Aussie opposition leader closes in on prime target

Bill Shorten's ambitious policies seen winning over voters in tomorrow's election

Mr Bill Shorten, Australia's alternative prime minister for six years, looks set to win the real prize tomorrow when the country goes to the polls.
Mr Bill Shorten, Australia's alternative prime minister for six years, looks set to win the real prize tomorrow when the country goes to the polls.PHOTO: REUTERS

During a visit to a school north of Sydney this week, Australia's opposition leader Bill Shorten appeared stunned by an unfamiliar sight: hordes of teenagers screeching and yelling "Bill, Bill, Bill".

This sort of celebrity-style welcome is fairly common for party leaders during election campaigns. But the incident on Monday, dubbed "Billmania", was unusual and took Mr Shorten, and the entire country, by surprise.

Mr Shorten does not typically generate intense enthusiasm, even among his supporters, although opinion surveys indicate he will become prime minister in tomorrow's federal election.

A former union leader, he is not a gifted orator and his media performances can be stilted and slightly awkward.

Mr Shorten has long been a powerful figure in the Labor Party but this led to his notorious involvement in the move to replace then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2010 with Ms Julia Gillard. This was just the first in a series of internal coups which took the nation by surprise and led to widespread anger at Mr Shorten and his fellow backroom plotters - the so-called "faceless men" - who played a role in Mr Rudd's ousting.

Just three years later, Mr Shorten once again famously joined a second Labor coup - this time to depose Ms Gillard in favour of Mr Rudd, who was deemed more publicly popular.

These incidents seriously damaged Mr Shorten's reputation. But the 52-year-old has gradually clawed back some of his public credibility, partly because - when it comes to policy, rather than politics - he has proven, perhaps surprisingly, to be bold, principled and consistent.


At this federal election, he is proposing a series of ambitious - and politically risky - policies, including curbing tax benefits for property investors and shareholders as well as lifting some taxes for higher-income earners.

But this will provide him with a substantial war-chest to fund generous policies such as free cancer screenings, childcare subsidies and extra university spending to provide places for more students.

He has also proposed a 45 per cent carbon emission cut on 2005 levels by 2030, by adopting measures such as a 50 per cent renewable energy target by 2030.

It is these policies - rather than Mr Shorten's personality or background - that appear to be winning him voter support, though he has also benefited from the ruling coalition's recent turmoil, which included toppling two successive prime ministers.

An insight into public perceptions of Mr Shorten emerged from some recent focus group discussions involving undecided voters.

The sessions were conducted by research firm Ipsos and reported by Nine media, which said voters tended to dislike Mr Shorten even if they were likely to back Labor. But there was, however, some grudging show of respect.

He was apparently described as "gutsy" by one voter, while another said he was "calmer" and "more level-headed" than Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Despite Labor leading in opinion surveys since the last election, in 2016, Mr Shorten has consistently trailed Mr Malcolm Turnbull and his successor, Mr Morrison, as the preferred prime minister.

But the latest Newspoll, on Sunday, showed Mr Shorten to be catching up, with a rating of 38 per cent against Mr Morrison's 45 per cent, with the remainder uncommitted.

Mr Shorten has long been touted as a future prime minister. He attended a prestigious Catholic school in Melbourne before studying law and then rising through the union movement.

In 2006, he became a household name during a mine disaster in Tasmania in which two miners were trapped underground for a while. During the ordeal, he rushed to the site and helped to speak for the miners and the community.

In 2007, Mr Shorten entered Parliament and swiftly became known as a Labor kingmaker. He took over as party leader in 2013, and came close to a surprise election win against Mr Turnbull in 2016.

He has also been helped by changes to Labor's rules which make it harder to switch leader. As a result, Mr Shorten has now been Australia's alternative prime minister for six years - a period in which the coalition has churned through three leaders.

As one of the focus group members pointed out: "Every year he's in the job, he earns another stripe from me."

For the opposition leader, this may not have been quite as effusive an endorsement as the welcome he received from the screaming school students, but opinion surveys indicate that it may be enough to ensure that he finally gets to fulfil his lifelong ambition to be prime minister tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2019, with the headline 'Aussie opposition leader closes in on prime target'. Print Edition | Subscribe