Even as Malcolm Turnbull begins navigating the treacherous waters of soothing angry right wingers (and right-whingers) in his own party, the spotlight is shifting to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, whose amazing run of good luck came to a sudden end late on Monday night.

Inexperienced, leading a party smashed in 2013, and without the generation of frontbenchers with ministerial experience who departed after Kevin Rudd’s return, Shorten should have faced the same oblivion that is the lot of most first-term opposition leaders. Instead, he won the political lottery — a government so inept that its MPs started trying to knock off the leader within 18 months of the election, one that however badly Shorten polled with voters, still trailed Labor by a landslide margin.

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What’s Abbott’s bungle-a-week-and-two-if-you’re-lucky approach to governing also did was hide Shorten’s weaknesses. When Abbott briefly got his act together mid-year, the spotlight momentarily shifted to Shorten, who turned in a poor performance at the trade union royal witch-hunt, including admitting he’d failed to declared around $60,000 in donations back in 2007. That coincided with a leak on his climate policy from within his own ranks. But then Bronwyn happened, and Shorten turned the climate issue around, producing a renewable energy policy that directly appealed to voters, and had a successful national conference. All mutterings about his leadership vanished. If Turnbull can simply avoid regularly providing Abbott-style stuff-ups, that spotlight will again return to Shorten.

Head to head, Shorten is no match for Turnbull. While capable of delivering good speeches, he has no ammunition to match Turnbull’s rhetorical firepower or capacity for eloquent advocacy. Shorten frequently still sounds like he’s come fresh from a media training course while Turnbull, despite his famed preference for not so much not suffering fools gladly as kneecapping them, talks to the public as though they’re an adult with basic powers of ratiocination. Nor will incessant criticism of Turnbull’s wealth — something Kevin Rudd started, calling Turnbull “member for Goldman Sachs” — work. First, so what? Second, what does that say about Turnbull’s attitude to public office, given at 60 he need never work another day in his life?

Given Shorten will always stack up poorly to Turnbull in terms of presentation, he and Labor will have to attack on policy — both Turnbull’s and their own. Turnbull’s weakness for now is that he must lead the Abbott government in all but name. Abbott loyalists and dead wood can be removed from the ministry, but Turnbull is locked into some of the worst policies of Abbott — his nonsensical position on climate change (it was amusing watching Turnbull yesterday defending Direct Inaction, which he comprehensively demolished from the backbench in 2010) and his homophobic opposition (Abbott felt threatened by homosexuality, remember) to same-sex marriage. Moreover, to keep the Nationals in coalition, Turnbull has removed water from the environment portfolio — Greg Hunt, apparently not believing water is part of the environment, has said he’s glad to see it go — and given it to Barnaby Joyce, which is like putting Dracula in charge of a Murray-Darling sized bloodbank.

Labor crudely began trying to exploit these tensions in question time yesterday but will have to ramp up the pressure on Turnbull by releasing its own policies. Shorten has already stolen a march on the Coalition with his renewable energy “goal” — something Turnbull may be tempted to steal — but he needs to follow up to really demonstrate the tension between Turnbull, who has gone from refusing to lead a party that was not as committed to effective action on climate change as he is to advocating for a policy he savaged as reckless and a plaything of climate denialists. Infrastructure is another space where there are plenty of opportunities for Labor: the “infrastructure prime minister” has now gone, having accomplished nothing but a collapse in infrastructure spending, leaving a big space for Anthony Albanese to play in.

Most of all, there’s tax reform: the Coalition and business will still gravitate toward lifting the GST, but the removal of Abbott surely means many options are now back on the table, bringing Labor’s policies on super tax concessions and, possibly, negative gearing backing into play.

Either way, this will be the acid test for Bill Shorten. The widespread view within Labor is that he would’ve defeated Abbott, but Turnbull will be very hard to stop. But he has opportunities to hurt his new opponent, if he can seize them.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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