The underestimated Bill

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Bill Shorten connects with people in a way Turnbull cannot (Image screenshot from @BillShortenMp video 'Ready to Serve')

The mistake the Liberals have made with Shorten is the same one Labor made with Howard, says Andrew Elder — they thought they were too good for him.

BILL SHORTEN should not have been competitive in this campaign. A factional warrior up to his eyeballs in Labor’s leadership changes over the past decade, a union boss targeted by the Heydon Royal Commission, he should have been chewed up and spat out by a ferocious Liberal machine and a skittish, wounded ALP. Ignored by the press gallery for two years, except as a source of zingers, Shorten should have bumbled to an honourable but decisive defeat like Howard did in 1987, or Beazley in 2001.

The press gallery turnaround can be explained simply: polls show Shorten and Labor were competitive, so they had to switch from ignoring him to being all over him. You can only explain this comeback through policy: the absence of coherent policy by the government and the detailed, costed, integrated and disciplined approach of the ALP front bench. If you’re determined to avoid examining policy – that is to say, if you’re a typical press gallery journalist – you can’t really explain an important political event like the return of Labor under Shorten. This explains why they haven’t, seen in sneers from “Mediscare” to the befuddlement of Leigh Sales.

Both Shorten and Howard are shorter than the average Australian man. Both can create an impression of being too easy to please, which would be simple affability in someone 20cm taller.

Each entered their respective parties as teenagers. They understand politics from the grassroots up, from small-group branch discussions and staffing polling booths, to Cabinet and national campaigns. Howard was the last politician who addressed people from a flatbed truck and had to hold people’s attention, including banter with hecklers. Shorten had to organise workers and get them to accept the deals he had cut. The intervening leaders between those two men deliberately built careers that were largely shielded from dealing with random people in real time. The sheer effort involved, and the depth of knowledge gained about people and politics, is routinely underestimated by those who’ve done other things with their lives.

The mistake the Liberals are making with Shorten is the same as that Labor made with Howard. They underestimated him. They believed their own publicity, refracted back to them by a witless press gallery. Their folly has allowed their opponent not only to steal a march on them, but to present himself in his best light, using skills developed assiduously well out of sight of sniggering opponents.

The Liberals bringing Howard back into the campaign was poignant. He is an irrelevance to the younger voters who threaten to entrench the Liberals as a permanent minority party, if its future can be guaranteed at all. He didn’t hide from the public in retirement as Menzies did, embarrassed by the ninnies who followed him but knowing any denigration of them would denigrate his own legacy. Howard is a party man to the end, but his observations from the field were ignored by jabbering journos who overestimated the significance of their own insights.

Howard knew the worth of standing and talking to individuals, and through them understanding a wider population in a particular community, or of a cohort (age/sex/whatever demographic). He had the confidence in his judgment to match Mark Textor and the other back office boys. Textor had to defer to Howard, but since then he has made the Liberals dance to his tune.

Labor has its political professionals, pollsters and ad people, and speechwriters and what have you, but none are as entrenched as Textor is in the Liberals. Labor lets Shorten have his head in the ALP to a greater extent than Turnbull has with the Liberals; even Turnbull’s titanic self confidence bows to Textor’s findings. The Liberals are so in awe of Textor that the input of their branch membership to policy – one of the central features of political parties – has perished. Any opinion from any Liberal, even from Alan Jones, perishes if it goes against Textor’s stated findings. Elected leaders who felt free to push their pet policies were kyboshed if Textor could pull out a focus group report that went against it.

Shorten has the same interpersonal strength as Howard — he stops and talks to individuals, and adapts broad-scale policy pronouncements to them, and draws lessons from people that seem to refine his announcements going forward. He seems to be learning as he goes along. By contrast, Turnbull sweeps through like a force of nature, too busy to be here and always with an eye on what’s next.

You can say what you will about the strengths and weaknesses of Labor’s campaign — and the smarties will. What you can say now, before the result is known, is that Shorten has learned as he’s gone along. This is a subtle difference to many past campaigns and, of course, one completely missed by people who’ve travelled with him for two months. He hasn’t stuck to his guns, plugging the same old lines in the same old way — but nor has he flopped about trying to be all things to everyone, buying time and hoping the government falls over.

It’s one thing to wheel Howard out for one last go to those who remember him fondly. It’s quite another to claim he’s an inspiration, when clearly the Liberals have learnt nothing from him. I kept waiting for some young-gun conservative to take Howard to a shopping centre and learn from how he deals with people, friend and foe alike, and use that interaction to inform your politics. None have. Shorten might not have learned from Howard but he has the same knack of dealing with people directly, and drawing together their politics to his; to this day, people who loathe Howard agree to disagree with him respectfully, while Abbott and Turnbull are simply despised.

Shorten has the slow-and-steady manner of the long-game player, which is reassuring in ways focus-group analysts can barely define. They bring an assurance to mere pronouncements on education, health and jobs. Howard blended that quality with his conservatism to build a sense of calm that covered his jagged policies like a comfort blanket. Howard’s conservative successors lack that quality themselves, and can’t admit their opponent has a potent political and governmental asset which they are – regardless of the result – powerless to counteract.

You can follow Andrew Elder on his blog Press Gallery Reform or on Twitter @awelder.

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