It has become hoarily cliched for Opposition leaders to describe winning elections as scaling Everest. This is usually taken in its plainest meaning: A very difficult pursuit. But there is a more telling parallel between the two.
At any point before the conquest of the peak, a climber may fail, for any number of reasons – frostbite, faulty equipment, illness, blizzards. Until an Everest hopeful has planted their flag atop the mountain, they can only ever say they attempted the climb – and for most mountaineers, that’s not enough. The gap between failure and success may be small, but it is everything.
Despite what Deputy Prime Ministers and Acting Prime Ministers tell themselves, Opposition Leader is as close to being PM as you can get without actually getting there. But it is not, of course, the same thing. Prime Ministers get books written about them. Opposition Leaders do not. It is a Nike T-shirt designer’s dream: Second place is the first loser. From the day they take on the job until the day they relinquish it (one way or another), Opposition Leaders live in a state of permanent existential terror.
This is the abyss Bill Shorten stares into every morning. It is something that unites all Opposition Leaders. But it is how he navigates the important differences between his experience and that of his predecessors that will determine how he fares. These are the factors that will define Shorten’s year:
1. 2014 is the year polls stopped mattering so much
Occasionally events occur that reshape our understanding of what is possible. Until Kevin Rudd was removed, nobody thought a party was capable of politically executing its own first-term Prime Minister. Once it had happened, nobody could ignore the possibility again.
Before then, polls only really came into their own in the final year of a three year electoral cycle. After June 2010, every single poll was inspected for hidden signs, the potential to set off tremors of consequence across the political landscape. Labor complained endlessly about the media’s focus on polls and on leadership, and the damage that was doing to public debate. All of which was true – but the party had only itself to blame.
The thing that may define 2014 more than any other then is an absence – the disappearance of polls as the dominant influence on the Australian political landscape.
It is unlikely Shorten will be able to win the next election simply by tearing Abbott down and letting division do the rest. He will have to build himself up as a viable alternative, something Abbott was never forced to do.
The Liberals, having observed Labor, seem immune from the possibility of an early leadership change. Tony Abbott is safe until the next election is over. This has consequences for Labor: it is unlikely Shorten will be able to win the next election simply by tearing Abbott down and letting division do the rest. He will have to build himself up as a viable alternative, something Abbott was never forced to do.
Meanwhile, Labor has taken its own action: The institution of new party rules has made it significantly harder to remove a leader. My belief is that the new rules will deliver a new cycle for Labor leaders. Barring genuine disaster, a fresh leader will have two years from an election to prove their worth. If, going into that final year, the leader is not doing well enough, they will be replaced. This means that Shorten is safe for at least another eighteen months.
2. Shorten has time
Unusually for people in his position, this gives Shorten the luxury of time. He doesn’t have to pounce on every shadow. He can run his own race.
Every Opposition Leader gets one big chance to show they can tear the government to shreds. Staring into that existential abyss, they are all petrified of missing it and this jumpiness can lead to fatal mistakes. The public don’t pay that much attention to the opposition, so if you get it wrong the only time they’re looking there are consequences. Malcolm Turnbull was doing fine until he over-egged Kevin Rudd’s love affair with a ute, thinking this was his chance. It wasn’t and Turnbull never recovered.
Shorten can afford to be patient – a big advantage. The big battles are rarely won on the first day anyway. The damage that WorkChoices did to John Howard, or the carbon tax to Julia Gillard, took months. Those close to Shorten need to hammer this home. We saw unnecessary impetuosity in his early foray into the Indonesian affair. He should learn from this.
3. Abbott isn’t a role model
Abbott is often called the greatest Opposition Leader ever. There will be a temptation to follow his model – speak in slogans, and oppose everything in order to depict a government in chaos. There are some signs Shorten has caught this disease, like the “Abbott’s axe” catchcry.
Trying to learn from the past is both inevitable and dangerous. Abbott’s approach worked in very specific circumstances. He was facing a minority government, prone to leadership destabilisation and significant policy shifts, and a new media environment that voters had not yet adjusted to. It is unlikely to work again.
4. Voters want something new
The dramatic rise in Labor’s polling since the election, and the fall in the Coalition’s, means voters are willing to take another look at Labor now it is clear the Rudd-Gillard division is in the past.
Second, it suggests that voters’ desire to put that era of anger and perceived chaos behind them doesn’t stop at Rudd and Gillard: they know that Abbott was to blame as well. They were willing to forgive him if he could demonstrate, as he promised, that he would govern differently from how he had campaigned. But they haven’t seen evidence of this yet.
That means there is a chance for Shorten to step into the breach and be the new leader the electorate desperately wants to see, the symbol of a new post-Rudd-Gillard-Abbott era.
But not if he makes the mistake of playing Abbott’s old game. He needs to prove he can engage in a way that doesn’t remind voters of the last few years (and I’m talking mostly about Abbott here), by laying out plans, by picking his fights carefully rather than indiscriminately, by talking to voters as equals rather than as targeted advertising demographics. These are Shorten’s strengths. He needs to use them.
5. The new Senate will change everything
It is impossible to say precisely how the Senate will alter the game, but it will. In July, Labor and the Greens lose their combined majority, but it isn’t transferred to the Liberals – instead, we get a motley collection of independents plus Clive Palmer’s crew, partly depending on a West Australian election that may or may not be redone. Shorten will have to scramble to obtain maximum tactical advantage from the new circumstances, and will be heavily reliant on the Labor leadership team in the Senate.
All of these are, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, merely a collection of known knowns and known unknowns. There are the insidious unknown unknowns to come – things we haven’t realised are important yet, events that have not been anticipated. How Shorten deals with the above, as well as with the unexpected, will determine whether he scales the heady peaks of history, or returns, unstoried, uncelebrated, to base camp, another Prime Minister that never was.
Sean Kelly was an adviser to Kevin Rudd from 2009 then to Julia Gillard from 2010. He writes regularly for The New Daily and is on twitter @mrseankelly