11 April 2016
by Tim Dick

Bill Shorten is back in the game as the Liberals short-circuit

Suddenly, Bill Shorten is a dud no more. He may still be only marginally livelier than a dead tree, but the candidacy of a former loser-in-waiting is ridiculous no longer.

Labor is competitive in all the polls. According to Essential Media, it is even with the government after preferences. Newspoll has it just ahead. Morgan has it a little behind. The next Fairfax Ipsos poll is due out soon.

That any poll at all has Labor ahead without Tony Abbott as prime minister is astounding. It comes not a single term after Labor inflicted Kevin Rudd on the nation for the second time, and the grateful electorate gave its thanks with a thrashing: 90 lower house Coalition seats to Labor's 55.

Those 55 MPs are proving to be some rump. Not three years on, Labor appears far more substantial in policy that the government, even if by "substantial" we sink the bar so low to mean the number of announced policies which last longer than a week.

Shorten, as unappealing as he was only a short time ago, now has a significant advantage over the government in public policy positions. Even if we don't like him, as with John Howard, we know his positions. And so far, they're often good.

Curtailing negative gearing in the way Labor plans is so sensible, even Joe Hockey supported it. Limiting subsidies for rich people's superannuation should be straightforward; why should any earnings from super accounts worth millions be subsidised by the rest of us?

Properly funding public education is almost as elementary; if Australia is to be both agile and fair, we need every child to have the chance of a decent education at a decent local school which does not depend on the size of her parental purse. Labor has a plan, the Coalition earlier last month wanted to leave public schools entirely to the states.

One side of politics thinks a $160 million plebiscite to legalise fairness for some loving couples is a good use of taxpayer funds; Shorten's party has a decent marriage equality plan for Australia to catch up with such bastions of liberal democracy as Colombia.

Shorten is also now a hero for all whose cut of their clothes is less important than the contents of their heads, thanks to Scott Morrison. By calling Shorten's suits "ill-fitting", the Treasurer demonstrated once more that sledges need to be funny to work.

Labor's campaigning reflects popular frustration with both banks and the tax avoidance industry; the Coalition looks increasingly obsessed with a rogue militant union. As Seven's Mark Riley observed on Sunday, it's the top hats versus the hard hats.

With all that, and if Turnbull can't find some policy coherence and rein in the Coalition's obsessive hard right, Shorten will have a decent chance of being Australia's fifth prime minister in three years.

If that happens, a rich and peaceful nation will have burnt through four prime ministerships in a row: those of Julia Gillard, Rudd, Abbott, and Turnbull. The bemused electorate will have Abbott to thank for demise of each of them, himself included.

For all Labor's sensible preparation, for all its swotting for the next election test, it wouldn't be in the level-poll position it is without the Coalition's internal circus – being run by ringmasters Abbott, Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews.

Abbott, Abetz, and Andrews are the triple-A batteries of Australian politics: each started full of power, but not as much as they thought. Their charge quickly ran out, and now we're left wondering what to do with the empty vessels.

Andrews, at least, remains entertaining, telling a local newspaper that he would make himself available for the leadership, should the time be right.

Leader of what? If he meant leader of Australia, or the Liberal Party, or of anything other than the parliamentary friends of Just For Men, his offer proves that delusional self-promotion existed well before the selfie generation. (Is it a co-incidence the nation's other great delusional self-promoter is also called Kevin?)

The only positive contribution the caucus of triple-As has left to make to politics is for each of them to get out of it. Their continuing public mischief-making helps only Labor and exposes them as selfish dills.

Still, even with all that, Shorten has little prospect of actually winning the election. Yes, Campbell Newman lost in Queensland after a single term, but Newman is far closer in public esteem to Abbott than to Turnbull. Most Australians still like Turnbull; most Queenslanders didn't like Newman.

Labor also needs to overcome three significant factors working against it: the distaste for the revolving-door prime ministership, the usual sense of giving a new government a fair go, and the particular sentiment towards Turnbull which remains, if in reduced form.

There's the added problem of Shorten himself – Mr 27 Per Cent, on Newspoll's preferred PM figures, which is better than the 14 per cent he recorded in December but still well behind Turnbull. Shorten is hardly prime ministerial, although the last election demonstrated that is no disqualification for the highest elected office.

There's a reason the bookies have the Coalition at $1.25 to be the next government and Labor at $3.90: Labor needs to win 19 extra seats to win government, a uniform swing of 4 per cent according to the ABC election analyst Antony Green.

But Shorten's back in the game, and at least we now have a good-for-the-country contest.