Bill Shorten
(image: AAP/Darren England)

Labor’s campaign launch was in Brisbane, so there had to be a Go-Betweens song. “Spring Rain”, specifically, with that instantly recognisable guitar opening. “When will change come? Just like spring rain.” Except, it’s not falling down like sheets for Labor, at least not with 13 days to go; it increasingly looks like a tight contest with only a few seats in it.

Given how shambolic the Coalition campaign has been despite Scott Morrison’s endless mugging for the cameras and News Corp’s cheerleading, it’s tighter than it should be. Labor’s two big risks — a detailed and risky platform, and an unpopular leader — could yet prove fatal. 

That’s how Bill Shorten’s got to where he is now, by being brave on policy and letting his opponents and the media underestimate him. But all of that will count for nothing if they don’t get across the line on Saturday week. Shorten will go the way of John Hewson, who led in the polls for most of the 1990-93 parliamentary term but was run down in the final week by Keating.

So Labor’s launch at Brisbane’s Convention Centre, just down from the Go-Between Bridge, was light on the coronation stuff, eschewing the more grandiose stadium-style auditorium for a flat ballroom reminiscent of Julia Gillard’s deliberately downmarket 2010 launch.

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No one wants to repeat the mistake made by the British Labour Party in 1992, when it assumed it would knock off John Major and proceeded to celebrate accordingly at its launch.

Instead, Labor hammered unity and diversity. The shadow cabinet was seated on stage, like an overdressed choir, to emphasise Labor’s stability over the last six years. Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard were introduced to wild acclaim — the fact that all of them had launched successful challenges to seize the prime ministership was naturally left unmentioned. This was about stability. And unity. Stability and unity.

I’d tipped Keating to sit between Rudd and Gillard but the two younger ex-PMs were together without apparent discomfort, perhaps swapping stories of being betrayed by Shorten.

Proceedings were led by Annastacia Palaszczuk, MC and the day’s designated Proud Queenslander, before handing over to Penny Wong to perform attack duties; then deputy Tanya Plibersek, then Chloe Shorten. In between was a painful video of cabinet members praising their leader’s deft leadership skills, just to remind anyone who might have forgotten that Labor was a Stable, United™ team.

There was an extended Yugara welcome to country, easily the highlight of the whole event, and it would have been preferable to simply watch that for the next hour, but politics intervened. Labor senator Pat Dodson spoke about the party’s Indigenous policy, launched that day — A Fair Go For First Nation’s People (a cringingly awful name given the concept of the “fair go” has always automatically excluded Indigenous Australians — a “fair go” is impossible when dispossession and occupation remain the founding, but unrecognised, acts of Australia). A series of female leaders. A discussion of Indigenous policy. The contrast with the Liberals was being illuminated with searchlights.

What had Shorten saved for his launch speech? The days of backloading campaign promises are coming to an end, what with 660,000 pre-poll votes having already been cast by Friday evening, tracking at not much under twice the rate of pre-polls at the 2016 election, itself a record.

You wouldn’t pick it, but Labor went for yet more health spending. If Labor does manage to lose this election, the obsessive focus on health will be subject to some overdue revisionism, not so much on how it is a Labor strength, but on how important it is for voters. It’s most important, according to voters themselves, but that’s a stated, not revealed, preference — albeit one of long-standing status.

Shorten unveiled what had already been flagged in the media ahead of the event — nothing in politics can ever be revealed in a speech anymore; all must be dropped to journalists ahead of time — that Labor would direct $500 million to emergency department waiting times, because no one likes waiting at Emergency, especially not with an upset child. 

The other announcement was a tax break for business to hire both younger and older workers. This was the moment when Shorten’s speech actually came alive, when he spoke of older unemployed workers whom he sees “at every one of the town hall meetings I have been at. There is always very well-dressed, quiet, older people, often clutching, in a plastic sleeve, their CV. They do not speak up in the middle of a meeting, they come up to me at the end of the meeting. You can see it in their eyes. There is a sting of rejection. There is a sense of injustice. This recurring question: why won’t someone give them a chance?” 

But there was an even more compelling linkage to be made here, one that would have stitched Labor’s long list of spending promises in health and every other area together, and its (limited) commitments around wages growth. That feeling of being left behind, of having done the right thing and played by the rules only to be ignored as no longer having anything to offer, is a potent source of disaffection and electoral alienation. It is driving people further left and further right (often the same people at the same time), fueling the rise in minor party votes and the fall in voter turnout — and enhancing the appeal of wealthy manipulators of disaffection like Hanson and Palmer.

“Our economy is not working in the interests of working people,” Shorten said, correctly — the crucial Vic Fingerhut-derived framing of the economy for progressive parties. But judging by the polls, the broader sentiment of alienation remains beyond Labor’s efforts to capture despite a suite of policies intended to lift wages growth, give low-income households more cash in hand and make health and education services more accessible.

It’s not just the economy that’s not working in the interests of working people — it’s the political system as well. Despite a launch that showcased the best of Labor yesterday, it’s not clear the opposition is addressing that. An effective campaign to do that would deliver votes in sheets. And then, when would change come? Just like spring rain.