Time for a Turnbull reset

Malcolm Turnbull has a one-off (if not entirely deserved) opportunity to reinvent his government, re-set voter expectations, and deliver policies befitting, dare we say, an innovative Government.

Malcolm Turnbull has a one-off (if not entirely deserved) opportunity to reinvent his government, re-set voter expectations, and deliver policies befitting, dare we say, an innovative Government.

Weekly column for The Drum.

Abbott’s mind should be on Canning, not Cape York

With the Canning by-election campaign ramping up, Tony Abbott’s decision to visit Indigenous communities now muddies a narrative that should be built around jobs and the economy.

This week, the Prime Minister will visit a number of remote Indigenous communities in northern Australia. According to media reports, the PM’s entourage will include cabinet and junior ministers as well as senior departmental officials.

No doubt a small battalion of support staff will be there as well, if only to marshal the journalists brought along to document the PM’s annual outreach campaign.

If this year’s week in the north is anything like the last one, it will be hard to identify what benefit, if any, this travelling road show brings to the local communities that feature as backdrops for prime ministerial pic-facs.

As Fairfax journalist Michael Gordon wrote last week, there has been little progress on Indigenous issues since the PM last went bush in 2014. Instead, Indigenous Australia has experienced:

…budget cuts, a growing shift away from Indigenous to mainstream organisations for service delivery, a Closing the Gap report card showing no progress in some areas and regression in others, and some ill-chosen remarks about “lifestyle choices” that were seen as provocative and utterly ill-informed.

There is of course the matter of constitutional recognition, but at times Abbott has vacillated on the question, most likely under pressure from conservatives in the Liberal Party.

There is little reason to doubt the PM’s good intentions when it comes to improving the lives of Indigenous Australians; he has been an advocate for change since visiting remote Indigenous communities as health minister during the Howard years.

Abbott’s visit to the grave of Eddie Mabo this week also suggests he is determined to be more than just another white fella PM who passes through before the wet season commences.

But there is also no denying the PM’s off-track tour conveniently gives him a reason to avoid campaigning in Western Australia for the Canning by-election.

Since the 2013 federal election, the PM and his Government have squandered a handsome electoral lead in the state, which no doubt contributed to the decision by WA MPs Luke Simpkins and, ironically, the former member for Canning, Don Randall to call the leadership spill vote against Abbott in February.

And now, at the commencement of the by-election campaign following Randall’s death, the new Liberal candidate for Canning faces a 10 per cent swing against him (or more accurately his party). If this threatened backlash persists until polling day, it could potentially wipe out Randall’s previously strong margin of 11.8 per cent. And if the Greens continue to grow their vote in the west, their preferences could even push Labor over the line, making life for PM Abbott considerably more difficult.

This makes Abbott’s decision to go north this week even more curious.

Everything the Government does in a communication sense over the next four weeks should be targeted at the voters of Canning. This is because the convergence of mainstream media paired with the adoption of social media ensures everything said and done on the east coast is transmitted to the west coast in real time.

So even if the PM thought it wise to physically stay distant from the Canning campaign (other than to appear at the launch), his advocacy of Indigenous issues this week simply muddies the campaign narrative.

Like most Australians, the voters of Canning are more interested in jobs than they are about constitutional recognition. A recent poll by the Australian National University found that 82 per cent of Australians supported removing clauses from the constitution that “discriminate on the basis of race”.

But when asked to nominate the two most important problems facing Australia today, only 1 per cent of respondents nominated Indigenous affairs. The top three issues were the economy/jobs, immigration and terrorism.

The Canning by-election is all about jobs, and Labor has wasted no time in staking out the “jobs” territory. This is somewhat ironic given “jobs and growth” is meant to be the Prime Minister’s latest mantra; at least it is according to twice-leaked Coalition talking points last week.

