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Shorten’s gamble on rape claims

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In Bill Shorten’s office they were calling it a ‘controlled explosion’. The Opposition leader’s decision to go public over an allegation that he raped a young woman in the 1980s is not without risk.

By confronting these claims head on, Mr Shorten is hoping to control the agenda and head off any further damaging revelations. By appearing in public with his wife Chloe to confront the “untrue and abhorrent” allegations, the Labor leader is seeking to define the way the story is reported.

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The narrative goes along these lines: the police investigated and found there was no case to answer. That is the end of story. Full stop.

But the danger is that a new chapter is opened and he can’t control it. Last night, Canberra was awash with rumours that the woman who made the allegation was being courted by a television network, urged to deliver a tell-all interview. In drawing attention to himself, Mr Shorten has gambled that the woman will not attempt to take the matter forward.

That could prove damaging for him, notwithstanding his sure-footed performance on Thursday.

Certainly there was no sign from the Government that it would seek to exploit the matter, against an opponent who according to the polls is on track to become prime minister.

Bill Shorten and wife Chloe outside Thursday’s press conference. Photo: AAP

But Mr Shorten has taken a big risk. The allegations involve a woman who claims she was raped in the 1980s, when the Opposition leader was just 19.

Last night, news websites carried headlines along the lines of ‘Shorten cleared of rape claim’. These lurid revelations would have surprised thousands of voters who were hearing the allegations for the first time.

Most people, the vast bulk of the electorate, will not change their view of the Opposition leader. They’ll believe Mr Shorten and simply move on.

Since taking over the Labor leadership following last year’s electoral loss, Mr Shorten has performed solidly. Yes, he sometime appears wooden and has attracted criticism from his own colleagues for not being aggressive enough in his pursuit of the Government.

As well, he has yet to really define his leadership, either in political or policy terms. Most voters recognise Mr Shorten as a capable and highly ambitious former union leader who was instrumental in ousting Kevin Rudd back in mid-2010.

But he’s yet to forge a strong persona. There is some danger for Mr Shorten that if these allegations continue to swirl around, they will feed into voter uncertainty.

There have been rumours around Canberra for some time that this ‘story’ would emerge. There are some parallels with the allegations Julia Gillard faced surrounding a union slush fund controlled by a former boyfriend, although that matter is ongoing.

But while Gillard came out swinging, Mr Shorten dealt with the allegations in a dignified and controlled manner. He was determined to get on the front foot, declaring he has nothing to hide.

Federal politics has descended into a kind of madness of late. Most recently that’s seen Treasurer Joe Hockey forced into an apology over his ‘petrol for the poor’ remarks and then Clive Palmer make his extraordinary outburst against the Chinese, on Monday calling them “mongrels” and “bastards”.

Voter trust in our elected representatives will hardly have been enhanced as a result. Mr Shorten did the right thing in going public but he better hope like hell the matter has been dealt with, for good. He better hope his public outing does not lead to any further statements from the woman at the centre of this sordid affair.

Steve Lewis has 22 years experience in reporting Canberra politics, and is a senior adviser with Newgate Communications. He is also the co-author of political novel The Mandarin Code and the best-selling The Marmalade Files.

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