There were three competing and conflicting narratives in the Coalition’s budget. First, there was the narrative that Malcolm Turnbull and colleagues have been playing up – that their budget built on tax cuts for middle-income earners and small (and not-so-small) business – was part of their long-term plan for economic growth.
A second, less obvious, theme was that this was a budget that was “steady as she goes”. Ironically, this theme might prove to be more of a winning formula for the Coalition. Once all the white noise about “innovation” and tax concessions dies down, on a range of indices there was a good deal of continuity in this budget.
The third and far more covert theme was a brass-necked poaching of a number of Labor’s signature policies, especially on tackling tax avoidance. Like Tony Abbott’s initial agreement on Gonski funding and the National Disability Insurance Scheme in the run-up to the 2013 election, this was a smart move to neutralise Labor.
Each of these three themes reflects underlying tensions in the Coalition’s economic approach. But, for Labor and Bill Shorten, each theme was a potential trap. In his budget reply, Shorten had to show that Labor could offer an economic vision of its own, land punches on a Coalition budget that flattered to deceive, and stake out new ground.
In the reply on Thursday night, Shorten made some progress in avoiding all these “traps”.
Shorten opened his speech by being gifted a few quick wins after Turnbull’s misstep about housing affordability. Shorten rattled off his first slogan of the night, tarring Turnbull with the same misguided priorities as his predecessor. Here, he noted the shift from “Tony’s tradies to Malcolm’s millionaires”.
Shorten and Labor have been hoping that they can personalise their “fairness” agenda by focusing on Turnbull’s wealth and background.
In dealing with the accusations that Labor was engaging in “class warfare”, Shorten smartly attempted to reclaim this agenda by inverting it. First, he recommitted to supporting small business – a claim made by pretty much every political party. Second, he targeted the commitment of the Coalition to tackle issues of fairness and equity.
Shorten is trying to win a battle of trust on this agenda. He argued that despite the Liberals’ moves to cut super concessions for the affluent and go after tax avoiders, they were only pushed into this for electoral gain.
Shorten then went on to co-opt the Liberals’ “steady-as-she-goes” theme by flatly ruling out an increase to the GST to 15%. Despite the appeal of this pledge to some voters, it remains unclear if Shorten has convinced that Labor, if elected, can ensure sustainable funding for its programs.
Australian Election Study data consistently shows that most people think Labor is better at handling health and education. Shorten deliberately tried to consolidate this view: for example, he committed to funding Gonski “and beyond”.
Later in the speech, Shorten made a big deal of offering assurance that Medicare will be safe in Labor’s hands, with a somewhat bemusing pledge to legislate for this in his first 100 days, if elected. Shorten called the upcoming election a “referendum” on the future of Medicare.
This is purely wishful thinking. Whatever Labor’s concerns about privatisation, this issue is not playing out like the Workchoices agenda did for Kevin Rudd in 2007.
What was far more striking in Shorten’s speech was a long and impassioned section on tackling and reducing gender inequality. Shorten made a strong rallying cry for closing the gender pay gap. This part of the speech was the one of the first to draw major applause from the watching crowd.
This could prove to be smart politics and good policy for Labor, and reflects one of Shorten’s greatest strengths – a shadow cabinet featuring the likes of Penny Wong and Tanya Plibersek.
Overall, the budget reply seemed to avoid some of the potential traps by seeking to offer something like a “vision”. Shorten niftily stole some ground from the Coalition while reasserting traditional Labor strengths.
And what of his performance? Alas, Shorten is not a Gough Whitlam or a Paul Keating; he lacks the charisma of Bob Hawke, and, at her best, the directed anger of Julia Gillard. He also desperately needs a decent joke-writer – his one effort about Turnbull being all rhetoric but only offering “a discussion paper” fell flat.
Shorten is not a great orator, and his strength lies in negotiation. Yet, in the less leaden parts of his speech – especially his talk of gender equality – he seemed authentic and serious.
While with a very different policy agenda, and not always easy to watch, Shorten sounded a little more like an unusual leadership model – John Howard. Labor could probably live with that if it steals an unlikely victory.