And it certainly seems to be the case given the numerous press conferences (read: picture opportunities) held by Abbott in past days, during which he apparently focused on jobs while variously climbing a fence, looking determinedly at cattle, surveying a shipyard, posing with cafe staff wearing pink uniforms, and looking at machinery while wearing a hard hat.

So if “jobs and growth” is the Coalition’s overarching theme at the moment, and if “jobs and growth” are so important in Canning, it is simply poor communication strategy for the Prime Minister to be on the opposite side of the country talking about Indigenous health, education and constitutional recognition.

Yes, it is important for Abbott to fulfil his commitment as the “Prime Minister for Indigenous Australians”. But given his need to do well in Canning – not to mention improve the Government’s poll standing more broadly – Abbott’s boys’ own adventure in Cape York seems like self-indulgence at a time when discipline in communication is particularly needed.

Greens circling as Labor dives into treacherous waters

If Labor gets its boats policy wrong, there is one party waiting to scoop up the unhappy voters, and it’s not led by Tony Abbott.

If Labor gets its boats policy wrong, there is one party waiting to scoop up the unhappy voters, and it’s not led by Tony Abbott.

Analysis for The New Daily.

Political leaks leave voters in the dark

The pact of secrecy that allows politicians to use journalists for political means, and rewards those journalists for being little more than a cipher, does not strengthen democracy – as Laurie Oakes suggests – but belittles it.

To say the relationship between journalist and politician is symbiotic is to describe a fundamental truth; one could barely function without the other.

This mutual need defines the deeply problematic nature of the relationship, particularly when it comes to “anonymous” leaks.

Leaks to the media play an important part in the transactional world of politics, where the journalist who receives the exclusive information gets kudos for the coveted scoop while the leaker achieves their objective without leaving any fingerprints.

Doyen of the Canberra press gallery, Laurie Oakes, claims democracy “can’t work without leaks”. That may be so, but when a politician leaks to the media only the MP knows the true purpose of the subterfuge, while the journalist accepts being an unwitting accomplice in return for the exclusive.

Oakes has over past decades made an art form of getting political leaks. And he’s never shied from this clandestine form of journalism, noting that “people use me and I use them. It’s the way reporting has always worked.”

As a result, a number of modern political history’s turning points have been the result of a surreptitious drop to Oakes.

In 1980 he was given 15 minutes in a car park to go through confidential budget papers, the contents of which he revealed the night before the budget’s official release. In 1991 it was Oakes who blew the lid on then Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s failure to deliver on the secret “Kirribilli agreement”, which was a promise to stand aside for Treasurer Paul Keating after the 1990 federal election. And in 1997 it was Oakes again who used leaked material to expose Howard Government ministers who were rorting their travel allowances.

More recently, Oakes used information leaked from a confidential cabinet discussion during the Rudd era, which undermined then Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s stance on paid parental leave and the aged pension and delivered a killer blow to her 2010 federal election campaign.

While on this occasion political observers were fairly sure about Oakes’s source, and why the information was leaked, the purpose of other leaks is not always so clear.

This is particularly the case during leadership stoushes, when one side can issue leaks ostensibly from their opponents in an attempt to cow or destabilise them. The most recent likely example of that tactic was when the Prime Minister’s supporters were said to have leaked that leadership contender Malcolm Turnbull had the numbers, but Turnbull supporters said this was merely an attempt to pressure him to declare his candidacy.

Given that nothing may actually be as it seems when it comes to political leaks, what are we to make of Oakes’s column on the weekend suggesting PM Abbott may bring on an election soon after this year’s budget?

Oakes claimed in his weekly offering that the PM is “itching to hit Bill Shorten” and has been boasting the Government could win even if the Coalition started the election campaign four points behind Labor.

Quoting “colleagues”, a “Cabinet minister” and “a bureaucrat involved in the Budget process”, Oakes speculated whether a double dissolution election would be held soon after the anticipated good-news budget, particularly given the Government could hardly afford to deliver another voter-friendly budget (with no spending cuts) before the scheduled election in 2016.

