Nelson is the ghost in Shorten's mirror

Brendan Nelson's brief tenure heading the Liberal Party shows the fate of opposition leaders with the type of mild, insipid manners Bill Shorten has suddenly adopted.

Is Bill Shorten the Brendan Nelson of the Labor Party? Brendan Nelson was the unlikely choice to lead the Liberal Party after the defeat of the Howard government in 2007.

Back then, Kevin07 was the most popular prime minister in the history of the universe and few of the those who voted for Nelson in the Liberal Party leadership ballot thought Nelson had any chance of surviving in the position long enough to take the coalition to the next election, let alone lead it to victory.

Indeed, so convinced was Peter Costello that the coalition was facing two or three terms in opposition that he announced he would not stand for the leadership and would not accept any front bench position. Soon enough, Costello was out of parliament altogether.

We know of course that Costello got it wrong and that within three years, the coalition would be returned to government. Costello’s timing and his stomach for political battle never did match his ambition.

It was less than 12 months before Nelson was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull. Looking back, it’s hard to remember just what sort of opposition leader he was except that he was entirely unable to transform himself into a ruthlessly negative attack dog that many believe is the hallmark of successful opposition leaders.

He seemed to be a good and amiable bloke and in many ways, a thoughtful politician who simply could not pretend to be offended and outraged by everything the government proposed and did.

Now Bill Shorten is not Brendan Nelson. Unlike Nelson, Shorten’s history in public life suggests he is fiercely ambitious, a factional power broker in the Labor Party, a ruthless executioner of Labor leaders when he believes it necessary and a politician who believes he will one day be prime minister.

In his heart of hearts, Brendan Nelson never truly believed that he was the best person to lead the Liberal Party nor did he believe that he was destined to one day be prime minister.

So how is it possible that Bill Shorten may be the Brendan Nelson of the Labor Party? Well it’s possible because on the evidence of Bill Shorten’s first 100 days as opposition leader, Shorten is in the process of transforming himself into a Brendan Nelson like politician.

Indeed, it’s not even a process. From the time he was elected as Labor leader, Shorten became a cautious, quiet, careful — even amiable — politician who it seems, was determined from the start to bury his past.

Much about him has changed, most particularly his language which is so devoid of energy, so hedged with qualifiers, so timid for heaven’s sake, that often it’s impossible to know what exactly he is saying.

It must be assumed that this is deliberate, part of a strategy designed to distance Shorten from the dysfunctional governments of Rudd and Gillard, governments in which he was a senior minister and in which he played such a controversial role. He was both a ruthless political executioner and a political king/queen maker.

This is a risky strategy because, in Keating’s memorable phrase, switching to vaudeville isn’t easy — Keating never managed it — and the danger is that you end up like Julia Gillard, promising to go back to the ‘real’ Julia, which of course Gillard didn’t manage to do either, basically because she was unable to articulate who was the real Julia Gillard.

Perhaps Shorten and his advisers have decided that given Tony Abbott’s unpopularity, given that the coalition government had no political honeymoon and is struggling in the polls,  a sort of timid and becalmed  and ‘good bloke’ opposition  leader is just what the political doctor ordered.

But Shorten is not faced with the same challenges that confronted poor old Brendan Nelson. He was up against it from the start because Rudd ruled supreme, not just in his own party where he was treated like some sort of messiah even though many of his colleagues loathed him, but the Rudd government was riding high in the opinion polls and the electorate was infatuated with Kevin. In the circumstances, being Brendan Nelson, mild mannered good bloke, an opposition leader without a nasty word to say about anyone, was probably the best of Nelson’s bad choices.

Bill Shorten on the other hand faces a prime minister who is widely disliked and a coalition government which, apart from perhaps Joe Hockey, is not exactly over-burdened with talent.

These are early days for the government but these early days have not exactly been auspicious. In key areas — education, health and even with Operation Sovereign Borders which, according to the latest polls, most Australians support — the government’s performance and the performance of key ministers like Christopher Pyne has been mediocre at best.

Yet on each of these issues, it is hard to know what exactly Shorten has had to say. Not only that: just what the Labor Party’s position might be on these and other challenges facing the country is entirely unclear.

To mark his 100 days as opposition leader, everything Shorten had to say was expressed in the sort of wooden, clichĂ©-ridden language that was instantly forgettable and instantly forgotten. Labor was for jobs, Labor was for education, Labor was determined to be in the ‘middle ground’ of Australian politics… and on and on like that he went.

This is unsustainable basically because an opposition leader with no cut through, without the ability to politically wound the prime minister and the coalition government, will inevitably go the way of Brendan Nelson.

Tony Abbott proved that it wasn’t a policy agenda that was crucial in opposition, nor was it all that important for an opposition leader to have the vision thing.

Two things made Abbott a successful opposition leader: luck in having the Rudd and Gillard leadership show and his ability to stick to his negativity and repeat the negative slogans over and over and over again until they were seared into the consciousness of a majority of the electorate.

Bill Shorten was once not just a fiercely ambitious politician, but his track record as a minister suggests he was a politician of substance and administrative skill — it was Shorten who did most of the early work on the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

He cannot disown his past nor can he disown the governments in which he served, flaws and all. He has to own it and he has to bring to the opposition leader’s role a steely passion that will see him through the difficult years of opposition. 

Otherwise, before too long, he may well go the way of Brendan Nelson.