Shorten's Shrewd Reticence

Back in my Melbourne drinking days (AKA 'the Amber Period'), my favourite pub in the CBD was the Cricketer's Bar at the Windsor Hotel across the street from the Victorian state parliament.  It helped that I lived for a while in an apartment in the laneway on the other side of the hotel. At the time, I was active in Australian Labor Party (ALP) politics, a period of bitter rivalry between sub-factional groupings within the Victorian Labor Unity (or Right) faction. There was an pseudonymous  blogger known as Delia Delegate on the Crikey website who was causing a stir, spinning salacious yarns that, on the face of it, seemed designed to boost the side of the schism with which I was associated. Long story short, Delia was widely thought to be me. She was not. For a start, I was way too drunk, way too often, to kept tabs on what was going on in the way Delia did.  Secondly, everyone in my own camp, being close enough to catch the perpetual whiff of grog, had long since realised I was far from suitable as a holder of secrets or purveyor of gossip. 

Delia was causing particular havoc one week (a wild guess places this around 2002) and I had grown increasingly paranoid about the swirling rumours regarding my involvement – as if my reputation was worth saving. Parliament was in session, and the Cricketer's Bar was bustling during the dinner break one particular night. I had been there for hours, already multiple sheets to the wind, when I noticed the arrival of two factional bosses from the rival Labor Unity group: Bill Shorten and David Feeney. Fuelled by Dutch courage, I confronted the two men to furiously deny the Delia rumour. They scoffed at my denials and told me to fuck off. 

David Feeney is now an Australian Senator from Victoria and Bill Shorten is, of course, leader of the federal opposition. I have no idea what happened to Delia. 

This drunken encounter aside, my only experience of Shorten during my time as an ALP activist and staffer was to hear accounts of what a complete bastard he was. He did nothing to abate my antagonism by ratting on Julia Gillard to restore to the Australian prime-ministership Kevin Rudd, a pathological egomaniac whom I consider dangerously unfit for high office.  

For those reasons, I was pessimistic about Labor's chances under Bill Shorten. I thought he was scarred by his pivotal supporting role in the Rudd-Gillard psychodrama, and the related - and not entirely baseless - perception that he is a factional hack. 

But, fair's fair, I think Shorten's making a pretty good fist of it. Sure, Tony Abbott's spectacular slow motion self destruction has made his job easier – there's a plausible case that Labor's federal MPs, en masse, could take a leave of absence for the remainder of Abbott's tenure without making an iota's difference to the party's standing.

But let's not forget that Labor had been ritually disembowelling itself, in full public view, for five years before it lost office. Even though Gillard is immensely talented and her government can claim numerous substantive policy achievements, Labor's last term in office was as diabolical a political nightmare as it's possible to conceive. But so far in opposition, Labor has stitched itself together admirably. There has been no permanent schism, no surge to the Greens, and Labor has won state elections in South Australia, Victoria and Queensland, the latter two from opposition. 

Federally, Labor's primary vote hovers around the 40 percent mark, more than enough to win government with Green and other preferences. 40 percent! Given the party's dysfunction of recent times, it wouldn't have surprised me if it stood at half that number.  

While it's true that Abbott's bizarre instincts and policy radicalism have been gifts to Labor, it is to Shorten's credit that Labor's made the most of them. Take last year's Budget, which was the beginning of Abbott's soon to be end. Labor's prosecution was impeccable: Shorten, Chris Bowen and Penny Wong were superb in the critical hours and days after the Budget, defining it as an assault on fair-minded Australians in powerful and evocative terms; picking the right issues and sticking to them; making mincemeat of the Coalition.   

Today, Australia's Fairfax newspapers published an analysis of Bill Shorten's media appearances that shows the Labor leader outdoing Tony Abbott's much-vaunted "small target strategy" while he was in Opposition. Apparently, Shorten, in 2014, fronted the media between 200 and 400 fewer times than Abbott in 2011.  By the tone of Fairfax's reporting, we are supposed to take this as a bad thing. 

After counting online transcripts – hold the Walkleys! – Fairfax went searching for a "WTF" reaction from unnamed ALP insiders in the hope of stirring up some leadership tensions, but found mostly "BFD" instead. They did get an ALP member to say "make no mistake, there will be a change of leader on the other side [in the Liberal Party] and then it's a whole new ball game", which is possibly the least explosive unattributed quote in the history of politics. 

Should we really measure an opposition leader's effectiveness by the volume of his or her media appearances? In a word, no; in two, no way! In fact, succumbing to the incessant demands of a rapacious press gallery can derail otherwise decent leaders – the most obvious example is David Shearer, a very promising New Zealand Labour leader whose main failing was his inability to deliver sound bites zingily or often enough.  

Shorten, stick to your guns. Front the media when it suits you, not them. Keep using social media to go directly to your audiences. Don't fall into the trap of becoming a commentator. Keep focussed on rejuvenating the party and building a winning team with a winning message. Stick to your own timetable. Don't get rattled.  

Oh, and I am bloody not – and never bloody have been – Delia Bloody Delegate.