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To observe that Bill Shorten has been mostly solid, and largely uninspiring, during his tenure as opposition leader will earn no one any prizes for originality.

But as we hurtle towards an election that — barring a catastrophic mismanagement from Labor (not out of the question) or an incredible turn around from the Coalition (which… less likely) — will deliver him the office of prime minister, it’s worth focusing on the things our PM-in-waiting is willing to sound like he’s said, but not actually said. 

On wages

The argument around a “living wage” in Australia has been around a little while now. The Australian Council of Trade Unions called for Australia to replace the minimum wage with a living wage in November 2017. While there are debates about what a living wage actually looks like, and how effective it can be without reforming the tax and welfare systems, last month Shorten announced that it would be adopting it as policy. But, as Michelle Grattan noted in the The Conversation, the announcement lacked some pretty serious detail:

Bill Shorten will unveil on Tuesday a process to have the Fair Work Commission phase in a ‘living wage’. But he will not say what it should be as a proportion of the median wage, or how long its implementation should take.

On Pauline Hanson and race

In the aftermath of the Christchurch shooting, when Australia was (partly) reckoning with the material impact of years of racist provocations from people like Pauline Hanson, the debate shifted to whether the major parties would take a stand, and call out the inflammatory rhetoric for what it was.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison ducked the question, saying she never came to him with any issues around race. Shorten was willing to go further… by a few centimetres:

[Shorten] said ‘some of the things’ Senator Hanson had said were racist, but declined to apply the label to her. ‘I don’t think Islam is a cancer. I think some of the things she’s said don’t reflect the thinking of mainstream Australia.’

On Adani

Shorten has managed to steer clear of this one for a while, but in the months around the Queensland state election, he treated us to a round of the Equivocating Game for the ages. He was accused of peddling one story to inner-city voters and another to regional voters about whether a proposed Adani mine should go ahead. This reached a surreal peak when he managed to qualify and contradict himself four times within a couple of sentences:

Shorten said Labor was the party of the environment, but ‘if one government enters into contracts then a future government can’t simply rip them up. To do so would be [a] sovereign risk.’

‘I’ve been to Queensland, from the outback to the coast, it’s a beautiful country and it’s worth preserving.
 
‘But I also travel to mining communities and coal communities. It’s not an either-or. We are a resource nation, a mining nation.’

On Newstart and ParentsNext

Stories abound about the cruel indignity inflicted on recipients of Newstart, the $40-a-day unemployment payment that hasn’t gone up in 25 years. A heartbreaking number of our readers have got in contact to share their experiences. At the same time, more or less everyone who is called upon to have an opinion on these things — regardless of where they are on the political spectrum —  thinks it should go up.

And it has been noted that Labor’s budget reply, although broadly well received, still won’t commit to an increase, promising instead a “root and branch review” of the program in the first term of a Shorten government.

Along the same lines, one of the most consistent pieces of feedback given the calamitous ParentsNext program is that it ought to be made voluntary; and while Labor was damning about the program — again, promising an overhaul — they won’t change that

Labor’s employment services spokeswoman, Terri Butler, said the evidence presented to the committee showed the program had ’caused parents and their children great distress’. ‘Parents will still be required to participate in the program when they first become eligible for it. Beyond that, we will take an evidence-based case-management approach to making sure the program meets the needs of individual families without being intrusive or punitive.’

On encryption

On the last sitting day of 2018, Labor drew widespread criticism for its last-minute capitulation on the government’s anti-encryption bill. Labor MPs stood and eloquently argued against many elements, and then the bill was passed in its original form with precisely zero amendments.

There are legitimate concerns about the encryption legislation but I wasn’t prepared to walk away from my job and leave matters in a stand-off and expose Australians to increased risk in terms of national security … I will take half a win and move forward than simply continue this sort of angry shouting, which I think does mark — I think you’d all agree — the government’s conduct.

Proposed Labor amendments will be stranded in parliament until after the election.

Peter Fray

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