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Bill Shorten conspicuously short of good ideas

25 April 2015 144 views No Comment

An astute observer of Bill Shorten’s political and parliamentary behaviour may detect a revealing pattern.

In 2013 Shorten was elected Labor leader under a process that recently has been brought into serious question.

Last year the Opposition Leader opposed virtually every reform proposed by the Abbott government, including $5 billion worth of budget reform that the ALP had proposed when it was last in government. Shorten bragged about this by saying that Labor that year had been defined by its resistance. Yet he promised that 2015 would be full of ideas.

Now, Bill Shorten is failing to live up to even the lowest level of expectations. His “year of ideas so far has been defined by a dearth of ideas and any principled statements. This is with the possible ­exception of Labor’s recently floated notion to increase tax on superannuation.

In reality, the only detailed idea to emerge from Shorten this year has been for internal reform of the Labor Party. But this came as a response to the allegations of vote-rigging in the process that elected him federal leader of the ALP. Moreover, internal reforms in the Labor Party will hardly address the huge issues that are faced by Australian families and the wider community.

Surely, one might think, Shorten’s behaviour must be part of a co-ordinated and conscious strategy — to say and do as little as possible to walk into the Lodge next year, without the Australian public noticing.

But, on closer scrutiny, it appears that this is not the case. It seems that Shorten is incapable of critical independent thought, and is bereft of any key ideas or ideological base.

This is not the first time this observation has been made about him. Years before Shorten became a member of parliament, ex-ALP leader Mark Latham belled the cat when he recounted in his famed diaries: “Little Billy (Shorten) was in my ear about the FTA (the American free trade agreement) telling me the party has to support it. I said that I thought both he and his union were against it, to which he responded, ‘That’s just for the members’.

This shows that Shorten wants to be all things to all people. It also demonstrates that he can’t make his mind up on issues based on principled stances because it is clear that he doesn’t know what precisely are his principles and what he actually believes.

When he was a union boss, no one really knew what he stood for. When he was a minister the same applied, and since he has been ­Opposition Leader citizens still don’t know what Shorten stands for and believes.

Unsurprisingly the media and the Australian people, including the rank and file of the ALP and the labour movement, are fast waking up to this glaring absence.

It is revealing to contrast Shorten’s statements and actions as Opposition Leader with those of recent and historic opposition leaders. In his early days in opposition, Tony Abbott wrote a fascinating 206-page book, ‘Battlelines’, outlining the principles that define him and his view of the world.

In ‘Battlelines’, Abbott carefully enunciated his key principles and beliefs, and explained how they helped define his vision for Australia. To this day, the Prime Minister maintains these principles. Whether one agrees or disagrees with him, Abbott is clearly a prime minister with stated principles. This is because every key decision Abbott makes is grounded on values that he holds dear.

Similarly, when Joe Hockey was in opposition, in one of the most important speeches of the past decade he declared the age of entitlement was over.

The speech was well researched, principled and provocative in that it wasn’t designed so that everyone would agree with him. But no one could dispute that it was a marker of Hockey’s beliefs about the role that government should play in people’s lives.

In fact this place-marker has helped underpin some of the federal government’s most important decisions economically, including those relating to SPC-Ardmona, the Australian car industry and Qantas.

But it is not just incumbent leaders who have used a period in opposition to refine and subsequently outline their principles and views.

From the depths of opposition, Robert Menzies’ speeches — often broadcast word for word on radio and widely published — formed the principles the modern Liberal Party still holds as its foundation. Menzies’ 1942 “Forgotten People address — made the year after losing power due to two independents switching their allegiances from Menzies to the ALP’s John Curtin — inspired the birth of the Liberal Party of Australia.

Never before had a prominent politician tried to define the concept of the middle class as it applied to Australian society. But Menzies achieved his goal, naming this large group of citizens “the forgotten people.

Seven years later, in 1949, after a tumultuous period of federal Labor government and with the backing of these “forgotten people, Menzies led his new party to his stunning election victory over his personal friend and political enemy Ben Chifley, who died in 1951.

While it would be untrue to say that a vast majority agreed with the content of the speeches and publications of Abbott, Hockey and Menzies, it demonstrates that, although they were often personally and politically unpopular, and sometimes deeply flawed and fallible, these leading politicians were staunch and resolute about what they stood for and believed.

Abbott and Menzies in particular epitomise exactly what Shorten is not. The politicians who made these speeches and wrote these publications were and are willing to be defined by their principles and by their values.

But to be defined by one’s values, a person needs to have an understanding of what exactly are their underlying beliefs in the first place. As Opposition Leader, Shorten so far has been conspicuously short of good ideas, publically articulated and politically relevant.

It seems starkly obvious that this presently ideologically barren Opposition Leader can develop a set of convincing ideas only once he works out precisely what he stands for.

Only time will tell whether he will be able to do this. But it would certainly seem that Shorten’s “year of ideas is a long way off , if indeed it can ever be achieved.

Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 36 books, including ‘My Name is Ross : An Alcoholic’s Journey’, which is available as an e-book and a talking book from Vision Australia.

The Weekend Australian, April 25-26, 2015, Inquirer, p 30

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