Shorten is like your ex-boyfriend who everyone wanted you to marry, but you just weren’t that into him. Your mum thought he was a nice boy. Your friends said he was a vast improvement on the dickheads you dated previously. He was easy to like. He wanted so much to be liked. The more everyone around you told you he was ‘a good guy’ and that you should settle down with him, the more your heart panicked and looked elsewhere. You liked him a lot. You even loved him. But you weren’t in love with him. So you broke up because no matter how right he was on paper, your head just couldn’t convince your heart he was the right man for you.
The electorate’s preference for political leaders is not rational. Just like dating and relationships, love and marriage, political preference is complicated. There are emotions at play when marking the ballot box which most voters don’t even consciously feel. But these emotions make or break political leaders. For example, it is becoming increasingly clear that the country’s emotional reaction to the Labor leadership battles of Rudd and Gillard are completely different from Turnbull’s knifing of Abbott. The news media has a huge influence on this reaction. Gillard was framed as the villain and never recovered her political legitimacy. Turnbull is framed as the hero who slayed Abbott – a leader the electorate had taken a deeply emotional dislike to. None of this is rational. It is politics.
So why don’t voters like Shorten?
As a matter of fact, I seem to be rare amongst Labor voters in that I do like Shorten and I think he would make a good Labor Prime Minister. When he cracks a grin, you see his affable personality shine through. His zingers are clumsily authentic and seem to amuse his audience. He genuinely listens to people. I’ve seen him speak many times to the Labor faithful and he is passionate, erudite and charismatic. He has led a united Labor opposition, without a hint of the disunity of the Rudd and Gillard era. Watching the Labor front bench in parliament, their body language makes it look like everyone is behind Bill. Not just because he’s their leader but because they share his Labor values. As do I. But regardless of how rusted-ons like me feel, and how his colleagues feel, the emotional reaction to Shorten from the majority of voters, left, right and swinging, is tepid. It sometimes seems like I’m watching a different person than the Shorten described by many as ‘beige’. First Dog on the Moon can’t even remember his name.
No matter what Shorten does or says, his unpopularity is apparently sticky and the more he tries to get voters to listen to him, the worse it seems to get. He is also suffering from a case of being damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. For example, he is damned for supporting Rudd, then Gillard, then Rudd again. But the only reason he was able to be so influential in these leadership contests was because he has strong allegiances in the party which he is now using to lead a stable team. He spent his career before politics standing up for workers, which you would think workers might appreciate. But low and behold a recent survey shows Australians trust their bosses more than they trust unions. See what I mean about emotions winning out over rationality? And even when the only dirt Abbott’s witch hunt of a union Royal Commission could find on Shorten was that he had good relationships with both workers and business owners, negotiating to make sure an infrastructure project was delivered on time, an outcome in everyone’s best interest, even when he handled himself well under the scrutiny of being in a ‘witness box’ with a Liberal plant aggressively interrogating him, voters are still not interested in what Shorten has to say. It doesn’t mean, by the way, that they hate him. The major problem for Shorten, and in turn Labor, is that Australia’s emotional reaction to him seems to be one of yawning indifference. Ask anyone on the street which policies Labor has released this year and I’m confident most would have trouble naming a single one. But there have been many, and they are good policies. The ABC quoted Shorten recently as saying ‘I believe if Labor keeps working on policies, the polls will look after themselves’. But this view is reliant on the mistaken idea that voters are rational. Human beings are emotional. Australian human beings just aren’t listening to Shorten.
Is there anything Shorten and Labor can do?
There is always hope. I’m not talking about ‘hope’ for Shorten’s career. I mean there is always the emotional reaction to ‘hope’ that Shorten can appeal to. Back in August, when Shorten’s unpopularity wasn’t as big an issue, because Abbott was so unpopular a mouldy onion would have beaten him in an election, I suggested to Labor that their election campaign should be a mixture of hope and fear, encapsulated in a story about how Labor’s brighter future can overcome Abbott’s wrecking ball. Hope and fear are strong emotions and, I believe, are the most important ‘feels’ for political candidates. Shorten is doing his best to stake his claim on a ‘better future’, with forward-thinking policies and all the stats and facts you ever need to explain why Labor’s plan is rationally credible. But what’s missing is Shorten’s personal, gritty, in-your-face appeal to a hopeful tomorrow. He is missing his own emotion of hope. What does ‘Shorten hope’ look like? Shorten needs to tell us about his hope for the future. Shorten needs to be emotional. He needs to put down the rehearsed lines and the market-tested phrases and just talk to Australians about how he feels. He needs to explain how he felt about the Rudd and Gillard years (presumably not great), and how he hopes for a brighter future for Labor now that the stain of disunity is gone. He needs to show the passion and emotion of a man who is hopeful that his policies will make Australia a better place so that we all feel hopeful too. This is not just about getting ‘real’. This is about Shorten wearing his heart on his sleeve and admitting he’s not being heard, and respectfully asking Australians to listen. Asking Australians to give him a chance. Showing that he’s genuinely, emotionally, committed to making a difference. Asking Australians to put their hope in him while he puts his hope in them. Hope for better politics. Hope for better policies. Hope for better outcomes for all Australians. Replace hopeless with hopeful. If Shorten can bring hope, there is hope for Labor yet.