Tides to turn for Shorten on debt, boats and tax

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The Drum 26th June, 2014

Bill Shorten is romping ahead in the polls right now, but being in opposition is a long-term goal and the tables will turn on three big policy areas before the next election, writes Chris Berg.

Bill Shorten has one of the worst jobs in Australian politics - first opposition leader after a loss of government.

Just ask Brendan Nelson, Kim Beazley, Andrew Peacock, and Billy Snedden.

Yet, thanks to the Government's disastrously bad selling of the budget, Shorten has an impressively winning poll position. If the election were held tomorrow, Labor would romp it back in.

Unfortunately for Shorten there are no federal elections scheduled for tomorrow.

Opposition is a long-term game - almost certain to be longer term for Shorten than most, as Labor's new party rules make it virtually impossible to spill him before the next election.

In the Sydney Morning Herald on Sunday Mark Latham claimed the "right-wing hunting pack" is targeting Shorten because he is too successful. (This is the sort of canny judgment that made Latham such a success himself.)

But polls go up, polls go down. If we look out two years from now to the next election, Labor's political profile is very different. Where Shorten looks strong now, he is vulnerable in 2016. Where he looks vulnerable, he is actually quite strong.

Let's take the big issues of last year's election: debt, boats, and the carbon tax.

The debt is Shorten's biggest weakness.

This seems paradoxical, perhaps, because the Coalition's budget - that is, its solution to the debt problem - is deeply unpopular. According to an Essential Poll earlier this month, just 23 per cent of voters think that Labor should support university deregulation. Just 27 per cent think Labor should support the pension changes. Just 32 per cent think Labor should back the Medicare co-payment.

These are gimmes for Shorten. Yet opposing the specific proposals will do little to rebuild Labor's economic reputation.

Wayne Swan destroyed Labor's standing on the economy when he was unable to wrestle the budget back into the black. Year after year Swan claimed that the budget was returning to surplus. Year after year we got deficits.

It's easy to free ride on public dissatisfaction with government policy. Voters might be hostile to the Coalition's individual budget measures but voters are not stupid. Shorten has to suggest - perhaps just hint, allude, imply, give us a knowing wink - that there could be a better way to fix the deficit.

That's the difference between being a time-serving opposition leader and a viable potential prime minister.

If Shorten is strangely weak on the budget, he is strangely strong on boats.

Labor has careened from one side to another on the asylum seeker issue. Last week a few in caucus tried to engineer a shift back to the left again. Quite apart from the morality and practicality of the policy, Labor looks hopelessly divided and confused.

But will it in two years?

Right now, Labor will be secretly crossing its thumbs that the boats have, in fact, stopped, and stay stopped. It is in Labor's interest to get boats off the front page; to remove asylum seekers from the centre of Australian politics. A weakness isn't a weakness if nobody is talking about it.

For Labor, the carbon tax is neither vulnerability nor strength.

This is strange, perhaps, because the carbon tax has been one of the defining policies of the last decade. Elections have been won and lost on it. Prime ministers and opposition leaders have fallen at its altar.

Yet much of the heat dissipated from the carbon tax debate after it was introduced. Kevin Rudd smothered what remained when he announced he would transition from the tax to an emissions scheme. This is a rare example of trying to confuse voters as a deliberate political strategy. (I outlined the farcical nature of this announcement on The Drum when it was made last July.)

Climate activists have tried to respark climate change as a political issue - every once in a while the Climate Institute puts out a poll to try to get momentum going again, as they did yesterday - but realistically the issue is on hiatus. All sides have dug in. It isn't a positive. It isn't a negative. It just is.

It is often said that the Coalition didn't win the 2013 election, Labor lost it.

In other words, it was the Rudd and Gillard government's faults that were highest on the minds of voters as they faced the September ballot, rather than Tony Abbott's virtues.

This is true as far as it goes, but those faults were made powerful because of the Coalition's dogged prosecution of them.

Abbott made the carbon tax into a political liability. It wasn't before. Same with the boats. And Abbott and his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull made Labor wear its deficit spending.

By contrast, Shorten is just along for the ride. He's been gifted the budget backlash. He'll likely be spared the need to take a stand on asylum seekers. And he's been excused from boldness on the carbon tax debate.

Shorten might be polling well now, but if he wants to be competitive in 2016 he'll have to be more proactive than that.