News The silver lining in a horror fortnight for Bill Shorten

The silver lining in a horror fortnight for Bill Shorten

Calling for prime ministerial leadership, Bill Shorten says the time to debate GST distribution is over. Photo: Getty
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Losses for Labor in the seats of Longman and Braddon at the Super Saturday byelections may trigger a move against Labor leader Bill Shorten, but they won’t tempt Malcolm Turnbull to rush to an early election.

The Prime Minister for the umpteenth time in recent months has insisted “the election will be next year”.

This indicates, if nothing else, that Mr Turnbull’s assessment of Labor’s chances of winning at a general election are much greater than some in the Opposition are prepared to concede.

A clue to Mr Turnbull’s thinking is in the latest Newspoll.

If opinion polls can be any sort of guide, it disappointed the Liberals and surprised key Labor strategists.

After a fortnight from hell in which the government got all its personal tax cuts through and Mr Shorten made himself the target on company tax, Labor still leads. It has now established a record 35th consecutive win in the influential poll.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull insists an election won’t be held before next year despite his tax cuts win. Photo: Getty

There is a “small cabal” in caucus, according to one insider who are convinced, despite that, Mr Shorten can’t lead them to victory in the main event. They dismiss plenty of precedent that shows leaders with poor approval ratings and high unpopularity have won government. Tony Abbott comes to mind.

The cabal is looking for a trigger to have their convictions shared in the broader party room. They have seized on the byelections with talk that a loss in either the Queensland or Tasmanian seat, or both, is reason enough to dump the leader.

No one is counting numbers, but the word out of the Labor camp last week describing Mr Shorten’s tax judgement lapse as a “captain’s call” is an unmistakeable early shot at the leader.

“He was trying to lock us in to a disaster,” was one strongly held view.

Mr Shorten emphatically denies that was his intent. He says: “There’s no doubt that my economic team thought that an initial threshold of $10 million was sufficient.”

In fact a couple of months ago Labor’s razor gang recommended the party promise to repeal any company tax cuts above a turnover of $10 million. A view accepted by shadow treasurer Chris Bowen and Finance spokesman Jim Chalmers.

Shorten’s faux pas, for that is what it was, gave the party a searing example of what the Liberals would throw at it in a general election campaign. All last week the Prime Minister visited small and medium sized businesses. They were concrete examples of the victims the tax cut repeal would create.

The misjudgement was not Mr Shorten’s alone. Besides his economic team, some in the left were urging a $2 million turnover cutoff.

No wonder he now says, “we got it right in the end.”

Interestingly the same Newspoll in a series of questions about the tax cuts came up with confusing results. Even though the pollster was in the field before the backflip, there was no overwhelming rejection of his old policy.

Newspoll left untested attitudes to legislating the last $35 billion tax cut for banks and multinationals with a turnover greater than $50 million.

Labor is not backing away from its opposition to them and will push its case in the remaining four weeks of the byelections campaign.

All the focus has been on the dire consequences for Mr Shorten if he loses seats, but what if Mr Turnbull fails to win any?

Especially after all the drama on the Labor side, there will be serious doubts over the prime minister’s electoral appeal.

The word out of the Liberal Party is that it has all but given up on winning back Mayo in South Australia – a hitherto blue-ribbon seat lost to a Xenophon team candidate Rebekha Sharkie last time.

Shorten saw off the doubters in the Batman byelection. The bar is even higher this time.

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