Shorten Must Start Thinking About Life After Opposition

One of the unsurprising consequences of Tony Abbott’s modest poll recovery has been the new focus on Bill Shorten.

If you’ve read one column on Shorten, you’ve read them all. The Opposition Leader doesn’t stand for anything. He promised a year of policies but hasn’t yet offered any policies to speak of. And (for a certain type of commentator) he’s abandoning the Hawke-Keating legacy of reform and so forth.

All this is obviously true. But come on. Would you do any different if you were in his shoes?

Almost every incentive Shorten faces is telling him to stay quiet about his plans for government – to avoid making any potentially divisive statements or holding any potentially controversial positions. (I’ll return to the word ‘almost’ later.)

This is perfectly rational. No matter what the opposition does – no matter how opportunistically or rashly it acts – popular dissatisfaction with the economy or society will be directed towards the government of the day. The opposition’s job is to gently fan the flames, confident they are unlikely to be caught in the backdraft.

The last thing Shorten wants to do is get caught up in a debate about the specifics of what he would do in government. Detail is death. Better to keep the attention on Tony and his unfair-out-of-touch-just-don’t-get-Aussie-mums-and-dads Tories.

Oppositions that have tried an alternative strategy – outlined detailed policies, even transformational agendas – have been torn down by incumbent governments, who have the entire bureaucracy at their disposal to fact check and nit-pick anything the opposition throws up.

Think John Hewson, Mark Latham. Whatever your view of their political philosophy, they both tried the big-picture, year-of-ideas, stand-for-something strategies people are urging Shorten to pursue. And look at them today.

So now tell me you’d do anything different. Don’t blame Bill for Labor’s fecklessness. He’s just a company man.

In the simple model of political competition outlined in Anthony Downs’ seminal 1957 book An Economic Theory of Democracy, political parties will delay announcing any policy for as long as possible. The winner will be the party that announces last.

But incumbent governments can’t put off making choices forever. They can’t fully participate in this game of policy chicken.

The best strategy is the one that wins government, and maximises longevity in government, and allows the most flexibility to implement policies.

The need to govern benefits the opposition. Government policy announcements helpfully identify what the electorate hates. So the simplest opposition strategy is to copy the government’s popular policies and oppose the unpopular ones.

Abbott was an especially talented opposition leader. He didn’t just oppose unpopular policies. He managed to make policies unpopular, seemingly through sheer force of will.

Shorten as Opposition Leader looks as if he’s trying to mimic Abbott’s example. Yet Shorten is drawing the wrong lesson.

Remember that ‘almost’? The optimal opposition strategy isn’t just the one that wins government. It’s the one that wins government, and maximises that party’s longevity in government, and allows them most flexibility to implement their policies.

The Abbott team has learned – apparently to its surprise – that strategies adopted in opposition constrain what can be done in power.

Voters expect some promises to be broken, as I argued in the Drum last year. Yet this is only true within a certain range. The public wants to know what they are buying, even if they have a reasonable tolerance for products that do not exactly match the packaging. Expectations still matter.

The Coalition forgot this. The Coalition did not prime the electorate for the sort of policies it introduced within its first six months. Having pared its campaign message down to the most memorable essentials, voters were surprised to learn that End The Waste and Cut The Debt actually involved large-scale policy change, not just swapping one party in power for another.

Even in government the Coalition tried to hold back the policy reckoning as long as possible. It disavowed the Medicare co-payment when it was first discussed in Christmas 2013. It delayed the Audit Commission until the eve of the budget.

I won’t bother recapping how everything has played out since. But the legacy of that opposition strategy has left us with a badly denuded Coalition government. It is shell-shocked and weak. It is unable to pursue its own agenda. Now it grasps at whatever it thinks will keep it stable and in power until the next election.

A year ago the question was whether the Coalition was bold enough to tackle industrial relations head on. Today the question is whether the Coalition will ever feel confident enough to tackle the deficit it was elected to reduce.

No doubt Bill Shorten likes to imagine he can win the 2016 election. It’s not impossible. But winning is only half of it. He needs to start imagining how Labor’s small target strategy might harm him if he does win.