The Weight Of History Bears Down On Shorten

Bill Shorten is a classic tragic figure of Australian politics.

To be fair, it’s not all his fault. Even if Shorten was a political mastermind, his performance as leader flawless, and the incumbent Government universally despised, one-term governments at the federal level are exceedingly rare.

It is unlikely that the first leader after an election loss will take their party to a victory. Many opposition leaders don’t even last long enough to lose an election. The Coalition cycled through Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull before they alighted on Tony Abbott.

So Shorten’s first tragic error was to seek the leadership in the first place.

Why do politicians do this, knowing the probabilities are so stacked against them? Yes, their best case scenario is leading their party to a stunning victory, transforming themselves into a party legend. But the most likely case is they are rolled or defeated at an election and go down in history as a disappointment, and a historically marginal figure.

You need boundless self-confidence to seek a career in politics. Often that same self-confidence is the cause of a political downfall.

Now, some observers are starting to think that after the fall of the Baillieu/Napthine and Newman state governments we’re entering a new era of one-term rule.

This very well might be the case. But it’s not obvious we can extrapolate political lessons from one level of government to another. The voter-government relationship is very different at the federal level than it is at the state level. The issues are different, the media attention is different, and voter awareness is different.

Virtual unknowns can become premiers. The same is not true for prime ministers. There’s just so much more scrutiny in Canberra.

There’s another reason for the unhappy lot of a first-run opposition leader. Every government ends its life with wounds and regrets and embarrassments. The ABC is going to air another round of those wounds, regrets and embarrassments at 8.30pm tonight. By necessity leaders are chosen from the second tier of the former government. They almost always own the failures of their predecessors.

So the odds are stacked against Shorten before we consider his flaws as a political leader, his complicated political past, or his weak electoral strategy. And there is much to consider.

If Julia Gillard’s fatal flaw was her inability to explain why Kevin Rudd was dumped as leader in 2010, as Annabel Crabb convincingly argued, then it is striking that Shorten has not even begun to explain his role in the events of June 2010 and their sequel in June 2013. Nor has he apparently felt any need to.

From the get-go this has given Shorten his public impression as a backroom heavy – looking scarcely better than those semi-anonymous backbench Labor senators in The Killing Season with their plots to roll prime ministers.

Shorten was widely acknowledged as the kingmaker of the last Labor government. Kingmaking is an earthy, political, even dirty profession, but kings are supposed to be divine – they’re supposed to be above the betrayals and treachery that got them into power.

Just look at how desperate Gillard has been to separate herself from the plotting that got her into the Lodge.

Then there is Shorten’s union problem, which exploded onto the political scene this week.

Whether Shorten did dodgy backroom deals and sought employer side-payments in the interests of his union rather than his union members is still unclear. But traditionally, a Royal Commission appearance is not a stepping stone to the prime ministership.

And it is illustrative of the same problem that characterises his past as a factional kingmaker: the political dealings that made him an effective union operator now cast a shadow over his leadership.

Institutionally, Labor is a party of the unions, but only 18 per cent of Australian workers are union members. A past life as a union boss is unlikely to be any great political asset.

Even so, could Shorten have done better once he gained the leadership? Could he still?

More than two decades after Fightback! it’s a bit pointless to complain about an opposition adopting a small target strategy. But the Abbott Government has managed to turn that strategy into a serious problem for Shorten. The problem with a strategy to shadow the government is that the government will shift its strategy to suit.

This is what we’re seeing in the national security debate. The Government is keeping the focus on an issue where the Labor Party is desperate to remain bipartisan. Abbott is constantly daring Shorten to split away, and exploiting every tiny division between the two parties.

In the face of this onslaught, Shorten looks like a weak political punching bag. He is unable or unwilling to abandon his strategy, even as it drags his authority – and his leadership – down.

All up, a typical political career, really.