The telltale indication whether this is Oakes idly connecting the dots or a concerted leak from the Government can be found in the words of the quoted Cabinet minister. According to Oakes, the senior minister had “sneered at the idea only a few weeks ago” but has recently said a DD election is “not beyond the realms of possibility”.

Yet without knowing who encouraged Oakes with such information, it is impossible to know its true purpose.

The proposition could be as simple as it looks, with the Government floating the idea through a respected journalist in an attempt to gauge the voting community’s appetite for an early election.

It could be a veiled threat to the independents and micro party representatives on the Senate crossbench, signalling that if their cooperation is not forthcoming the Government will implement reforms to Senate voting before holding a DD election that would bring about their defeat. Oakes notes this is a consideration, and that “to avoid angering Senate crossbenchers while it still needs them, the Government would probably only legislate those reforms just before an election”.

Then again, this leak could be about the PM’s still-tenuous hold on the Liberal leadership, with Oakes noting an election held shortly after the budget would head off any challenge. The prospect of an early election might also motivate a leadership contender to move swiftly after the budget to bring on another spill vote.

If so, the leak to Oakes might not be about Abbott trying to shut down Turnbull, but an attempt by Turnbull supporters to gird his loins, or even by the Bishop camp to flush him out.

Who knows? This is the rub when it comes to the mutually-dependent relationship between journalists and politicians. Leaks to the media can ensure that politicians and governments are held to account, but when politicians leak for tactical reasons their objectives are hidden by the same cloak of anonymity that protects whistle-blowers.

The pact of secrecy that allows politicians to use journalists for political means, and rewards those journalists for being little more than a cipher, does not strengthen democracy – as Oakes suggests – but belittles it.

Collusion between politicians and the media might help to meet their objectives, but it goes nowhere towards meeting the transparency needs of the voting public.

Without change, Abbott’s a dead man walking

Tony Abbott’s long-awaited address to the National Press Club today has become much more about his own survival than a rebalancing of his Government’s wobbly electoral prospects, writes Paula Matthewson.

Today at the National Press Club, Prime Minister Tony Abbott will attempt to breathe life into the stumbling and battered figure that is his leadership.

Following fast on the heels of the weekend’s landslide election result in Queensland, this will be the first speech the PM has given to the NPC since winning government nearly 18 months ago. The speech was originally intended as another attempt to reset the parliamentary year for the Government, with the unveiling of a refurbished policy agenda focused on “jobs and families”.

Now, following Abbott’s latest self-inflicted wounds and the obvious similarity between his political approach and the one soundly rejected by voters in Queensland, the NPC event has become much more about Abbott’s survival than a rebalancing of his Government’s wobbly electoral prospects.

When the Newman LNP Government was elected in Queensland in 2012, it was considered a likely harbinger of an Abbott Coalition Government at the national level. As it turned out, Abbott closely followed the Newman blueprint, instigating a Commission of Audit to identify spending cuts, cutting a swathe through the public service, and taking an ideologically-driven austerity approach to budget repair.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, both leaders also made the mistake of assuming their party’s credentials as better economic leaders would inoculate them against the community anger that grew over broken election promises and the harsh measures imposed “in the public interest”.

Following the deafening outcome of the Queensland election, it’s difficult not to see a strong connection between the reckoning delivered by voters to Premier Newman and what they’d like to do to Abbott at the next federal election. This future bloodbath was foreshadowed in yesterday’s Galaxy Poll, which indicated only 36 per cent of voters would give their primary vote to the Coalition if an election were held at this time, while only 27 per cent of voters nominated Abbott as their preferred PM.*

If replicated in Newspoll, this would give Abbott equal ranking with prime minister Paul Keating, who scored the lowest preferred PM rating of 27 per cent in August 1993.

This is getting close to being a politically irretrievable position for the PM, and one that is entirely his own doing. Abbott was closely involved in developing the disastrous budget that shattered voters’ expectations for a fair government, while the accumulation of the PM’s self-indulgences such as the knighting of Prince Philip has made him an electoral laughing stock.

