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Shorten flags National Integrity Commission in speech of substance

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Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, National Press Club address (screen shot via abc.net.au).

Bill Shorten's National Press Club address was strong on substance but his performance is unlikely to convince those who don’t see it that way, says Professor Jane Goodall.

OPPOSITION LEADER BILL SHORTEN began his National Press Club address yesterday (30/1/18) with an acknowledgement to Kevin Rudd, whose forthcoming appearance at the Press Club in February will mark the tenth anniversary of the Apology to Indigenous Australians.

That took courage, said Shorten. Courage and imagination were the themes he wanted to foreground.

It was a strong opening, pitched as a statesmanlike view above the fray.

Shorten said:

"Business as usual, politics as usual, won’t cut it in 2018 ... ​​​​The most corrosive sentiment awash in western democracies is the idea that politicians are only in it for themselves ... This must be a year for rebuilding trust in public institutions, in democracy itself."

At this point, many people listening might already have been nodding their heads. We’ve had some pretty overwhelming evidence of that in recent years, not just in Australia, but in Britain and the United States. All those political donations, the obscene tallies on expense accounts, the muddy relationships between policy positions and personal financial interest.

But Shorten had not come to play the firebrand. Most people in politics, he said, were not just there to serve their own interests, though political news is dominated by those who do the wrong thing. Like those cabinet ministers who walk one day from their own job and the next into a cushy job in the same sector. Former NSW Nationals Minister Duncan Gay, former Liberal Trade Minister Andrew Robb and former Resources Minister Ian Macfarlane might spring to mind, but it was a case of no names, no pack drill.

If they were the elephant in the room, the room Shorten was speaking to was one in which few people have ever been able to spot the contours of an elephant. Strategically, he was missing an opportunity to put the boot in, but he was also avoiding the trap of replicating the tactics of his opponents. Never miss an opportunity to put the boot in is a Coalition by-law — and if an opportunity fails to present, make one up. Claim you’ve smelled a rat and, for the most part, the press pack will go hunting it.

When the rat-packs are running, it does take courage to stand apart and call for another order of play. That’s what a statesman does.

Announced Shorten:

"My government will create a National Integrity Commission [NIC], designed to ensure the highest standards of public administration." 

Plans for this are well advanced. Research has been done, consultations are under way, Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus has it in hand. And Shorten is stretching out his own hand to the Government, inviting them to back the initiative. 4

"It’s not Malcolm versus me or Liberal versus Labor," he said.

Public trust and confidence in the political process was Shorten’s opening theme at last year’s January Press Club address, but the NIC proposal gives it considerably more traction. And in stretching the hand across the Parliamentary divide, he can start to play some wedge politics. If Team Turnbull won’t back an integrity commission … well, why wouldn’t they? Go figure. That’s one for the press to pursue — if they’re so minded.

When former PM John Howard played wedge politics, he did so by forcing his opponents to go lower. Shorten wants to force them to go higher — or put them in a position where it seems they aren’t up to the challenge. So far so good. What’s not to like?

There’s a lot to like about Shorten – far more than the Canberra press has so far given him credit for – and his ratings consistently indicate that the public still underestimates him. But there are some presentation issues he needs to deal with. One of the keys to statesmanship (or "stateswomanship") is that you must project an authority that is clearly your own. Fluency, spontaneity, a touch of improvisation and some personal warmth: those are the markers of a natural leader speaking to the public. Shorten looks schooled. His pauses and his emphases, even his gestures, look rehearsed. Hilary Clinton had the same problem.

I used to teach drama and I can spot a fake performance a mile off, but in an age of visual media, most people have become lightning quick at reading behaviour. Whoever is out the back there coaching Bill in those speeches, making him go over this pause, that inflection, until it sounds totally insincere, needs to be moved to other duties. As a matter of urgency.

Shorten is strong on substance. He packed a succession of major issues into this speech – stagnation of pay and insecure working conditions, escalating costs of living, an attack on tax cuts for big corporations – and he knows the detail on all of them. It’s another version of "dance, ten, looks, three" (the career-blocking score of one of the aspiring stars in A Chorus Line). Shorten can do all the footwork, but the problem is how he looks when he is trying to be on message.

I’ve watched him in Parliament doing condolence speeches or responding impromptu to an unexpected development in question time and another person emerges. There is indeed warmth and spontaneity there, but we’re not seeing it in these high-profile situations — and that matters. It matters because the things he stands for and the issues he addresses are of critical importance.

Following the most recent decisions of the Fair Work Commission, it is really looking as if our industrial relations model is broken. That’s not just the union rhetoric. It’s a lived reality for countless people on contracted employment, without security or benefits. The cost of living is no longer about the prices people are prepared to pay (as classical economists like to see it) they are about the charges people are forced to meet — for medical procedures and health insurance, for tertiary education and training, for rates and rents. Tax cuts for the biggest companies and wealthiest individuals are not merely "unjustified", they are an obscenity.

So it’s not Shorten’s style to raise the rhetoric to that kind of pitch. That’s okay. There are others on his front bench who can be the attack dogs when they’re needed. Shorten has the makings of a fine prime minister, but this performance is unlikely to convince those who don’t see it that way.

Watch Bill Shorten's National Press Club address here.

Jane Goodall is a freelance writer and Emeritus Professor with the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University. You can follow Jane on Twitter @Jayrgoodall.

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