Politics in 2016: the search for substance

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is on a three-week tour of marginal seats. He visited Woolworths in Queanbeyan to put forward his views about a possible hike in the GST. He chats with the Grant family of Royalla NSW.– Photo: Graham Tidy

 It was a good question, but Bill Shorten let it pass as he embarked on a three-week national tour of fruit and veggie markets in marginal seats on his first day back after the Christmas break. “If 2015 is the year of ideas, what’s 2016 going to be?” a reporter asked on Tuesday.

“This is the year we convince the Australian people to return us to government,” was the obvious answer, one that would have given the Labor leader a platform to present a broad brush case for re-election.

Shorten didn’t offer it, almost certainly because many of the positive themes he developed in 2015, like promoting science and innovation, have been appropriated by an opponent who is massively more popular.

The Turnbull honeymoon might be coming to an end but, then again, it might not. If there is one sentiment that sums up the mood of the electorate, it is an overwhelming desire for Malcolm Turnbull to succeed and for politics to go back to the way it was, stable and predictable. Now is not the time to compete on feel-good, big picture visions.

A more direct response from Shorten might have gone something like this: “2016 will be all about finding something for voters not to like about Malcolm Turnbull and, as a consequence, improving my own approval ratings.”

This, after all, was the strategy deployed against Tony Abbott with devastating effect, largely because Abbott made it so easy. Faced with a choice between Abbott and Shorten, voters had little hesitation in nominating Shorten as their preferred PM. Now, against Turnbull, he is Mr 15 per cent.

Rather than be so direct, Shorten is doing what the political playbook says is the next best thing: identifying the prospect of a 15 per cent GST as the problem with, or for, Turnbull (with the threat to Sunday penalty rates a distant second), and running a national scare campaign.

While Turnbull prepares to be flattered by the most powerful man in world when he visits Washington next week, Shorten is doing the hard yards in the malls and markets, making small talk about lettuce and being ridiculed on Facebook and Twitter over a “Don’t touch me!” rebuke that wasn’t from a boy in short pants.

As it happened, the seven-year-old in question is autistic and battling leukemia. His mother has four other kids and lost her husband to cancer. The “rebuke”, in a gruff Batman voice, was the boy’s way of engaging with Shorten, who was later invited to his home for a cup of tea.

While the episode highlighted the dangers of such interactions in the digital age, where a few seconds of out-of-context footage can go viral in a matter of moments, the Shorten strategy is aimed beyond the Twitterverse: at those in the middle who now make up Turnbull’s army, many of them traditional Labor voters.

“The Liberal Party need to rule out increasing the GST to 15 per cent, and every day Labor will be on their case to make them rule it out, or we’ll fight an election on it,” is how Shorten answered Tuesday’s question, and almost every other question put to him this week.

One measure of whether he is cutting through will be the decision Turnbull makes on election timing. If the Prime Minister decides to cash in on his popularity by going early and rules out a GST, as he is being urged to do by some senior colleagues, it will represent a win for Shorten, but a pyrrhic one.

The Coalition would surely be returned, Turnbull would have the next term to implement a reform agenda (though he would be marked down by voters for his opportunism) and Labor would look to someone else to take them to the next contest.

This scenario is unlikely because Turnbull’s intention is to run full term.

Another measure of Shorten’s GST campaign success will be how long the option is left on the table by the Prime Minister and his Treasurer, Scott Morrison, who is yet to vindicate his reputation as one of the Coalition’s better performers.

If it is ruled out, it will also be a victory for Shorten, but one that will remove Labor’s most potent weapon (though the idea that the Coalition wants to increase the tax will endure).

If the polls suggest a lop-sided election-year contest between a resurgent Coalition led by the man who ticks all the boxes (honesty, intelligence, strength and so on) and a Labor outfit headed by a one who fails to inspire, the reality is likely to be very different.

Turnbull’s challenge is to be the leader the voters think he is: the intelligent persuader of the middle ground. One difficulty he faces is that significant numbers in his own ranks either don’t share this view or cannot abide his small-l liberalism.

His instincts are to focus on the big issues of national security and transitioning the national economy by encouraging innovation, but his political skills and authority will be tested on a more basic level by how he handles the threat of factional warfare in his home state; the disaffected Abbott backers in his party room and the looming reshuffle of his ministry.

The biggest challenge of all for Turnbull is to use his huge bank of political capital to lay out his plan of on tax reform and budget repair, knowing that any changes on the GST, or superannuation, or pensions will provide ammunition for his opponent. As legendary Hawthorn coach John Kennedy would say, he has to “Do something!”

Shorten’s challenge is no less daunting: to persuade voters he is not the awkward, risk-averse man many have come to think he is, but rather someone who is empathetic, intelligent and engaging. Unlike Turnbull, there is no brooding bunch of malcontents in his party room out to undermine him.

If he succeeds in convincing voters that Turnbull’s way is problematic, the onus will be on Shorten and his shadow treasurer Chris Bowen to outline a viable alternative.

The common denominator then for Turnbull and Shorten, and the media too, is that they will ultimately be judged on performance, not perceptions, which is why the coming year of politics promises to be so absorbing.

What is 2016 going to be about? The search for substance.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on 苏州美甲美睫培训学校.

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