At Australian Labor party conferences in New South Wales and Queensland last weekend, Bill Shorten proclaimed himself the Robin Hood of Australian politics.
His message: inequality is rampant, and only I, mighty Bill Shorten of the Australian Workers Union, can stand for you against the top-hatted capitalist leeches from the big end of town.
Shorten wants to hold back any change in the workplace threatening downtrodden workers: he told the Labor faithful that if the Fair Work Commission – Labor’s own creation – took away any conditions from any worker, his government would override them.
He puts the union movement at the centre of power in a coming Shorten government. He scoffs at the Coalition’s attacks on the thugs and gangsters of the CFMEU as the capitalists’ class war, and then to thunderous unionist cheers promised to re-abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission to protect those supposedly maligned building union leaders.
Yet having denounced the Coalition for declaring a class war on workers, he declares a class war of his own, railing against high-income earners dodging tax, rolling in ill-gotten money while women and orphans go hungry.
You could have been forgiven if last weekend you thought you were listening to Arthur Calwell in 1967, not Bill Shorten in 2017. He talked about the jobs of the future, but they were the jobs of the past. Industrial and low-skilled jobs, regulated by awards and where the conditions are more important than ensuring there was a job in the first place.
That those very jobs he champions, and millions more, soon will be swept away by a tsunami of automation and artificial intelligence, and that we must plan for that apocalyptic future before it’s too late, from Shorten we heard not a peep. No votes there, comrades.
And, after weeks of teasing, he finally revealed his plans to force the wealthy to disgorge their ill-gotten gains in the name of the people. Family trusts are, for Labor, a symbol of aristo tyranny as the Bastille was for French revolutionaries in 1789. ‘Our system should not be subsidising those who are already wealthy, and our budget cannot afford to’, he railed.
That he wants to rob the better off to feed government’s insatiable revenue addiction, like a pathetic heroin addict craving her next hit, is Shorten’s inconvenient truth. Whatever a Shorten Labor government needs, it will take, was his message. How appropriate in the centenary year of the Russian Revolution!
And in case his jihad on trusts was not enough to excite the faithful, Shorten committed to a republican plebiscite in his first term. Isn’t it funny that there are good and bad plebiscites in Shorten’s world?
The substance and inconsistencies of Shorten’s conference speeches are risible, but his demagoguery resonates well beyond those conference halls packed with cheering believers in the Gospel According to Bill. They were speeches of the prime minister in waiting.
His confident, even arrogant, manner and tone belonged to someone who knows the times suit him, and that the waves of grievance and resentment that propelled Donald Trump into the White House, and almost put Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10, can – nay, will – sweep him and his wife, the glamorous daughter of a former governor-general (but I’m no snob, insists Bill), into The Lodge.
Shorten has seized the political agenda with a vengeance. The talk suddenly is all about his issues: inequality, taxing the wealthy, the republic, gay marriage. In response, Malcolm Turnbull and the party of the forgotten people he leads have been caught leaden-footed, responding not leading, so far lost for any credible response. To hear Treasurer Scott Morrison try and use an obscure economic co-efficient, which means nothing to nobody except some long-dead bloke named Gini, to claim there was less inequality under the Coalition was excruciating and cringeworthy. And unworthy.
It doesn’t matter Shorten’s solutions to the nation’s ills are snake oil. He is running rampant, looking like a winner while his clueless opponents tear themselves apart. Even though Turnbull’s budget move to the left sent Shorten further leftwards, Turnbull’s gambit has served only to legitimise the opposition leader’s class war rhetoric.
If any Coalition politician is equipped to call out Shorten’s economic snake oil for what it is, to make the case for the lifters over the leaners, surely it’s Turnbull. As a businessman and entrepreneur, he created and grew wealth and jobs. As a lawyer and merchant banker, he helped others do the same. Even as his government adds to the national debt, he knows there is no magic money tree, and that if there is to be any redistribution of wealth, wealth needs creating in the first place. Unlike Shorten, he should know that there can be no compassion without a thriving private sector, and capitalism with a heart, not identity politics, is what makes our society the success it is.
Turnbull has never lacked confidence in his own genius: he once declared ‘humility is for saints’. He undermined and rolled Tony Abbott because he was convinced of his own destiny, but as a champion of the very free enterprise that bought his harbourside mansion he is failing. Having no guiding policy vision of his own, he stole Shorten’s, but in the process made Shorten’s cynical grievance-exploiting populism even more acceptable and fashionable.
The Coalition still has up to two years to recapture the agenda and rediscover its soul as the centre-right, smaller-taxing, lower-spending party of free enterprise and personal initiative. But each succeeding bad Newspoll is as a clock ticking down on a government that seemingly has no answers to its shamelessly populist opponents. As Shorten treats victory at the next election as inevitable, and his class warrior charade seduces a jaded and angry electorate, Turnbull must prove he is worthy of his party’s trust and being prime minister.
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