In praise of Bill Shorten: Five reasons why he's winning

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Bill of Beaconsfield is back, says Michael Galvin

There are at least five reasons why Bill Shorten is on top of the polls and defying his detractors, writes former Shorten critic Michael Galvin.

When Bill Shorten was elected leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, the majority of ALP members around the country groaned, not so much because Shorten got up, but because Albanese didn't win. Albo, the members' choice, was one of the few ALP members to come through the Rudd/Gillard leadership instability with his dignity not only intact but enhanced. 

For the next two years, Shorten was almost as unpopular among Labor voters as Abbott was. He was criticised mercilessly by commentators great and small, including this writer. His own approval ratings remained abysmal – down in the gutter with Abbott's – despite the steady climb in support for the ALP that paralleled the Abbott train wreck.

Now, with an election two months away, it is time to reassess Bill Shorten and to take stock of how things now stand. In my view, there are at least five reasons why he is now a much better Labor leader than he appeared at first, why I hope he leads the ALP to victory at the election and why I believe he will be a competent prime minister.

1. Stoic persistence under fire

No politician could have such a thick skin as to be unaffected by the indifference, bordering on ridicule, Shorten endured for the first two years of his time as Leader.

Yet – all credit to him – he stuck to his guns under both friendly and enemy fire. The parliamentary party has stayed unified and on message. More importantly, they have been spending their time doing their homework — developing policies that have been released in the last few months.

In this respect, the ALP in opposition has been the opposite of Abbott's team when they were in opposition. Policy development was non-existent under Abbott, as became spectacularly obvious once he became PM. Abbott soon found that cliches and slogans could harm and destroy, but were no basis for actually governing. Now it is clear that Shorten just put up with being written off and instead played a far more strategic game.

He spent the lean years developing policies that now distinguish Labor from the Coalition in many important ways. (Agreed, asylum seeker policy is an exception.)

2. The ALP national conference last July

On highly emotive issues, like asylum seeker policy and same sex marriage, Shorten had fights on his hands. He had to tackle the deep-seated and sincerely held convictions of many in his party, mainly on the Left but also on the Right.

The ability to negotiate such outcomes and withstand the heated opposition on one's own side of politics, is what all good leaders must be able to do. Whitlam did it;  Keating did it. Even Howard did it, over gun laws.

Turnbull, by contrast, has so far squibbed the fight with the Abbott forces on his own side. Until Turnbull has such a fight, he will look weak and ineffectual. Every passing day makes Turnbull look less like a man of conviction and more like just another politician.

Shorten's self-confidence seemed to improve dramatically from that time on, when he had to disappoint and defeat many on his own side in the interests of what he saw as the greater good.

3. Policy development

Shorten and his colleagues have developed and released a whole range of policies in recent months. The policies have been substantive, thought through and vigorously defended by Shorten and his team (particularly Bowen) when they have been inevitably attacked by the Government.

So far, the usual scare campaigns that work against Labor have not been effective. Labor have moved much of the agenda onto its own terms. The negative gearing policy is a case in point. Labor have largely won this argument already.

The superannuation argument is also going their way, as last week's Budget showed.

4. The Bob Ellis moment

Politics is a complex mix of major structural forces and unexpected moments that come to have a significance all their own. Who will ever forget the Latham handshake in 2004?

The full speech that Shorten gave at Bob Ellis' funeral was published in IA. It is highly moving, personal, and inspirational.  Shorten spoke from the heart as well as his head. If there is one single event that has humanised Shorten for this writer and, in a very positive way, it is that speech. No-one could read what Shorten wrote and be left in the slightest doubt that Shorten is true blue Labor and a caring, thinking human being.

5. Luck

Finally, politics is such a hostage to fortune that successful politicians need a good dose of luck. Shorten has been lucky in several ways.

First, he was up against an opponent who quickly became the worst PM in Australian history.

Second, his next opponent, Malcolm Turnbull, managed to squander massive community support in record time.

Third, the times suit him. Here and internationally, trickle down economics has been discredited. Even the rich know that the poor have to have money to spend to keep the system growing. It is now accepted wisdom that more taxes on the very rich might be the only way of returning to economic growth that makes the majority better off. Shorten's lucky break is that this way of thinking suits Labor's redistributive orientation, while leaving Turnbull and Morrison looking like economic dinosaurs.

Fourth, even little things are breaking his way. Shorten had no say in when the election was called. That it coincided with the 10th anniversary of Shorten's finest hour to date – the Beaconsfield mine rescue – is a lucky break. It put Shorten on national television in a pub with the rescued miners. It reminded everyone that unionists like Shorten have the workers' backs when the chips are down, that the nation turns to Labor in moments of crisis.

In a two-horse race where only one of two men can become Prime Minister, I hope Bill Shorten gets the support I think he has earned. Bob Ellis would have been pleased with the omens so far. Just a shame Bob didn't get to see his local member Bronny despatched in fully-deserved ignominy.

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