News National Labor leader Shorten aims to fill PM’s policy void
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Labor leader Shorten aims to fill PM’s policy void

Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten
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Bill Shorten speech to the National Press Club this week will be no run-of-the-mill address, merely attempting to make Labor relevant to voters. It is more important than that.

It will be one that aims to deepen the lines of differentiation between the Turnbull government and the Shorten alternative.

The speech will be much more than empty profile-raising because Mr Shorten’s Labor is doing what most oppositions have been afraid to do for the past couple of decades – spell out in detail what the party plans to do if it wins the 2016 federal election.

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Granted, the Opposition hasn’t delivered a comprehensive manifesto like John Hewson’s ill-fated collection of Fightback policies in 1993.

But it has produced a collection of signpost policies, some costed by the independent Parliamentary Budget Office, that it hopes will tap into issues that strike a chord with mainstream Australian voters.

In most cases these policies are about making the well off pay more. It’s a risky strategy because middle-income Australians don’t necessarily resent those who have more than them – they actually want to BE like them.

Bill Shorten
Bill Shorten will lay out his plan for Australia on Tuesday. Photo: Getty

The latest Fairfax-Ipsos poll bears that out, with more Labor voters opposing than supporting cuts to tax concessions for superannuation and negative gearing.

On the flip side, the approach should go down well with younger Australians resentful of baby boomers who, apparently, are hoarding the nation’s wealth for themselves.

Labor’s strategy was initially developed during the Abbott era, a time when the government inexplicably placed the burden of economic repair on those least able to pay.

Budget measures included increases to health and education costs along with cuts to welfare payments and eligibility, and a blanket resistance to make the wealthy pay other than a modest one-off levy for high-income earners.

Against this background, Labor’s Robin Hood policies could at least be seen as a necessary balancing of the ledger.

But those same policies have now existed within a vacuum for the past six months, as new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has taken his time putting together a fresh economic agenda for the Coalition government.

In some ways Mr Turnbull matched the Opposition’s audacity in refusing to follow political tradition, by declaring during the early days of his tenure that he refused to play the “rule in, rule out” game.

The PM did so to avoid painting himself into a corner, but created an entirely different problem by keeping “everything on the table”, thereby exposing the government to a potential scare campaign based on any of the options that remained “open”.

Malcolm Turnbull has seen his honeymoon as PM screech to a halt. Photo: AAP
Malcolm Turnbull has seen his honeymoon as PM screech to a halt. Photo: AAP

That’s exactly how things played out with the mooted change to the goods and services tax.

Mr Shorten did a reasonable reprise of that golden oldie, the “great big tax on everything”, managing to whip up the anxiety of government MPs in marginal seats and force a prime ministerial denial.

Mr Turnbull was also forced to hose down his overenthusiastic Treasurer Scott Morrison, who had assumed the PM would be prepared to fight with him in the trenches if necessary on the totemic economic issue.

Labor may have managed to shoot down one of Mr Turnbull’s potential policies, sometimes referred to as a “balloon”, but now the PM is starting to resemble a man struggling to show purpose or direction due to the overly large bunch of balloons to which he is clinging. And those potential policies are dragging him hither and thither depending on where the next gust of public opinion blows.

Most importantly, voters may not necessarily perceive the Prime Minister’s willingness to remain open-minded on the gamut of policy solutions as the grown-up thing to do.

The electorate simply wants competence and is accustomed to proficiency being demonstrated through decisive action.

That is, voters just want the government to get on with the job – to make the right decisions and then do what is necessary to look after the nation’s interests.

As a result, Mr Turnbull’s careful consideration of the all the options might just be wearing voters’ patience a bit thin. Like most other opinion polls, Monday’s Fairfax-Ipsos poll showed a decline in voter satisfaction with the PM’s performance.

Talk of an early budget, making way for a double dissolution election in early July might therefore be welcome news to those who want the PM to do something, anything, to get things moving.

Gay marriage is not the only point of Labor and Coalition difference. Photo: AAP
Gay marriage is not the only point of difference between Labor and the Coalition. Photo: AAP

The question then is whether the PM and his newish ministerial team are up to the task of selling the new economic package – that may or may not be released before the budget – as well as any other key policies, within the hyper-partisan, media-centric and excoriatingly unforgivable environment that is a federal election campaign.

The tea leaves suggest we don’t have long to find out.

Meantime, Mr Shorten is using opportunities like Tuesday’s address to position Labor as the party of decisive action.

Labor may have a depressingly similar policy to the Coalition on offshore detention, be playing a shameful generation war to win over Millennials, and still not adequately explained how it will pay for its big ticket policies like the latter years of Gonski, but at least it Is Doing Something.

If Mr Turnbull doesn’t respond in kind, he risks being seen not only as an indecisive waffler, but a spineless do-nothing prime minister. And voters will lodge their ballots accordingly.

Paula Matthewson was media adviser to John Howard in the early 1990s and then worked for almost 25 years in communication, political and industry advocacy roles. She is now a freelance writer and communication strategist. Paula has been tweeting and blogging about politics, the media and social media since 2009 under the pen name @Drag0nista.

You can read more of her columns here

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