Be prepared for Shorten

If the opinion polls don't improve it's inevitable the government will look to a new leader in 2013. Bill Shorten is the most likely candidate and the business community should start sizing him up.

During the last few days I have been mixing in political circles and I was surprised to learn that many in both the government and the opposition parties believe that, if the opinion polls do not improve significantly for the government, Julia Gillard will stand down in the months leading up to the 2013 election.

And there is only one person to take over from her – Bill Shorten. I must emphasise that no one is predicting a bloody coup but rather the professional politician in Julia Gillard facing up to the fact that she could not win the election. Both Shorten and Julia Gillard can truthfully deny that there is a leadership change being planned. But both are professional enough to know it will happen if the polls stay down. In such an event, convention dictates Gillard would be offered the portfolio of her choice.

There are no certainties in these sort of predictions but a number of people in the Coalition have begun to explore what an Abbott versus Shorten battle would look like.

Tony Abbott has Julia Gillard’s measure (or so it seems at this stage) but he would face a much tougher fight if his opponent was Bill Shorten.

The business community needs to become much more aware of Bill Shorten because he will be a very different prime minister – and there is less certainty that Tony Abbott would win a battle against Shorten, although Abbott would still be a clear favourite. My commentary and the KGB interview may help (Shorten's PM potential, January 20; KGB: Bill Shorten, January 20).

So let's look at some of the strengths and weaknesses of Bill Shorten. He is a skilled media operator and all the indications are that he would run an excellent cabinet. As I have pointed out previously, Julia Gillard runs an excellent cabinet but in the words of Paul Keating she does not have enough stage craft to get herself out of the hole she is in. Kevin Rudd when prime minister was the reverse – he had lots of stagecraft but could not run the cabinet (No curtain call for Rudd's stage triumph, February 24).

Shorten is very good at handling large companies but he has limited understanding of smaller enterprises – an area where Abbott and the Coalition are now strong.

In theory Shorten is the nearest thing the ALP has to Bob Hawke, the ALP’s most successful post-war prime minister.

But whereas Hawke had influence right through the union movement and could bring it together, Shorten’s influence is limited and his base is in the Australian Workers Union .

Shorten is not liked by the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union, which is opposed to the AWU. And he would be much tougher in handling the Greens than Gillard.

Shorten is currently reviewing the industrial relations legislation and the CFMEU will be putting great pressure on him not to make major changes. Changes are required if we are to regain labour flexibility and perhaps avoid unemployment rises in the non-mining states. But whether Bill Shorten wants to take on the CFMEU, as leadership looks likely, is an unknown. Shorten would be emphatic that these issues will not affect his judgment.

None of these leadership events are on the cards until well into 2013 but the old time politicians on both sides say big opinion poll swings to the government are not likely in the next 12 months, so the Coalition and business must be ready for Shorten.

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