Will Shorten blow It?

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Opposition Leader Bill Shorten (Screenshot via YouTube)

If anything was demonstrated by the last day of Federal Parliament this year it was that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten looked increasingly like former Labor Opposition Leader Kim Beazley in 2001.

That is, apart from the truth of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s promise that he would do anything in his power and use any tool or tactic to prevent doctors from deciding if people needed access to medical treatment in Australia.

Back in 2001, the Federal Election was there to be won by Labor — until the Tampa Affair and 9/11 blew Beazley’s "small target" strategy into oblivion. John Howard successfully labelled Beazley as having "no ticker" and Beazley responded by meekly following the Howard agenda — thereby convincing a majority of voters that he was weak and vacillating.

Ever since Beazley’s failure, the story has been repeated by Labor — even when they have won elections.  Both former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard competed with the far-Right in a race to play tweedle-dum to their tweedle-dee on asylum seekers, climate change, Iraq and Afghanistan, taxation, housing affordability, and even education.

The election of Kerryn Phelps in Wentworth was not insignificantly due to her promises to tackle climate change and the indefinite detention of refugees in offshore detention. The clear rejection of the politics of fear and division in the Victorian State Election was also instrumental in the Andrews Government's return to power.

After these events, the obvious course for Federal Labor was to show some real "ticker" on issues like climate change, the Adani mine, refugees and the Encryption Bill.

At long last, after many years, it appeared that Labor would put some space between them and the completely morally bankrupt, illiberal Liberals. But any gains they made in supporting Phelps on attempting to change the law on asylum seekers’ access to medical treatment, was undermined by Shorten’s cave-in on the flawed encryption legislation.

It was a major victory for Morrison in several ways. 

It placed at front and centre the question of whether Shorten was just another weak and vacillating Labor leader who would crumble at the first hurdle as prime minister. It also demonstrated to Morrison that his "tools and tactics" were immediately effective in the personal battle he has publicly declared to wage in order to wreck Shorten’s credibility.

Given the dysfunctionality of the Morrison Government – its hypocrisy, dishonesty, inhumanity, Machiavellianism and cynicism – one would expect that any "drover’s dog" would outpoll Morrison as preferred prime minister, but Shorten doesn’t. 

The horrendous farce which now masquerades as proper governance in Australia, is now where all the protocols, conventions, procedures and processes developed over time into parliamentary practices are regarded by our current Prime Minister as "tools and tactics" to serve his own personal position. Even with this level of government dysfunction, there remains the possibility that Labor’s inability to take the high road rather than the timid road will bring them undone — as it has done repeatedly this century. 

Maybe Shorten and his equally quake-like colleagues should listen to the kids, and actually give them a louder voice. Surely "it’s time" — to mention the Labor campaign theme of 1972. Most Australians don’t want Morrison and his lump of coal. Most Australians don’t want cruelty to vulnerable people.  But they also don’t want an alternative Labor government which caves in, either. Instead of channelling Beazley, the Labor Party needs to channel Curtin — and have the guts to do so.

Which is why Shorten’s behaviour on the last day of Parliament was not a good sign at all.

Peter Henning is a Tasmanian historian who lived in the Tamar Valley in Tasmania during the pulp mill controversy.

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