Voters will punish Shorten's lack of vision

The opposition leader’s tired and vague messages of protecting jobs and democratising the Labor party are not enough to cut through the serious economic issues facing the nation.

In a time of social and economic upheaval, it's a mistake to think the political narratives of the past will keep on working. A Holden Torana used to be a fast car, remember -- how annoying that dozens of Toyotas and Mazdas can now beat those old beasts at the lights.

The British Labour Party sniffed the winds of change in the lead-up to the 1997 election, when 'New Labour', 'Cool Britannia' and a whole lot of other cobblers swept the country.

That year I watched a heavily perspiring Tony Blair whip up a storm of support at a school gymnasium in West London -- it was Britain's 'It's Time' moment, and it was smart politics.

Kevin Rudd tried something similar in 2007, and tried to reinvent the party twice -- once as a benign dicatorship in 2007-10 and, briefly, in the disastrous 2013 campaign.

Rudd's successor Bill Shorten should, by rights, be the man to give the party a real spring clean and forge powerful new narratives to set the country up for a new era of sustainable prosperity.

Well, he's doing half the job, with plans to allow online donors voting rights to supposedly make the party more democratic -- why attend boring branch meetings and have heavy policy debates when you can just 'click and vote'?

The flipside of this 'democratisation' of the party is Shorten's despotic restructuring of the parliamentary party's communications set-up. Caucus members are reportedly fuming at his new filtering of their media statements, which now all have to go out stamped 'Approved by Beloved Chairman Shorten', or somesuch.

Unfortunately, this is all the opposite of what Tony Blair was up to in London's Groucho Club in 1997, partying with Oasis and the Spice Girls or out on the hustings talking up the Third Way. It was all carefully scripted by Blair's media guru, Alastair Campbell, and the apparently new economic vision gave disgruntled voters a real sense of change and excitement.

Shorten is just not doing this. While Australian Workers Union boss Paul Howes stands up and calls for a 'grand compact' between workers and employers, Shorten trots out tired lines about protecting jobs, largely through continued subsidies.

The SPC Ardmona dispute was the prime example. What voters heard was 'protect jobs', when really the $25 million being asked for from the feds was a one-off enticement to invest.

This is common practice in nations around the world, and Shorten could have painted a picture of government's role in smoothing the way for a new wave of investment and a new generation of jobs.

A self-employed builder stopped me in the local supermarket last month to say that he agreed with Howes (Howes' grand compact is urgently needed, February 6). At the coal-face of economic activity, voters know change is required. They know we've been living beyond our means.

Protecting jobs, avoiding cuts to health and education, protecting the dole and other benefits are all core Labor projects, no doubt.

But the electorate knows something's up. The economy is creaking like a Torana's suspension on a rainy day. Something bolder -- more forward-looking -- is needed for Shorten to cut through.

This week's Newspoll, showing Labor's primary vote back down to a desultory 35 per cent, should be the warning Shorten needs.

He's out in Western Australia today, warming up voters for the pivotal Senate election re-run that could give his party, along with its estranged partner the Greens, the balance of power.

So far he's knocking heads with Greens with the message of 'don't cut $500m from urban rail', 'don't cut education and health funding' and the vague 'protect jobs'.

There is an economic narrative served up to him on a plate by Howes, the man who took his job at the head of the AWU. Shorten should pick it up and make it his own.

If he does not, it's hard to see how a bunch of 20th century Labor lines will cut through with voters who know the economy is weak, that the federal finances are strained, and that competition from our Asian neighbours just gets more intense by the day.

Shorten's got a very short time to drop the stories of the past and give Australia a vision of the future.

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