How lucky is Bill Shorten? After mixed reviews of his performance over the past 10 months, the Labor Leader could soon benefit from the crossbench chaos enveloping the Abbott Government in the Senate by doing little more than standing around looking statesmanlike.
Shorten has struggled since becoming Opposition Leader to get the balance right between being the alternative prime minister and the ruthless oppositionist that four years of Abbott has brought the Australian voting public to expect.
The relative merits of strategic opposition compared with all-out obstructionism also sat at the heart of the competition between Shorten and Anthony Albanese when they campaigned last year to become Labor leader. This issue continues to be a source of contention between the two men, if well-connected political commentators are to be believed.
Yet the arrival of Palmer and his wreckers in the Senate have made Shorten’s inner tussle with negativity a moot point.
While Shorten must at least couch any opposition to Coalition Government initiatives within the parameters set by ALP policies and the expectations of Labor supporters, Palmer has no such boundaries. In fact the Member for Fairfax has shown an early willingness to eschew even consistency or logic to make life difficult for the Prime Minister.
Irrespective of the cause, the Abbott Government will ultimately be held accountable for the untidy way parliamentary business is being conducted and, by extension, how the government is run. This is the key political lesson learned from the Gillard years, and the reason why Government ministers are sounding particularly shrill as they try to apportion blame for the current shambles while recognising that such protestations are a pointless endeavour.
Palmer has essentially usurped Shorten’s role since he started messing with the Senate and Abbott’s mind, but he has also reduced pressure on the Labor Leader to emulate Abbott’s destructive style.
Shorten’s relief at this turn of events has been almost palpable. In a television interview yesterday he appeared relaxed and confident, and the singsong cadence that he’s adopted since becoming Opposition Leader was mostly missing. In the space of that one short interview, Shorten become a voice of reason that cut through last week’s parliamentary cacophony.
Incidentally, an appearance by Albanese on a rival network at about the same, in a suit and tie on a Sunday no less, was also good.
Even though it’s true that governments lose elections rather than oppositions win them, an opposition will not prevail unless it’s considered to be a viable alternative. Labor may be doing well in the opinion polls currently, but their primary vote is still low, which suggests voters will take some time to forget what they disliked about the Rudd and Gillard years.
Voters will also continue to be attracted to Palmer as long as his populism and conflicts of interest evade scrutiny. But on polling day they’ll choose the party they believe will best provide a responsible and competent government. That’s unlikely to be PUP if Palmer continues to claim he doesn’t care if the Government has to incur more debt to pay for the wholesale changes he’s making to the budget.
Palmer’s obstructionism not only provides Shorten with the opportunity to show his leadership credentials, but also gives Labor the chance to focus on developing and promoting its credentials as the alternative government.
While Shorten made a good start with the response to the budget, such an “alternative government” campaign would require Labor bringing forward plans to reverse the party’s reputation for poor economic management, whether it is deserved or not.
This would also be an ideal time for the ALP to sever any ties of complicity that it has with the Coalition Government on policies such as those that have led to the current inhumane treatment of asylum seekers.
Shorten can no doubt improve his approval rating by just standing back from the Senate fray and saying sensible things.
But by building on the perception that Labor is the only competent party left in the Australian Parliament, the Labor leader can do more – he can reconnect with lost voters, recapture the middle ground, and take his party closer to success at the next federal election.