Bill Shorten probably can’t believe his luck. The Liberal Party has spent the entire Winter break and the first week of parliamentary sitting focusing almost exclusively on issues that are terribly divisive for their party and base. Labor, on the other hand, has been disciplined, and to the extent they have led the debate, they have done so on issues that are unifying for the left and right wings of his party: especially inequality.
Shorten’s thought bubbles, potentially dangerous dalliances into issues like an Australian republic, have not gained traction.
To some extent, this is a function of Shorten’s stance as a populist opposition leader. In opposition, Tony Abbott managed to keep his party focus laser like on divisive issues for the Gillard-Rudd government, a focus which quickly dissipated when he took the prime minister’s chair.
The thought of getting into government is the most unifying passion of all for most modern politicians. Once in government, though things change and issues that are personally important to politicians get pushed at the expense of party unity. There is an expectation that government will lead, taking action to either bring or prevent change.
However, the problem is that opposition parties are seemingly only building the case for election as leaders of the resistance. The hard work of building a detailed policy case for change is then left for after they win government.
Shorten’s pitch on inequality is a case in point. Labor has no idea what its tax increases might do to an already fragile economy and it’s not clear they have to care, at least until they are in government. As an aside it’s worth asking if there are reasons why the previous Labor government didn’t implement many of the policies that Shorten now advocates — and it’s not that Wayne Swan was a closet ‘neoliberal’.
In the past, the problems of the ‘win government and then figure it out’ approach were solved in part by ideological unity in the party. People knew, broadly, what Howard and Hawke and Menzies would do in any given situation because they knew what they believed.
But will this work in the era of transactional politics, where no-one knows what anyone believes? Maybe politicians are simply trying to survive in an age of political disruption, but maybe this is where real leadership could emerge, not to convince a party to break its promises, but to convince to start making real ones.
Simon Cowan is Research Manager at the Centre for Independent Studies.
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