The PM is also responsible for allowing his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, to exercise wide-ranging power on his behalf, giving her the ability to shape and veto every policy decision, micro-manage the Government’s communication strategy, and determine who can and can’t get access to the man at the top.

According to one weekend media report, this unchecked power has allowed Credlin to excise any and all dissenters from the inner circle, thereby exposing the PM to the perils of groupthink. However, Credlin is a symptom and not the cause of the Prime Minister’s problems, and his colleagues have put him on notice to not only acknowledge those problems but do something about them.

Abbott’s address to the NPC today will be his best chance to do so. To an extent the PM will talk in code, acknowledging that he’s heard the message from Queensland and other voters but in reality, the PM’s audience in this instance will be his restive party room colleagues. One journalist has gone so far as to describe today’s event as Abbott essentially begging for his job.

The problem that will likely emerge from the PM today is that, despite saying he’s heard the concerns of voters, Abbott appears to have not “listened” to them at all. Nowhere in his acknowledgement of the Queensland election result has Abbott conceded that Newman’s reformist policies (and therefore those of his own Government) were part of the problem.

Conservative media doyen Paul Kelly perhaps best describes the lessons Abbott should have taken from the Queensland result:

The lessons are that broken political promises won’t be tolerated, leadership arrogance is fatal, the public does not accept the tough Liberal Party prescriptions on debt and deficits and, if sufficiently disillusioned, it will restore formerly discredited ALP governments after one term on the pledge they will “listen” and ditch the harsh medicine.

Yet according to comments made by Abbott yesterday, he believes the Government simply needs to plough on with its own reforms, no matter how harsh or unfair, and just needs to get its communication strategy right:

Obviously there are lessons from the result in Queensland. The lessons are not to give up on reform but to make sure that everything you propose is fully explained and well justified and obviously that’s a lesson we’re determined to learn in Canberra as well.

Some Queensland MPs beg to differ, with federal backbencher Wyatt Roy suggesting the Government not only needs to become “very good at explaining complicated ideas (and) painting a vision for the future of the country” but also must improve by “taking the public into our confidence and explaining how we can achieve that vision and the challenges that we face along the way.”

These words are uncannily like those delivered in a speech by Malcolm Turnbull over the weekend to an audience in Los Angeles.

Turnbull has been out of the country since Australia Day, participating in the G’Day USA trade promotion campaign held annually in the US. While this speech may have started out as part of Turnbull’s long-game, it’s quickly gained currency as Abbott’s leadership standing has crumbled.

Inconveniently for Abbott, Turnbull’s speech provides the PM with a model response to his current political woes. Arguing that it’s easy to describe how governments can maintain wage levels and social safety nets within first world economies, Turnbull went on to warn that the solutions are nevertheless hard to execute.

Turnbull agreed communication was part of the challenge, arguing that:

Leaders must be decision makers, but they must also be, above all, explainers and advocates, unravelling complex issues in clear language that explains why things have to change and why the Government cannot solve every problem.

He also noted the need to take “decisions which may not be popular but will be accepted because the public understands why they have to be taken.” This is Turnbull’s retelling of the “take the voters along with you” invocation that former PM John Howard tried to convey to Abbott at the NPC in June last year.

The need to BE fair as well as being seen to be fair is the message that PM Abbott is just not heeding. He didn’t listen to Howard, nor does it seem that he has listened to the people of Queensland. But Turnbull has listened carefully, telling the LA crowd:

It is vitally important, both as a matter of social justice and political reality, that structural changes are seen as being fair across the board. That means not only must tough decisions be justified, but that the burden of adjustment is not borne disproportionately by one part of the community.

It’s hardly coincidental that Turnbull now appears to be firming as the contender most likely to replace Abbott if the current PM is deemed by colleagues to be permanently damaged in the eyes of the electorate.

