Shorten’s timely transition from ‘no’ to ‘me too’

Relentless negativity isn’t the only path to electoral success, a fact that Bill Shorten appears to understand as he carefully picks his battles with the Abbott Government.

A funny thing happened on our way to war. After almost a year of trialling various iterations of the uber-negative stance taken by former opposition leader Tony Abbott, his successor Bill Shorten neatly pivoted from being “Mr No” to “Mr Me Too”.

It’s not unusual for a Labor opposition leader to support a conservative Australian government taking military action. Of course there are historical exceptions, such as the Vietnam War, as well as the more recent example of Simon Crean opposing the Howard government taking us into Iraq without proof of WMDs or the United Nations’ sanction.

However, being citizens of a fundamentally small “c” conservative nation, Australians are generally supportive of governments taking military action that is seen to “protect” us or our way of life. And we have little time for oppositions that criticise those actions in the name of political point-scoring.

Shorten’s Labor showed an early understanding of this political reality when MH17 was shot down.

No quibbles were made of the overtly muscular language used at the time by the Prime Minister and his Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop. No ironic jibes were levelled at Bishop as she headed forthwith to New York to exert pressure on Russia using Australia’s seat on the UN Security Council, despite her previously suggesting Rudd and Gillard’s campaign to acquire the seat was overly expensive if not indulgent.

Instead, Shorten took Abbott’s lead, also adopting the stance and words of a statesman, and even going so far as to pay tribute in the Parliament to the Government’s handling of the efforts to bring home the Australian victims of the MH17 tragedy:

The manner in which this has been conducted has made me proud to be Australian, and I congratulate the Government.

Shorten has also been swift to shut down any dissent within his own ranks, or any suggestion that Abbott is exploiting Australia’s domestic or international efforts against terrorism to deflect voter attention from the unpopular budget. (Although this is patently the result of those developments.)

As Australia has moved inexorably closer to returning to Iraq, Shorten has stood steadfastly by Abbott’s side, including last Friday when he joined the PM to farewell our first new troop deployment. As he notedjust days before that:

When it comes to fighting terror, we are all in this together. The Prime Minister and I are partners in national security…

The most interesting element of Shorten’s new-found bipartisanship is that it doesn’t appear to end with matters of national security.

The Labor leader reportedly met privately with Abbott before the PM travelled to Arnhem Land last week and resolved to work with the Government to give the best chance of success to the referendum that must be held in order for there to be constitutional recognition of the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The outbreak of cooperation may also have extended to Labor support for the Coalition’s new security laws, which are to be debated in Parliament this week, and scaled-back versions of some of the changesto welfare payment arrangements proposed in this year’s federal budget.

To be fair, Shorten hasn’t signed on to the unity ticket for everything being done by the Government. Abbott’s budget is still “unfair”, the Government’s decision to buy submarines off-the-shelf will “imperil Australia’s national security“, and Labor has now developed a nuanced position on engagement in Iraq and Syria that identifies a number of conditions that must be met by the Government to maintain the ALP’s continued support.

And while Shorten may well have agreed to work cooperatively with Abbott on constitutional recognition for Australia’s first peoples, he was still prepared to put the boot into the PM for his lack of consistency on improving the lot of Indigenous Australians:

The Prime Minister is visiting Arnhem Land this week to see firsthand the issues confronting Indigenous Australians. I think that is a great idea and I welcome his visit … yet he has cut over half a billion dollars from Indigenous services funding. So there are children and family child care centres which are closing. Legal aid is falling; this is at a time when young Aboriginal men, when they finish school, are more likely to go to jail than university.

So Tony Abbott, it is great that you are visiting – but actions count more than words. It’s about time we actually started standing up for Aboriginal Australians, not just visiting them.

Although it is early days with this multi-dimensional approach, Shorten appears to be finding the right balance between “no” and “me too”.

If he were to seek guidance on refining the method, the Labor leader would need look no further than the then opposition leader Kevin Rudd for inspiration.

Rudd ran the perfect “me too” campaign against then PM John Howard. He assuaged any voter concern about tossing out an aged and hubristic government for a TV-celebrity politician by saying he was just the same as Howard, but better. He agreed with Howard on many aspects of policy except for the key points of differentiation: climate change, asylum seekers and WorkChoices.

Rudd knew this tactic would work, because he had observed Howard use it against the tired and hubristic Hawke/Keating Government in 1996. Howard offered the same economic competence as Keating, but promised to govern “for all of us” to differentiate himself from Keating who was seen as having lost touch with everyday Australians.

History tells us the diametrically different style of oppositionism adopted by Tony Abbott was also successful, but that its personal cost was high. It is unlikely Abbott will ever be a popular politician in the traditional sense, nor is it likely he will attain a high level of community respect.

Luckily for Shorten, there is another possible path to electoral success, and it appears to be one that he is exploring.

If Shorten is successful in establishing a more “constructively-negative” approach to opposition, it might not quite lead to peace in our time, but it may well lead to the kinder, gentler polity that until recently has been little more than a wistfully muttered ideal.