Shorten won't repeat Rudd's biggest blunders

A key takeaway from Labor’s electoral drubbing is the importance of persistence. Bill Shorten needs to stay on message, and his first big test will come with efforts to repeal the carbon tax.

The great Labor taste-test between Shorten-Coke and Albanese-Pepsi is over. Caucus and ALP members between them decided definitively that they preferred Coke… or was it Pepsi? Or does anybody care, as long as there’s something fizzy in the fridge?

The leadership 'contest’ between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese was always an exercise in empty ‘brand loyalty’, because both products were about the same.

Much is being read into the fact that 60 per cent of rank-and-file members preferred Albo, whereas 64 per cent of caucus preferred Shorten, but the final result of the combined votes – 52 per cent to Shorten – is a reminder that either of these two men would do.

As one contributor to the ABC’s Q&A put it, listening to the two leaders ‘debate’ was like trying to decide whether to set your thermostat to 21 degrees or 22 degrees. It just didn’t matter at all in policy terms, though Shorten was widely acknowledged to have a slight edge in the charisma stakes.

Both men have been excellent performers in parliament, though Shorten is better by far in front of a camera. And both men played both sides of the Gillard/Rudd power struggle. Neither had clean hands going into this ballot.

But now that the result has been recorded, Shorten will have to set a grand strategic plan in motion. The new party leadership rules practically ensure that he will take Labor to the next election – it is ironic that Kevin Rudd set up rules for leadership challenges that will protect the man who organised the coup against him in 2010 from any such knife in the back.

On the other hand, three years in opposition is no picnic. Shorten has to pace himself – and his messages – if he is to even up the House of Reps head count at the 2016 election. In planning that long march, he can learn a lot from Tony Abbott, whose simplified and dogged attacks on Labor over three years produced a stunning victory on election day.

In passing, it is worth remembering that the final shape of the Senate – which, given Abbott was always assured victory in the lower house, was the most important outcome of the 2013 election – is not yet decided. A recount in Western Australia could marginally tip the balance of power towards Shorten (Abbott’s senate hangs by a 14-vote thread, October 11).

On the key battleground of the Gillard years – the carbon tax – Abbott is most likely to be able to repeal the existing legislation with the help of the Palmer ‘Six Pack’ of Coalition-friendly senators (The Palmer ‘Six Pack’ may not be easy to control, October 10). However, if the WA recount goes against Palmer's candidate Zhenya Wang, there is a slim chance (dependent on the intentions of WA Sports Party candidate Wayne Drupolich), that he will be thwarted on his core election promise.

Shorten has vowed, both pre- and post-ballot, to oppose any such repeal. He has also left a question mark hanging over whether Labor would support Direct Action legislation to replace carbon pricing. Abbott would need Labor votes, as two of the Six Pack senators don’t want any action on carbon emissions at all.

Shorten said yesterday: "If they've got badly-costed, expensive propositions that don't work, it's not up to us to rescue them.”

Tellingly, Shorten also highlighted the key error of the failed Rudd comeback by saying: "This ballot is the start of the process to develop the right policies, which are then explained with persistence.”

Rudd’s lack of persistence with what had been, until June, a fairly coherent suite of policies, caused confusion and dismay amongst Labor voters – to say nothing of the horror amongst Labor’s campaign strategists.

Whatever one thinks of Labor’s policies before Rudd returned to the prime minister’s job in June, one of his overriding mistakes was to implicitly accept the Coalition’s criticisms by watering the key policies down – scrapping a year of fixed-price carbon permits, ‘veering to the right’ on boats policy and making rushed budget cuts to appear as fiscally conservative as Abbott.

Shorten appears to have learned that lesson.

Following the Shorten victory, Coalition firebrand Jamie Briggs issued a release saying: “If Mr Shorten refuses to back the repeal of the carbon tax, that means that he wants Australians to pay higher electricity prices for longer. It’s as simple as that. Average Australian families will be more than $550 better off next year under the Coalition’s plan to repeal the carbon tax than under Labor’s plan to keep it.”

Shorten’s first task in parliament will be to target some of the problems in that statement. The Coalition plans to spend $3.2 billion of tax revenue over four years on Direct Action. Split between 5.7 million families (the latest ABS figure) that is $140 per family.

Moreover, under the Clean Energy Futures package that Briggs would like Shorten to help repeal, half the revenue raised through permit sales was returned through the tax or family benefits system – that measure was designed to change the relative prices of power sources, while making 80 per cent of voters better off.

And when the fixed-price ‘tax’ period ended in July 2015, the emissions trading scheme that was to replace it was expected to be much cheaper due to a collapsed carbon price in Europe.

So there are a few points on which Shorten can be ‘persistent’ on the carbon tax. 

The Australian reports that Shorten is also promising to keep fighting for Labor’s vision of the national broadband network, disability services and school funding.

Tony Abbott trounced Labor with a shortlist of slogans such as ‘stop the boats’, ‘scrap the tax’ and ‘pay down the debt’. A team of top political operatives and extensive focus group testing helped him come up with that winning formula.

If Shorten is to build and maintain momentum towards a 2016 election, he is going to need the help of similar talent amongst his advisers (if it can be found). He will need to choose cut-through messages with great care, as Abbott did.

And, like Abbott, he is going to have to give a whole significance to that key word – persistence.

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