You might have missed it, but Opposition Leader Bill Shorten addressed the National Press Club yesterday in a speech billed as “Reaching for Higher Ground“. It was a significant missed opportunity for a first-term Opposition Leader enjoying a remarkably benign political environment, and possibly the best start to opposition for a federal party in living memory. Where the “higher ground” is, or how Labor might get the country there, remained unexplained.

First, the good bit: Shorten dwelt at length on tertiary education and made a strong case connecting the workforce needs of coming decades with an effective tertiary education sector that didn’t leave graduates with vast debts. He skilfully wove his own family history into the argument, invoking his late mother with examples of the consequences of the government’s proposed deregulation of fees and increases in the student loan interest rate. The result was a compelling narrative linking the personal with the biggest of big picture policy issues and social justice. It was also atypical of the speech. Plainly it was never going to be about policy substance, and no one expected it would be; Shorten said 2014 had been a year of Labor resistance, and that 2015 would be a year of Labor ideas.

But policies are actually the final stage of a political narrative, and the way needs to be paved with an explanation of the goals that policies are designed to achieve and problems they’re intended to solve. And those goals need to be based in the personal vision of the leader, channelling her or his party’s beliefs. This three-stage process — vision, goals, policies — is particularly important for reformist parties that want to pursue a positive agenda in government rather than, as per the current iteration of the Liberal Party, simply delete their opponents’ achievements and shrink the size of government (except where it benefits donors and ideological fellow-travellers, of course).

Julia Gillard always struggled with this task, because she had to do it from within the prime ministership, without the benefit of a long period in politics at a senior level through which voters could develop a clear sense of what she stood for — the vision bit. Bill Shorten will seek the prime ministership in 2016 with even less political experience than Gillard in 2010, and Shorten is even less well-defined for voters than Gillard, whom voters at least knew was interested in education. This needn’t be a barrier to election — Kevin Rudd hadn’t even been in Parliament for a decade when he was elected prime minister — but it can be a potent barrier to being an effective and resilient leader.

For Shorten, then, this speech was about offering some vision, which he did effectively in relation to higher education. With the government in diabolical trouble and routinely shooting itself in the foot, it should have been a straightforward task. But most of the rest of his speech was given over to attacking Tony Abbott (something Abbott specialised in when he was opposition leader — Abbott’s “vision” speeches were always about a vision of a world in which Labor would get its long-overdue comeuppance).

And the targeting of Abbott took the form of what everyone now calls, pace Shaun Micallef, Shorten’s zingers, like “every time they scrape off a barnacle, they just reveal another hole in the hull” or “it’s like raising the Titanic, or remarketing the Hindenburg — and that’s really hard,” (last part presumably added for those who might not know what the Titanic or the Hindenburg were). Shorten also seemed keen to undermine the government’s political win on a China free trade agreement, insisting the real win from the visit of Chinese dictator Xi Jinping would have been signing up to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; failing to do so, Shorten insisted, was to miss “the greatest foreign policy opportunity our nation is likely to have for the next 20 years”, a claim with all the rigour of Andrew Robb saying the China FTA was the biggest thing since the dollar was floated.

As he’s shown in Parliament, Shorten can deliver a set piece speech perfectly well. Off-script, however, he struggles, as the Q&A yesterday showed. He has a thing for slightly odd phrases — he used to invoke “the airport test” when he was a minister, whatever that was, and repeatedly used “lost in space” yesterday. He also has a tendency to prolixity — not quite up there with Kim Beazley, perhaps, but he can produce incomprehensible verbiage like this:

“But there’s also the dilemmas in the budget caused by this current government. First of all they’ve got the wrong priorities. What they’ve done, and you can talk to people, high street traders across Australia. But two or three weeks before the election when the government brains trust decided to cleverly, they were dragged kicking and screaming to drop their Commission of Audit, they deliberately held off after the South Australian and Western Australia elections, they didn’t provide that same courtesy to the Victorian Liberals I might add with the petrol tax. But they held off on the Commission if Audit but really from when they started leaking that, through to leaks in the budget, confidence has just flat lined.”

Somewhere between Tony Abbott’s incessant repetition of three-word slogans — three-word slogans, slogans of three words — and Shorten’s circumlocutions lies a good communicator. But at least voters know what Abbott stands for, even if they don’t appear to like it. That’s still to come for Shorten.

Peter Fray

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