Bill Shorten’s total control of Labor airbrushed from history


The secretary is the person who’s supposed to run the campaign. For the 2019 election the secretary was Noah Carroll, chosen by Shorten. Evidently he was not allowed to run the campaign.

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And adaptability? The government switched leaders, from Malcolm Turnbull to Scott Morrison. But Labor didn’t stop to rethink. It just kept doing what it had been doing, the review finds.

But of course. How could it rethink when it hadn’t had a think in the first place? As Emerson and Weatherill put it: “By December 2018, when Morrison reframed the campaign around an evaluation of him versus Bill Shorten, the seriousness of this risk should have been identified, any strategy reviewed and, if necessary, adjusted. But there was no coherent strategy to review.”

And the most delicate factor, the unpopular leader? The review squarely states Shorten’s unpopularity as a “contributor” to the loss. But Emerson and Weatherill are careful to exonerate him from full responsibility: “No single person or factor cost Labor the election.”

And, very diplomatically, they take the trouble to praise him where they can: “Bill Shorten worked hard, he was disciplined and he led a unified team. This was a product of the personal efforts of the leader and the team’s desire for unity.

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“None of the conclusions that follow should be taken as a personal reflection on Shorten. His net favourability rating was an issue that needed to be addressed. A sustained campaign of attacks by the Coalition on Shorten’s personal credibility had taken its toll. Attempts by the party to develop a strategy that lifted Shorten’s personal standing prior to the campaign were inadequate and unsuccessful.”

And, separately: “Almost six years of opposition inevitably will take its toll on the popularity of any opposition leader. He saw off two prime ministers and won three difficult by-elections. His character was attacked through an enormously expensive campaign funded by Clive Palmer, which dovetailed into the Coalition’s campaign.”

Get the picture? Poor Bill. He was doing a really good job, he was working so hard, he had so many successes, but those six punishing years and those damned Tories were just too much for him. Emerson and Weatherill couldn’t credibly avoid naming Shorten as a part of the disaster, but took care to deliver the hard message in the kindest way they could.

Why? Because Shorten is a former leader and deserves some respect. Because he has factional standing in Labor’s Victorian Right faction and in some right-wing unions. And, critically, because he’s still in Parliament.

That means he still has the potential to be a source of disruption. So Emerson and Weatherill handled him with the delicacy of a bomb-disposal squad trying to disarm a volatile explosive ordnance.

We all remember only too well the mayhem that a humiliated former leader can wreak, whether Labor’s Kevin Rudd or the Liberals’ Tony Abbott, when he decides to seek vengeance. Emerson and Weatherill were, quite shrewdly, trying to give Shorten a dignified burial.

In truth, they went easy on the former leader. By creating three categories of failure they structured away much of the blame. They found that Labor had no strategy. My goodness, whose fault could that be? The report doesn’t say, but you don’t need a 91-page review to set out first principles.

And in so much as there was a campaign, they found the official responsible for running it was not allowed to run it and seemed “surprised” by all the big campaign announcements. Gosh, who could have been overriding Labor’s national secretary and deciding all those big announcements? Again, there’s not really any mystery here but the report leaves it unanswered.

Failure to adapt to a new prime minister? Let’s see, whose responsibility might that have been? Once more, the leader is surely responsible yet not named in the review. And then, quite separately, they find Shorten’s unpopularity was a factor in the defeat. Even here, where they couldn’t avoid naming him, the reviewers delicately shift blame to the Coalition, to Clive Palmer and to the wear and tear factor of six years as leader.

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Come to mention it, there was another internal Labor review in the course of those six years. The party commissioned a post mortem after the 2016 election. Did that report identify factors that might have allowed Labor to better build towards this year’s election? We don’t know. Because the review’s results are secret. To this day, we have no idea what the 2016 review found, and whether it might have helped Labor fight in 2019.

Labor under Shorten did unexpectedly well in 2016, reducing the Turnbull government’s majority to a single seat. Shorten won great credit for this performance and great latitude to run the show for the next. He didn’t want the 2016 review released, so it wasn’t.

And this is the key to understanding what happened next. Shorten ran a highly centralised and secretive office. The Emerson and Weatherill review found that: “No formal campaign committee was established, creating no forum for formulating an effective strategy or for receiving reports evaluating progress against the strategy.”

This was because Shorten didn’t want one. He conducted everything in tight, personal control. Labor, like the rest of the country, was misled by the failure of Australia’s polling industry. All the published opinion poll companies signalled a consistent Labor lead and pointed to a Labor win.

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But the 2019 Labor review says there was some internal party research and evidence that the party was not winning. But none of this was taken seriously. The review reports that: “Labor’s campaign lacked a culture and structure that encouraged dialogue and challenge, which led to the dismissal of warnings from within the party about the campaign’s direction.”

The party was impervious to any information that implied criticism of the leader. So there was no opportunity for course correction. In common with many of history’s great failed military campaigns, an all-powerful leader tolerates only positive news.

Emerson and Weatherill reasonably could have listed their three categories of failure as Shorten’s failure to create a strategy, Shorten’s failure to adapt and Shorten’s unpopularity. It would have been reasonable, but not entirely fair. Yes, Shorten overwhelmingly bears responsibility for a shocking defeat, for his organising and leadership failures as well as his unpopularity. And he resigned his post immediately and honourably the result was clear.

But his frontbench colleagues let him get away with this runaway debacle, and so did Labor’s national executive.
The 21-member national executive, notionally the ultimate decision-making body for the party’s organisational matters, failed to exercise any oversight. The review implicitly acknowledges this by proposing that, in future, the executive requires the national secretary to implement its proposed reforms. But the review is silent on any national executive responsibility for the election defeat.

In any case, the Labor review has given Shorten a great gift. It has given his term as leader a respectful and dignified funeral. So did the new leader, Anthony Albanese, in his speech on Friday in responding to the review.

“We know the outcome was not due to a lack of effort and I do want to pay tribute to the extraordinary commitment of Bill Shorten who worked so hard each and every day for six years to return Labor to government,” Albanese told the National Press Club. “Bill was determined to offer hope and genuine reform to benefit all those who depend upon a Labor government.”

It doesn’t get much better than this for a failed leader. If Shorten is smart, he will accept this graciously and move forward positively in his job as shadow minister for the NDIS, allowing Albanese to do his as new leader.

But Shorten’s comment, issued immediately before the release of the election review, that he’d be around for another 20 years carried the hint of a grudge – I ain’t going nowhere, whatever you say. The party will now be on tenterhooks to see whether he nurses a grudge into a destabilisation campaign.

In his Friday speech, Albanese restated his intention to restore Labor as the party that offers ordinary workers the greatest opportunity and encourages aspiration – hell, you might think it should be called the Labor Party or some such.

Under Shorten, it came to be seen as a party preoccupied with redistribution rather than wealth creation, animated by anger at the “top end of town” rather than opportunity for the rest.

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“To me,” said Albanese, “it’s one of the great ironies of our times that Labor has been labelled anti-aspirational. Our movement was founded at a time when your destiny was anchored to your class. The Labor Party’s historic mission has been to sever that anchor chain.”

Shorten and his supporters need to sever an anchor chain of their own, the chain to any misplaced sense that the party owes him something more. The Labor Party, and the Liberals too, have paid a very great price to indulge the unchecked personal ambition of wannabe leaders and one-time leaders who wannabe leaders once again.

Worse, it’s harmed Australian democracy. If Labor can recover from its worst showing in a century, it won’t be through blood feuds and internecine vendettas.

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