Four weeks ago, this column predicted Abbott had six months to turn his political fortunes around. Four events were identified as being the potential turning points. An unhelpful intervention in the Queensland election was one, and a poor performance at tomorrow’s NPC address was another, leaving the NSW election and 2015 budget as two other possible pivots.

State and federal LNP MPs are making no bones about the floating of the GST, Medicare cuts and industrial relations reform at the national level making matters worse for the party during the state election. Their disgruntlement adds to that of the Victorian MPs still seething over similar problems during their state election in December.

Yet there is still hope being held out by the PM’s ministry that today’s speech will revive what is increasingly looking to outsiders as an odorous leadership corpse.

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon, helpfully kicking along the leadership can, has given the PM only until the end of this week to save his leadership. According to Xenophon, nothing less than a massive turnaround in Abbott’s policies and approach to government will save him.

The expected announcement today of the Prime Minister’s new “jobs and families” package, including an anticipated repudiation of his own paid parental leave scheme, may well signal a change in the Government’s policies. And a newly-expressed willingness to consult and listen may well lead to an improvement in his approach.

But if the Prime Minister continues to ignore the need to fundamentally change – in the name of being a “strong” government – and uses today’s NPC address to simply dismiss his problems as nothing more than a communication problem, he will be a dead man walking, with very few left willing to save his political soul.

Queensland election – enrol now (by Sat 10 Jan 2015)

Apparently there’s a bit of confusion about enrolling to vote in the Queensland state election that will be held on 31 January 2015.

So here’s a few tips.

  1. If you live in Queensland and want to vote in the election, you can get on to the electoral roll right up until the night before the election, but if you want your name to appear on the printed electoral roll you need to register by 5pm this Saturday, 10 January 2015.
  2. If you’re not sure that you’re on the electoral roll, you can check here.
  3. If you’ve moved to a different address since the last Queensland election, you can update your address details here.
  4. If you want to enrol, you can do so here, but keep in mind that you will need to confirm your identity using your driver’s licence or Australian passport number or have someone who is enrolled confirm your identity.
  5. If you’re 17 at the moment but will be 18 on or before election day (31 January 2015), you can also enrol now.
  6. If you have other questions about enrolling to vote in the Queensland election on 31 January 2015, you may find the answer here. Otherwise, you can ask the Australian Electoral Commission using this contact page.

Abbott has six months to get it right

The next federal election may be two years away, but Tony Abbott’s reckoning will take place within the next six months.

There’s a question that’s been rolling around the minds of political pundits over the summer break: can Tony Abbott make it through 2015 to argue the case for his Government’s re-election in 2016? Or has the Prime Minister squandered the political capital gained from scrapping the carbon tax and stopping the boats, leaving him with an irretrievable credibility deficit in the eyes of voters?

Trade Minister Andrew Robb – who as federal director of the Liberal Party ran the losing campaign in 1993 for John Hewson and then the winning one in 1996 for John Howard – was at least putting on a brave face in November last year, saying there’s still a long way to go until polling day.

And indeed that’s true. At this point there’s almost two years until the next federal election. And if we’ve learned anything this past year it’s that political fortunes can turn on a dime – just ask former NSW premier Barry O’Farrell or his Labor counterpart John Robertson.

Robb’s words imply Abbott has time to turn his political fortunes around, yet the voting public seems far less confident; 51 per cent of respondents to an Essential Poll in December indicated they didn’t believe Abbott would be PM at the next federal election. While this result was due in large part to the non-Coalition supporters in the survey sample, even only 50 per cent of Coalition supporters thought Abbott would survive as PM to the next election.

Abbott’s lowest approval rating* so far is 30 per cent, recorded in the weeks after the federal budget. He is yet to sink to the depths of Paul Keating in August 1993 (17 per cent), Julia Gillard in September 2011 (23 per cent) and Bob Hawke in December 1991 (27 per cent). While Hawke and Gillard were replaced as PM, in Hawke’s case immediately after that poll, Keating battled on until the 1996 election, which he lost to John Howard.

