Some numbers to put Bill Shorten’s current troubles in context:
- Labor currently leads the Coalition 52% to 48% on a two-party preferred basis, a lead that would, based on a uniform national swing, deliver Labor government with an increase of 24 seats if replicated at an election;
- By this point of the relevant electoral cycle, the last first-term opposition leader, Brendan Nelson, had been knifed by his party, and Nelson’s replacement, Malcolm Turnbull, was just months from getting knifed by Tony Abbott;
- Shorten’s approval ratings, according to Essential Report, have tracked within a fairly narrow band. His nadir so far is 30%, in February 2014, and his best number was 39% (December 2013 and January 2015). Currently it is 32%. As prime minister, Abbott has swung between a peak of 47% (January 2014), and a low of 29%, in February;
- However, Shorten’s disapproval ratings have been steadily climbing. They averaged 37% in 2014, then it dipped in January with Abbott’s misfortunes, then ratcheted up month by month — 38%… 39%… 42%… 41%… and then 45%, earlier in June; and
- Unsurprisingly for a new leader, Shorten was an unknown quantity to voters. But in recent months, his “don’t know” rating has fallen from an average of 28% in 2014 (Abbott averaged just 11%) to 22% in June. Don’t Knows are becoming Disapproves. People who have withheld judgment about Shorten until now are now deciding they don’t like what they see, even though they don’t like Tony Abbott either.
The growing disapproval of Shorten also coincided with the end of Labor’s period of staunch and high-profile opposition to the Coalition. This year, Labor has rolled over on national security laws, repeatedly, in a desperate and unsuccessful effort to avoid being painted as weak on national security by Abbott. Recently the party has (correctly) agreed to back the government’s fuel excise indexation changes. It has backed the government’s internet censorship bill, and quickly fell into line in backing the government’s efforts to fix possible legal problems with offshore processing. Coincidence or not, the more Labor has co-operated with the government, the worse Shorten’s position has become.
One other piece of data: Shorten is the least experienced first-term opposition leader of recent decades. Brendan Nelson had six full years of ministerial experience before becoming leader and had been in Parliament nearly 12 years. Kim Beazley, who led Labor against John Howard after 1996, had been in Parliament since 1980 and had been a minister from the start of the Hawke government, as well as deputy PM. Shorten has only been in parliament since 2007 and only received his first ministerial position in 2010.
Therein lies Shorten’s problem, but really it is Labor’s problem. Experience is important in parliamentary politics. Long service means voters have a better understanding of who you are, even if they don’t like you (Tony Abbott being the best recent example), and it means you’re more comfortable and effective communicating and using the media. Both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard — apart from their other flaws — are examples of the difficulties of being prime minister when people don’t really have a strong sense of who you are or what you stand for. Rudd became prime minister after just nine years in parliament, Gillard after 12, and neither had established themselves and their core beliefs in the public mind before taking on the big job.
More experienced politicians rely less on media training and more on their own core values and style; talking to them privately and listening to them publicly isn’t terribly different, because they’re at ease with the way they publicly communicate. That’s why Anthony Albanese, who entered politics in 1996, is a far more effective communicator than Shorten — his aggressive, have-a-go style has been honed for years, and he more or less talks in public the way he talks privately.
But Shorten is still at the stage of consciously performing when he communicates. He is capable of delivering a strong speech, but to watch him is often to be reminded of the nervous junior minister whose first forays to the dispatch box in government were rarely short of embarrassing (he got better, like Greg Combet got better, though Combet got better faster). Shorten — who is privately articulate and thoughtful — relies heavily on his talking points and rehearsed messages (thus the zingers), and he often performs less well once people start asking questions.
Communication isn’t everything in politics — Malcolm Turnbull is by far Parliament’s most brilliant communicator, but it didn’t save his leadership — but when you’re an opposition leader trying to establish yourself with the public (especially when the public might be receptive to you, given how awful the government is), effective communication is crucial, and Shorten simply can’t cut through. Another decade in politics might see a far more relaxed, effective Shorten, but the challenge is immediate, not long term.
His inexperience also limits Labor’s options. Labor had no political choice but to roll over on something like data retention because it lacks the capacity to articulate the case that you can be tough on national security and not believe mass surveillance actually helps.
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Tanya Plibersek, who was a minister right from the outset of the Rudd government and has been in politics since 1998, has more experience than Shorten. So does Albanese and Jenny Macklin, while Wayne Swan remains on the backbench. Beyond them, however, Labor runs out of long-term experience very quickly. For that, you can blame Kevin Rudd, primarily, and to a much lesser extent, Julia Gillard. It was Rudd’s return in 2013 that sent decades of political experience out the door. Stephen Smith, who if he ever loosened up could have become a charismatic leader — gone. Greg Combet, gone. Craig Emerson — gone. Peter Garrett — gone. Along the way, the Rudd-Gillard conflict also claimed Simon Crean and Martin Ferguson (although the latter was doubtless hankering to get out and earn a quid from his mining mates anyway).
Voters are clearly unhappy with the Abbott government, but Labor under the current version of Shorten is not reaching them with a compelling alternative. The last time that happened was in 2010, when Rudd nearly wrecked Julia Gillard’s election campaign. The only winner out of that was the Greens. Their parliamentary presence surged on the back of disillusionment with the major parties, who were perceived as offering a lack of leadership. The same feeling is pervading politics now. Labor badly needs a leader who can alter this dynamic of disillusionment.