Hapless Shorten is trapped in a Rudd-Gillard time warp

Bill Shorten had a prime opportunity to sell the ETS plan Labor would take to the next election, but Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd got in his way.

Having watched the Ray Martin interview with Julia Gillard -- in response to which Kevin Rudd’s brutal and nasty submission to the Labor Party review of the 2013 election debacle was leaked to a journalist -- it was impossible not to think of Tony Abbott.

That is Tony Abbott, Prime Minister of Australia, who was in New York about to address the UN Security Council on the need for the world to unite to defeat the Islamic State terrorists.

It was as if the release of Gillard’s book and Rudd’s bitter response to it was designed to emphasise the fact that Tony Abbott was now unassailably the voice of Australia, speaking for all of us at the UN, committing the country to military action in what is likely to be a long conflict in the Middle East.

In other words, both Gillard and Rudd, the more they were in the media -- Gillard to promote her book, Rudd, through what he does brilliantly, leak strategically -- seemed more irrelevant than ever, involved in fighting a personal war which had nothing at all to do with the challenges facing the Labor Party or the country.

Watching Gillard and then reading about the leaked Rudd submission in which he says essentially that Gillard was nothing more than an ambitious back-stabber who plotted against him for no other reason than to rob him of the prime ministership, which of course was rightfully his, it was also impossible not to feel just a little sorry for Bill Shorten.

He is likely to be dogged by the Gillard-Rudd battle over their respective place in Australia’s political history right up to the next election and possibly beyond, especially if Rudd decides to write his memoirs in time for a release that is likely to maximise sales, not to mention damage those in the Labor Party who betrayed him. Perhaps during the next federal election campaign would be perfect?

Of course, having been one of the main participants in the leadership soap opera that characterised those six years of Labor government, it is rather difficult for Shorten to say that if Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd really want to be helpful to the party they both profess to love and support, they should shut the heck up.

Perhaps for a decade or so would be good. What was the rush for Gillard to write her memoirs now, when for Shorten and Labor in general, no matter how wonderful the book might be, the main thing it would inevitably do is remind people of how dysfunctional the Labor years in government were?

But Gillard couldn’t wait and Rudd -- or his supporters -- couldn’t resist leaking the Rudd assessment of Gillard and what she had done to him. And so at a time when Tony Abbott, at least on national security, has found his prime ministerial voice after a year of searching for it, Shorten was struck dumb by the resurrection of the Gillard-Rudd show.

Now it was always going to be difficult for Shorten and Labor to do anything but support Abbott’s decision to commit Australia, as part of a coalition led by the US, to military action in Iraq against the Islamic State terrorists.

This was especially the case when it was clear that a number of young Australians had travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight for IS and that perhaps scores of Australians were involved in various ways in supporting the IS terrorists.

But there was also a major climate change meeting at the UN that brought together most government leaders -- though Tony Abbott did not attend this conference -- at which there was general agreement that climate change was the greatest challenge facing the international community.

Australia was represented at the conference by Julie Bishop, whose speech in support of her government’s direct action policy was hardly reported anywhere basically because hardly anyone -- including most of the cabinet -- believes that the Abbott government’s direct action policy can actually be implemented, let alone work.

A couple of months ago, in the course of delivering a speech on leadership and the challenges leaders face in implementing and arguing for major reforms, Shorten said that Labor would go to the next election with a plan to introduce an emissions trading scheme which he said was the best way to tackle the serious challenge of climate change.

That was it. A declaration of support for an ETS of some kind that would be “capable of interacting with and benefiting from, similar schemes in the US, Europe and Asia” -- now that’s the sort of language that is likely to get Australians excited about real action on climate change -- and nothing more since.

Given that both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard -- not to mention Malcolm Turnbull -- were politically done in by the way they handled the issue of climate change, it should be obvious to Shorten and Labor that every second from now to the next election is needed to design and sell an ETS to a sceptical and even cynical electorate.

Yet here was a major international meeting on climate change at which Australia clearly had nothing much to say, and what Australia did have to say through Julie Bishop was taken seriously by hardly anyone. The only Labor voice that was heard during and after the conference was Julia Gillard saying that she had some regrets about the way she had announced the carbon tax, and perhaps it would have been better not to call it a tax.

There is something hapless about Bill Shorten. Given that he must have known for some time about the UN meeting on climate change and given that he knew that Australia would go to the meeting with a policy that was not credible, how was it that Shorten had nothing to say about the ETS that he had said Labor would take to the next election?

Was it simply that he had forgotten that speech about leadership and the challenges of implementing difficult reforms in which he had mentioned -- perhaps just in passing -- that Labor would take an ETS to the next election? Or had Gillard and Rudd sucked all the media air time away from Shorten?

Instead of Labor being seen as a party seriously committed, despite the political difficulties, to meeting the challenges of climate change, it seemed once again to be a party trapped by the past, by the enduring antipathy between its two most recent prime ministers?

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