On this measure, the portents don’t speak well for Abbott. So it is perhaps not surprising that in an end-of-year interview he essentially argued against a change in PM, citing voters’ apparent punishment of Labor for the Rudd coup.

What Abbott conveniently forgot to note is that the Gillard ascension came as a complete surprise to the broader community, and there was no understanding of the need to remove Rudd. Gillard’s perceived illegitimacy, paired with party instability caused by Rudd’s campaign of revenge, were as much to blame for Labor’s poor polling as the initial ruthless removal of the presiding PM.

This scenario has no analogue with the hypothetical removal of Abbott. If it were to happen, the voting public would be under no illusion as to why the Coalition ditched an unpopular and accident-prone PM who failed to listen to his colleagues or make a connection with voters.

Of the four prime ministers with higher disapproval ratings than Abbott’s 62 per cent – Keating with 75 per cent, Gillard with 68 per cent, John Howard with 64 per cent and Hawke with 64 per cent – only Howard went on to win the next election (with a little help from the Tampa incident and the September 11 attacks).

Does this mean Abbott is doomed to the ex-prime ministerial scrap heap?

Well, not yet. The man does have the capacity to transform himself if he puts his mind to it. We saw this after the summer break in 2013, when Abbott emerged resplendent in trust-me navy suits and regulationpale blue tie. This was following months of media and commentator speculation about whether the opposition leader could drop the brawler persona that had served him so well in opposition for the more statesmanlike approach that voters expected of their alternative prime minister.

Abbott started the new year in 2013 with an address to the National Press Club, reminiscent of the “headland” speeches that John Howard favoured to refresh or reset a political or policy agenda. Having unveiled a “fresh” approach at the NPC, Abbott’s new wardrobe was matched with a different tack in parliament too, in which he remained above the fray and delegated the attack dog duties to shadow ministers instead.

This approach worked, and by March Abbott took the lead as preferred PM. That is, until Gillard was replaced by Rudd in June 2013.

So Abbott has demonstrated the capacity to change his approach, but the transformation he must undergo this summer to secure his political survival will necessarily involve much more than getting new designer duds. Regrettably, it’s a challenge to sort through the inches and hours of advice being gratuitously provided to identify which is well meant and which is ideologically driven.

For mine I will offer only one suggestion: repair the Government’s relationship with voters before trying to prosecute any reform agenda.

In reality it’s too early to tell whether Abbott will make it through 2015 as Prime Minister but there are three – maybe four – upcoming tests of his survival.

The first will be a likely “headland” address to the National Press Club later this month. The second and third will be the state elections in Queensland (expected by end of March) and NSW (on March 28). And the last will be the budget in May.

Each of these events provides Abbott and his Government with the opportunity for political success as well as the seeds of their own destruction. The NPC address can kick off the Government’s apparent new focus on jobs and children, but if Abbott uses it to tell voters they must listen or don’t understand the importance of budgetary reform then it will entrench voter resentment.

Such antipathy will be compounded if Abbott shows the same disregard for his colleagues in the Liberal heartlands of Queensland and NSW as he did for Victorian premier Denis Napthine in November. Unrest within the federal Coalition’s party room is also at least partly due to the impact that Abbott’s poorly timed petrol tax announcement had on the Victorian election, and similar misjudgements in the other two state elections could foment the unhappiness of MPs with marginal seats in those locations.

And finally, there is the budget, of which little needs to be said other than it must be seen to be fair. The chances of that happening are minimal if the Government’s aforementioned relationship with voters is not first repaired.

Abbott is by no means Australia’s most unpopular prime minister, but it would be unwise of him to assume Labor’s Rudd experience will stop the Coalition party room from removing him if he becomes a political liability. There are enough former Howard ministers in that party room to remember the cost of not moving on him before they were subjected to electoral oblivion in 2007 – and it’s not likely to be an experience they want to repeat.

