News National Bill Shorten faces big challenges in 2014

Bill Shorten faces big challenges in 2014

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Labor leader Bill Shorten faces some crucial tests in coming months.

Although he took the ALP to a lead in the polls after the September 2013 election, it has now slipped back to line-ball with the coalition on a two-party basis.

There is no shortage of ammunition for the opposition to use against the Abbott government.

In the wake of decisions by Alcoa and car manufacturers to shut down operations, job security is weighing heavily on voters’ minds.

An Essential poll this week said 55 per cent of voters were concerned about the issue, with 46 per cent saying the government did not do enough to save the car industry.

Shorten has been quick to stand in front of factories, accompanied by sombre-faced local MPs, to call on the government to come up with a long-term national jobs plan and provide generous short-term assistance for the displaced workers.

However, the former union boss has yet to translate his concern for workers into a “prime ministerial” image.

A speech in Melbourne on Thursday was his first shot at spelling out an economic agenda based on an “innovation-led jobs plan”, but more will be needed.

Labor has been critical of the government over its management of asylum seekers – particularly following the disturbance on Manus Island which led to the death of an Iranian man and the six incursions of Operation Sovereign Borders vessels into Indonesian waters.

But the opposition’s message is blunted by the fact that Labor re-established offshore processing, much to the disappointment of many in the Left and, as several polls have shown, a high proportion of women voters.

Labor’s line of attack is limited to the government’s secrecy over its asylum seeker strategy and the mismanagement of detention centres.

It is left to the Australian Greens to argue the moral question of why Australia is using remote islands to indefinitely detain some of the most marginalised people on the globe, including hundreds of children.

Coming up with a popular and credible narrative will be crucial for Shorten.

Labor is looking set to lose power in Tasmania and South Australia when state elections are held on March 15.

The party also faces the polls in Western Australia with the re-run of the Senate election, after the High Court ruled the electoral commission’s loss of 1400 ballots meant the result could not stand.

The coalition has set its share of traps for Shorten and Labor.

A royal commission into union corruption will target Shorten’s former employer – the Australian Workers Union – along with others as it looks at allegations of kickbacks, links with outlaw motorcycle gangs, intimidation, fraud and misuse of members’ funds.

Labor could also find itself facing a backlash over its “negativity” – a factor which dogged Tony Abbott for much of his time in opposition.

Prime Minister Abbott wants to implement an initial $20 billion in budget savings, but Labor is blocking the move, including $5 billion of savings that it took to the 2013 election.

The opposition’s blocking of the carbon tax repeal legislation is confusing for voters, given that Kevin Rudd said he would also axe the tax if re-elected.

Shorten’s argument is that the tax should be replaced with an emissions trading scheme and, in any case, shouldn’t be scrapped until Abbott unveils exactly how his government would cut carbon emissions in order to meet Australia’s international obligations.

The Labor leader said in the Melbourne speech he would not go down Abbott’s “negative” path of the past four years, but instead take the lead of John Curtin.

Curtin once wrote it was the role of an opposition leader to “act and think helpfully, and not play faultfinder”.

“Under my leadership, Labor will be a constructive, alternative government that offers genuine policy choices, not simply empty criticism and three-word slogans,” says Shorten.

He lists co-operation on drought aid, avoiding point-scoring on the Indonesia-Australia relationship and backing the Closing the Gap school attendance target for indigenous children as bipartisan success stories.

Shorten finds himself treading a fine line between opposition leader and alternative prime minister.

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