Aficionados of American politics know the score: you go to some three-star hotel in Des Moines to hear Republican Senator Hiram Q Peabody launch his presidential bid. Peabody has been a 30-year veteran of the ways and means committee, a party grandee and a centrist. Peabody gets to his feets and begins: “These Washington insiders have forgotten about Jesus and a little thing called the constitution. Well send me to Washington and I …”

There’s better and worse ways of doing this lurch to the side, which is then followed — if the nomination is won — by a return to the centre, but I would bet the beltway to a briquette no one’s done it as nakedly, and ineptly, as Bill Shorten in his quest for the Labor leadership.

Since the contest began — Australia’s first experience of a primary — Shorten has given us a performance of unrivalled absurdity, lurching from one opportunistic speech-grab to the next, at a time when what was required was a more serious pitch about leading the party from opposition.

Shorten, the sub-factional leader supreme, has essentially run against the process he has spent a lifetime working in. Perhaps that is fair enough, given that everyone can see that the system is now broken, but he has given a pretty good impersonation of the inspector in Casablanca, who is “shocked, shocked” to find that gambling has been going on here.

The new democratic Shorten has come with a new Shorten style. Gone is the calm — i.e. torpid — performance of the election and pre-election period. In its place is the man so riven by the passion of the party. “We don’t need another Messiah! No more Messiahs!” he said in a decidedly messianic manner, suggesting another film ref: Life of Brian‘s “you’re all individuals, you’ve all got to think for yourselves!/Tell us how master!”.

Perhaps that too could be forgiven, had his pitch not been so nakedly, cynically, absurdly oriented to connecting to the left-shifted party membership with just about the single worst idea any primary stumper has come up with: quotas of seats for social minorities, including gay and lesbian people.

Whatever the arguments there may be for seats for indigenous people (as there are in New Zealand), the indigenous/non-indigenous division is a fundamental historical division between groups. But even here, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission votes showed, the dispute over eligibility can get knotty.

Can you imagine what it would be like, with quotas for gays and lesbians? What would and wouldn’t count? How many trips back across the boundary before you’re not eligible? Would the Electoral Commission have to inquire into “the events surrounding a Eurovision song contest night, a bottle of tequila, and the candidate’s claim that in the words of Katy Perry she had ‘kissed a girl’ and that ‘she liked it'”?

“… his [Shorten’s] elevation to the leadership would simply present to the public a man they would see from the start as lacking in something crucial.”

Sorry, I’m just going to do gags here. Would candidates have to sit a test to stand for these seats? “Mr Johnston, would you call this colour ‘orange’ or a ‘bold, strident umber'”? Would they hum bars of Marvin Hamlisch tunes until the candidate burst uncontrollably into a rendition of I’m Still Here? Leave a Black and Decker in the room with a female candidate and only ratify her if she builds a mezzanine? And so on. Good god.

Shorten’s idea was a simple and obvious category error about the different things people are saying when they call themselves “indigenous” or “gay”. The very notion of mandated seats for gays and lesbians is some sort of ghastly fusion of corporatism ala Mussolini and identity politics. You gotta give Shorten points for originality.

But of course the point is not the absurd nature of the proposition, but the fact that it was always absurd on the face of it — that it came from no surge or groundswell of public desire, or expression of political demand, that it was merely a fabricated idea, designed as a branded product for a supposed market — the left-liberal component of the ALP membership, vastly larger in the party than their actual presence in the voting base.

The suggestion tells us very little about how the ALP should reform itself. It tells us a great deal about Bill Shorten. Doubtless like most of the ALP sub-factional leaders who rose to power in the 1980s and ’90s, Shorten is willing, even keen, to make the world a better place while on the road to accumulating power, but it’s strictly a sideline. All along, Shorten — the manic student politician, the endlessly networking unionist, the relentless MP — has been powered by an ambition that appears, at its core, to have a vacuum to it.

Such emptiness gives great velocity, but little momentum — and eventually gets you to a point of drift, and a slow, parabolic fall to earth. That’s Shorten now. How far he is along that trajectory is anyone’s guess, but that he is on it there is no doubt. Various spruikers are suggesting that Shorten can win over a middle class to the ALP in a way that his leadership opponent Anthony Albanese can’t.

That would be correct if Shorten had the persona and positioning he has now — together with the personal heft and the genuine politics of an Albanese. But that’s what he lacks. And his elevation to the leadership would simply present to the public a man they would see from the start as lacking in something crucial. Not quite the Brendan Nelson of the ALP (which is, of course, Brendan Nelson) but something like it.

Having got the right to fully elect their leader, should the ALP steer their vote by trying to second-guess future polls, they will deserve the epic fail they get. The examples of Barack Obama and Ed Miliband show that popular processes yield leaders with content who have the chance of success because they have been legitimated on their own terms.

Shorten failed that test with gimmicks and histrionics. He’s the flaming umber of the ALP, a Hiram Q Peabody. Labor has only one real choice as a fighting party, one that stakes itself on what it believes in, and offers it as a universal program, and that is Albo. It has to be Albo.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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