What should Shorten say?

LightbulbIn the political battle of ideas, the weapon is the political narrative. After spending the last year researching political narrative, I have learned it’s not as easy as saying ‘here’s your narrative’, attaching your words to that wagon and off you go and win an election (not unless you’re Tony Abbott). As Bill Shorten is hopefully learning, narratives are about more than words. They’re about showing what you stand for, not just telling. And they’re about more than winning elections too; they’re about the way you plan to govern.

The Abbott government’s narrative, and their Opposition narrative before that, flew under the radar for the past seven years. For most of their time in opposition, and their first year of their first term in government, the mainstream media let them get away with saying one thing, and doing another. But the minute this cosy little arrangement started to become unstuck, so did Abbott’s grip on his leadership, and hopefully, so did the Liberal National Coalition’s chances of winning the 2016 election. Abbott might have scrutiny-free based his election winning narrative on a the unicorn-like-promise to fix the budget, cancel revenue (mining tax and Carbon Price), not cut education, health or pensions and everyone wins, no one loses. And the mainstream media might have let us all down by standing idly by in their failure to point to the fact that unicorns don’t exist. But either way, these hollow words are not Abbott’s narrative because Abbott’s narrative is in his actions, not his words. His real narrative, which coincidentally if you haven’t noticed, fits like a glove around his well-known ideological position (did any journalist actually read his book Battlelines?) was rolled out in Hockey’s 2014 budget. Abbott’s narrative, or story if you like, is that the poor are to blame and the rich are to be revered and protected. Abbott’s narrative is that domestic violence campaigner, Rosie Batty would make a good Australian of the Year because that would boost his political popularity, but that domestic violence refuges are not the responsibility of the government to fund and that women fleeing abusive partners should fend for themselves, or give in and be killed, if they can’t afford alternative accommodation. Abbott’s narrative is that it’s an individual’s responsibility to pay for their education and their healthcare, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is self-entitled. Now that Australians have seen Abbott’s narrative, they plainly don’t like it. You really can sum up Abbott’s political downfall just in that one sentence.

So how is knowing this useful? Bill Shorten is once again finding himself as a Labor leader accused of missing a narrative. Gillard was dogged by this criticism throughout her time as Prime Minister. Troy Bramston has written an article in The Australian today (paywalled) titled ‘Bill Shorten causes Labor dismay over lack of ideas’, which cleverly ties Shorten’s narrative problems with leadership tensions, presumably to pass The Australian’s eligibility test for inclusion in their Labor bashing campaign, I mean, newspaper. Apparently Labor needs a narrative and needs a full policy agenda to go with it 18 months before the next election, even though Abbott didn’t even need anything more than a vague pamphlet of brain-farts up to the day of the last election. Go figure. But either way, Labor does need a narrative and so I’m going to suggest one. Keep in mind this narrative needs to be a show, not tell, and therefore needs to be reflected in what Labor does, not just says. So perhaps a good place to start is to look at what Labor does and work back? Now there’s a revolutionary idea.

2015 is the year Shorten promised to release Labor policies, and to Shorten’s credit, a couple of good ones have been released, both which give us a good foundation to look at a possible Labor narrative. One is a crackdown on multinational corporations illegally evading taxation. The other is a national summit on domestic violence. These policies, along with all the work Labor is doing to block most of the worst of Abbott’s policies, and the previous Labor government’s policies which Labor would clearly like to reinstate or repair given the chance after they’ve been damaged by the Abbott government (think Gonski, a climate policy such as an ETS, perhaps another mining tax etc, the Medicare system etc), give a really strong foundation for a simple narrative, that can be used to tie all these different, yet related, political ideas together. So here’s my suggestion of what Shorten and all Labor MPs should be saying whenever they’re competing in the battle for political ideas:

Labor is the party of the collective. Labor is the party of success through unity – of workers getting together to better their position, of communities helping each other to improve everyone’s lives. Labor doesn’t hold these values, and promote this cooperation because we think it’s a nice, warm fuzzy thing to do. We do it because it’s in the best interests of all of us when we look out for each other. Because we believe no one ever ultimately improved their own position by reducing the position of someone else. Because we believe that every individual who grasps an opportunity to improve their own life through this {insert this policy here} and all Labor policies, whether it be through education, through innovation, risk-taking, through the care and support of those around them; is bettering their community through the betterment of themselves. And when you understand that we’re all in this together, and you understand that we collectively take responsibility for our futures, and that ultimately everything that hurts one of us hurts all of us, and everything that is good for one of us is good for all of us, you can see why {insert policy here} is the best investment we can make in the success of our collective tomorrow.

Those who don’t share our values of community, who look only at short term self-interest, who don’t see that they belong intrinsically to something bigger than themselves, might scream and yell and complain that they’re being asked to contribute to our better tomorrow. But we know the voice of the community is louder than the voice of selfish individuals, and we see their threats, their protestations, and their three-word-slogans as the quiet whinging of the truly self-entitled that will not be heard over the roar of the collective. No dollar that was ever spent as an investment in the good of our community is a dollar wasted; no worker’s effort in our collective productivity should be forgotten, and no one’s desperation to pull themselves out of misfortune and disadvantage should be ignored. When you understand that your neighbour’s wellbeing is your own wellbeing, you can join with Labor in embracing this {insert policy here} for a better future for all of us.

I’m not suggesting Labor MPs recite this whole spiel every time they open their mouths, but elements of it should be found in every statement they make because this is the connection, the thread, the narrative that does run through Labor’s policies. And any policy that doesn’t suit this narrative should be discarded and reworked to fit this very simple story. We’re all in this together. I just hope Labor is listening.


  1. What can Abbott say, that if they listened would not brings howls laughter from the feral voters?

  2. Good onya Victoria, maybe email this to Bill directly? Ask him to “mongrel up” a bit in his dialogue delivery as well .. his criticisms of the coalition are less of a tongue lashing, more a flaying with a wet lettuce leaf ..

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