the destruction of countless Aboriginal-controlled organisations for the sole purpose of transferring Aboriginal earmarked funds to non-Indigenous hands.

What’s so confounding is that THIS is the policy Labor chose to open the batting with. Which should give you some idea of what’s to come, at least on the Aboriginal affairs front.

The early signs are that Labor’s main campaign strategy appears to be ‘underwhelm people with policies that will amount to nine-parts of bugger all, then just sit back and wait for the Libs to implode’. Which could well happen if someone re-inflates Tony Abbott… and one day in, that would obviously be my preference, notwithstanding the fact it would install a do-nothing Labor government in power. But at least it would make a 55-day election campaign interesting. Ah the Tony days… how fondly we all look back now.

On the good news front, July 2 is actually my birthday. I don’t normally celebrate my birthday, but this one spells the end of a 55-day election campaign starring Automaton Shorten.

It will be the happiest birthday of my life.

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. In more than three decades of journalism he's had his home and office raided by the Australian Federal Police; he's been arrested and briefly jailed in Israel; he's reported from a swag in Outback Australia on and off for years. Chris has worked across multiple mediums including print, radio and film. His proudest achievement is serving as an Associate producer on John Pilger's 2013 film Utopia. He's also won a few journalism awards along the way in both the US and Australia, including a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards. Since late 2021, Chris has been battling various serious heart and lung conditions. He's begun the process of quietly planning a "gentle exit" after "tying up a few loose ends" in 2024 and 2025. So watch this space.