The next election is indeed two years away, but Abbott’s reckoning will take place within the next six months. He has only until then to repair his relationship with voters and turn his electoral prospects around.

*All opinion poll results are from Newspoll, except for the Essential Poll result where noted and linked.

Shorten must break the union stranglehold

Labor is on the nose and Bill Shorten has a plan to appeal to the middle ground. But as with Labor leaders before him, he will need to confront the unions if he hopes to make a change.

There’s no way to put a gloss on it: the Labor Party is on the nose with voters.

The Liberals and Labor both suffered swings of about 5 per cent against them in the weekend’s Western Australia Senate election re-run. But given the chance to protest against the Abbott Government for its litany of flaws and failures, voters chose to flock to the bombastic Clive Palmer and Greens social media hero Scott Ludlam instead of Labor’s alternative prime minister, Bill Shorten.

Shorten didn’t really need the rejection to know he has a problem. The unwillingness of some Labor supporters to choose either the gay marriage advocate Louise Pratt or the Neanderthal Joe Bullock likely reinforced his existing view that the ALP needs to reconnect with voters in the middle ground in order to survive.

The Labor Leader foreshadowed this last month at the National Press Club when he announced that he wanted to mainstream the Labor Party by opening it up to non-traditional party members and “modernise” Labor’s relationship with the union movement. By integrating middle Australia into the party’s ranks, Shorten clearly hopes Labor will better reflect the needs and aspirations of the broader political centre and thereby secure their elusive votes.

Shorten was expected to announce his proposed reforms today.

It’s hard to pinpoint which of the anticipated changes will be resisted more by the unions: those that affect their ability to influence Labor’s policies or those that curb their right to gift seats in Parliament.

Both powers are responsible for driving voters away.

The Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), for example, continues to influence its faction members’ position on same-sex marriage, ensuring that even a conscience vote on the matter would not produce a majority of supportive Labor MPs. Meanwhile the CFMEU has no qualms about whipping up xenophobia to further its campaign against 457 visas for foreign workers, giving little regard to how that exacerbates community prejudice against asylum seekers.

Equally alienating for centrist voters is the ALP’s all-too-common practice of relegating high quality candidates to tenuous positions on Senate tickets or unwinnable House of Representatives seats while lesser quality candidates are given safe positions as a reward for their time served in the union movement.

It seems nothing was learned in 2012 when the faceless man, SDA member and factional heavyweight, Don Farrell, gained and then gave up the number one Senate spot in South Australia to then Finance Minister Penny Wong.

The practice continued in 2013 when right-wing unions muscled in longtime SDA official Joe Bullock as the number one WA Senate candidate for the upcoming federal election. They did so again for last weekend’s Senate election re-run, both times consigning the more politically prospective but left-wing Louise Pratt to the challenging second position on the ticket and possible defeat.

Granted, Senate sinecures are not the sole province of Labor; the Liberals are also good at slotting former party operatives into winnable senate positions. But in the case of Senator-elect Joe Bullock, who cruelly ridiculed his running mate and called all Labor members crazy, this may well have been the last straw for Western Australian Labor supporters on polling day.

In a perverse way, the poor Senate result may be just what Shorten needs to take the edge off resistance to his proposed weakening of the unions’ hold on the party.

Following last month’s Press Club address the Labor Leader has reportedly been calling party officials and union leaders to talk them through his proposal. Trusted others such as Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek and former Senate leader Chris Evans have been singing the same tune. And today’s announcement is the next step in creating a sense of momentum and inevitability for the changes.

Yet if he is to succeed, Shorten will need something that evaded the two previous Labor leaders who tried to sever the nexus between the ALP and its labour roots.

He will need unions to be willing supporters of the reforms, or at the very least for them not to plot against him as they did with Crean and Rudd. Thanks to Rudd’s antipathy for the unions and the rules he imposed to make it harder to change the party leader, it will at least be much harder for recalcitrant unions to remove Shorten before he attempts to save his party from future electoral oblivion.

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