Shorten too indistinct for even David Marr to nail down

October 30, 2015

Faction Man: Bill Shorten's Path to Power
David Marr
Quarterly Essay No. 59
Black Inc., 2015

Even the usually perceptive journalist David Marr, in his latest political profile for Quarterly Essay, is defeated by the indistinct and bland Shorten who, in public opinion polls, trails behind “Someone Else” as preferred leader of the Labor Opposition.

Personable and capable, but not memorable, is the assessment, says Marr, of Shorten's time at the wealthy Catholic Xavier College, which specialises in processing Melbourne's future judges and surgeons but which took on the working class grandson of union men.

An effective factional engineer, but politically uninspiring, was Shorten's hallmark at Monash University in the early 1980s as a “star of the Labor Right” in the ALP Club.

Subsequent factional powerplays by this “tough backroom fighter” were the means to fulfilling Shorten's undisguised personal ambition. This was seen first as national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, then as leader of the opposition — a Labor Caucus choice, with 86 of those parliamentarians having as much say as 30,000 rank-and-file party members — and finally with the prime ministership in his sights.

Marr does not think Shorten will get the top job. Personally congenial, and not without a certain small-room persuasiveness — “his best work is done face to face” — Shorten lacks the qualities to move a nation.

He is numbingly wooden and formulaic as a public agitator. He is personally and politically close to big business. His first marriage was to a wealthy Liberal blue-blood, while Business Review Weekly once declared that Shorten would make a fine corporate chief executive.

He is uncritically pro-US and conventional on national security and defence — having been a member of the University Regiment at Monash.

He robotically intones the hollowed-out stock ALP brand identifiers of “jobs, education and health” but, says Marr, “he stands for nothing brave”. He has no galvanising political philosophy.

He is distrusted in his own party and within the electorate as a “plotter who brought down two ALP leaders to clear his own way to power”, a “shape-shifter” always accompanied by “so many new best friends” in his self-advancement crusade.

These negatives were not debilitating while Shorten was pitted against a hard-right Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott. But his substance is now exposed to more scrutiny following Abbott's replacement with Malcolm Turnbull, which post-dates Marr's essay.

The electorate, says Marr, finds Shorten “hard to read”. So does Marr.

Shorten slips through the fingers of Marr, who, in desperation for biographical material, resorts to an analysis of Shorten's mirthless “zingers”. Marr's difficulties are partly due to Shorten's sheer vapidness, but also due to Marr's failure to situate Shorten as a symptom of Labor's fundamental political bankruptcy.

Marr delves into the grungy workings under the hood of the Labor machine, but he doesn't address just where Labor is headed or why. For whether Shorten, the master factional mechanic, or any of the nominally “Left”, “Right” or “Centre” drivers is at the wheel, the Labor jalopy sputters along the same road to nowhere. It dispenses, at best, modest, piecemeal and utterly inadequate reform while dedicated to its larger goal of maintaining the wealth and power of the corporate class.

Nevertheless, Marr is spot on in his observation that Shorten “has no radical designs, no great plans for reform” and “represents nil challenge to capitalism”. The same, however, applies for Labor as a broader political entity.

The party might be running on (Mr) Empty at the moment, but even when tanked up, the party's business-friendly and pro-capitalist political design makes it a complete lemon.

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