Opposition Leader Bill Shorten doing morning TV in Melbourne. Picture Kym Smith
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten doing morning TV in Melbourne. Picture Kym Smith

Voters leave Bill Shorten with cake all over his face

Bill Shorten is the new John Hewson. To find a choke this big in Australian politics, you have to go back to 1993 when, as was the case last night, an opposition with a hugely ambitious policy agenda frightened voters into sticking with a government that had been riven by factional brawling and was ripe for removal.

Hewson, as everyone remembers, had his birthday cake moment when he was advocating a goods and services tax. Bill Shorten's result was worse. He ended up with cake all over his face.

It is truly remarkable that Bill Shorten did as badly as he did last night.

There were many, repeated weaknesses in Labor's campaign.

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Chief among them was the sloppy policy performance of Shorten himself. He was a victim of his own making. He often seemed to be caught out by the breadth of his own policy agenda and often looked amateurish and sometimes genuinely angry as he batted away valid requests for policy detail.

Australian opposition leader Bill Shorten preparing to vote during the federal election. Picture: Andy Brownbill/AP
Australian opposition leader Bill Shorten preparing to vote during the federal election. Picture: Andy Brownbill/AP

His refusal even to attempt to quantify the economic impact of his climate change policies was accompanied by one of the great undergraduate lines in modern politics, that the cost of not acting was greater than any action to protect the planet. This was first year Arts student stuff, not the intelligent response of an alternative prime minister.

There was a recklessness and a meanness about two of his biggest tax-raising measures. Its negative impact went well beyond those who were directly affected at the hip-pocket level. The result last night suggests that many voters unaffected by these changes disliked them as a matter of principle.

The negative gearing policy would have created two classes of Australians by bringing back a policy that was such a disaster the first time during the Hawke-Keating era that Labor wisely shelved it for fear of doing continued damage to the property market.

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The biggest political damage came it would appear from the franking credits policy, with many seats with a large number of older Australians refusing to shift in the direction of the ALP. Labor was punished less so for the content of this policy than its bloody-minded execution. It was almost as if it had declared war on a group of people purely on the basis that they were unlikely to vote Labor anyway, and disparaged them in class war terms as yacht-owning toffs.

Former Liberal Leader John Hewson and Kerryn Phelps at the National Press Club in Canberra. Picture Kym Smith
Former Liberal Leader John Hewson and Kerryn Phelps at the National Press Club in Canberra. Picture Kym Smith

The other problem Labor had was that Shorten's own track record was the greatest neutraliser of potential voter disquiet over the Liberals' leadership intrigues.

Sure, the Liberal Party's conduct over the past two terms was every bit as juvenile and bitter as Labor's during its most recent stint in power.

But if you are going to punish the Libs for the Abbott-Turnbull-Dutton-Scomo circus, it was clearly for many voters a stretch to do so by rewarding the man who was up to his neck in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd intrigues.

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While Morrison entered the campaign as a bit of an unknown - and was probably best known for what most voters regard as a positive, namely his work stopping the boats as immigration minister - the public already knew plenty about Bill Shorten. And what they knew wasn't good, in that he was an accomplished factional player, instrumental in the most spectacular knifings Australian politics had ever seen.

The most decisive factor for Scott Morrison was that almost all the undecided voters - about 12 per cent of the population in this last week - appear to have stuck with the status quo.

Here, it's tempting to recall the great line Labor used to demolish Hewson over the GST. If you don't understand it don't vote for it because if you did understand it you wouldn't vote for it.

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Shorten could perhaps - perhaps - have won this campaign if he ran purely on the question of Liberal instability and the need to give workers a fair go in terms of pay, and to reign in the power of the banks. On these three issues the Libs were massively vulnerable.

Scott Morrison ran a highly focused and disciplined campaign. Picture: Gary Ramage
Scott Morrison ran a highly focused and disciplined campaign. Picture: Gary Ramage

He tried instead to govern from opposition, and he did so from a position well behind the Eight ball given that most voters did not approve of him anyway.

Morrison in contrast ran a highly focused and disciplined campaign. It was not without its flaws, even though most of these were things he carried into the campaign from when he won the leadership. He was plagued by his hostility to a bank royal commission and his perceived indifference on wages growth, and he also at times struggled to sell his own tax policy, fearful of Labor attacks over its generosity towards high income earners. But in keeping the campaign so focused on the economy, and in targeting Shorten's weaknesses so sharply, he did all that was required, and more.

If Shorten is the new Hewson, Morrison's name will be etched in the Liberal pantheon forever more.

As Paul Keating said in 1993, for the Liberal Party, this appears to have been the sweetest victory of all.

@penbo



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