Leading article Australia

Shorten’s mensis horribilis

16 July 2015

1:00 PM

16 July 2015

1:00 PM

One problem of being Opposition leader is getting air time. They yearn for cut-through moments when the full focus of media and public attention is on them. Labor leader Bill ‘friend of the oppressed workers’ Shorten, however, is having a cut-through month. His only problem is he’s getting the sort of attention that kills political careers, not makes them.

Since the ABC’s The Killing Season, Mr Shorten has gone from messiah to a very naughty boy. The documentary reminded voters just how duplicitous and untrustworthy he was, knifing first Kevin Rudd and then Julia Gillard, and admitting to publicly lying about his conspiratorial conduct only when it was revealed on national television.

Mr Shorten was already making a hash of the Budget parliamentary session. Instead of sounding like a credible and fiscally-responsible alternative prime minister, he actually vowed to outspend the Coalition. Worse, the Greens made a goose of him by cutting a deal with Tony Abbott over petrol excise. After a horror start to the year, Coalition members left Canberra with smiles on their dials.

Mr Shorten’s worst moments came last week when, after drip-fed negative stories about his deal-making as AWU boss in, of all places, Fairfax newspapers, he appeared before Mr Justice Heydon and the Trade Union Royal Commission. As Grace Collier wrote in the Weekend Australian, ‘Shorten made a complete fool of himself. In the royal commission there were so many smoking guns one could hardly see the guns for the smoke’. That Commissioner Heydon called Mr Shorten on his credibility as a witness with his long-winded, evasive answers added scarifying insult to self-inflicted injury.

When Hawke-era Labor luminary Bob Hogg and press gallery doyen Laurie Oakes separately suggested that Mr Shorten should consider his position after his mensis horribilis, and Caucus colleagues are wheeled out to defend him, the Opposition leader’s position is indeed shaky. It is about to be tested still further. Labor’s first post-election loss national conference convenes in Melbourne this month, with the party’s Left faction, embracing inner-city basket weavers and law-abiding paragons like the CFMEU, may have the numbers to control both the ALP’s national executive and its policy platform. Meanwhile, Mr Shorten’s Right faction power-base is racked by divisions and rivalries, a shadow of its former all-conquering self.

Nevertheless, Mr Shorten will probably limp into the next election as leader. Not only is he protected by the ‘Rudd rules’, the most likely alternatives – Tanya Plibersek, Anthony ‘Albo’ Albanese and Chris Bowen – each have potentially fatal flaws, as does Tony Burke, badly damaged by re-enacting his own treachery for The Killing Season, and his quasi-support last year for Palestinian terrorism.

With Labor in some disarray, there’s increasing speculation of an early, double dissolution election, with trade union reform legislation a possible trigger. Risking that, before the government has fixed its own political and policy act, may be too clever by half. While the government, and Mr Abbott personally, are light years from the near death experience of only five months ago, the Coalition is still behind in the polls. Fortunately for Mr Abbott, Mr Shorten’s travails have distracted from Coalition woes.

If Mr Shorten does toss it in, any of his likely successors would be considerably tougher political challenges for a Coalition still recovering from its shocker first 18 months. As Richard Ferguson writes in this issue, conservatives should be enthusiastically embracing Shorten as the ideal Labor leader. And praying that he remain so.


Since our controversial cover story last week, in which Michael Danby questioned the wisdom of our Foreign Minister Julie Bishop cosying up to the ayatollahs in exchange for them accepting the return of Iranians who fled to these shores under the hopeless border security policies of the Rudd and Gillard governments (take a bow Messrs Bowen and Burke), the Americans and Europe have concluded an ‘historic’ deal with Iran to supposedly curb their nuclear weapons program. It appears Ms Bishop is in fine company.

Whether history will view the P5+1 deal as more akin to that struck between Richard Nixon and Mao Tse Tung or, heaven forbid, that between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler, remains to be seen. It is worth noting, however, that to the best of our knowledge Mr Nixon’s efforts weren’t greeted with a flurry of placards proclaiming ‘Death to America’ and ‘Death to Israel’.

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