YOU’RE MAKING A MISTAKE, BILL
ONE of the biggest traps in politics is underestimating your opponent. And its companion error is thinking you are over the line and have won, when the campaign is still far from over.
This week we’ve seen both of these miscalculations manifest in Canberra and it is worth understanding why.
The Liberal Party has always thought Bill Shorten’s comparative lack of personal appeal would be his undoing. They’ve always expected his rival Anthony Albanese to come back and, like Malcolm Turnbull, seize office on the back of someone else’s hard work in Opposition. But that hasn’t come to pass.
Of all the polling indicators, “preferred PM” is the most irrelevant. In the end, the only indicator professional analysts ever track is the primary vote and, for many months, Labor’s has slowly, but very steadily, risen. The Coalition, on the other hand, has struggled to hit a number with a four in front of it, which is essential if they’re to have a shot at a win, such is the discipline of Greens votes ending up in Labor’s ledger, via preferences.
Underestimating Shorten has been one of the Liberal Party’s worst mistakes of this term; and thinking they are too far ahead to lose has been Labor’s.
Take the fight this week over border protection. Shorten has always appeared to understand the damage inflicted on his side by the arrival of 50,000 asylum seekers in the Rudd-Gillard years. He’s carefully created the public perception that he’s in lock-step with the Coalition on matters of national security. That is, until some smart “strategists” inside Labor appear to have told him they’re so far ahead he can now give the Left a win over the issue of medical evacuations from Nauru and Manus Island to Australia.
Otherwise, how can you explain his decision this week to do so?
This is not the move of a surefooted Opposition Leader who knows that he’s playing a strategic game against an opponent with more political capital on national security than Labor could ever hope for.
This is not a decision from someone who’s aware from the sensitive intelligence briefings that any signal of softness might restart the boats. Either Shorten is facing a revolt at his coming National Conference (and there were reports yesterday that the Left will push to adopt medical evacuations as part of their binding platform) or he’s thinking he’s got the election already won, and so can do this now. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.
But however it is explained, it is deadly; figuratively, in political terms; and literally, as it would start up the people smuggler’s trade yet again, and that will cost lives.
Thinking that you can play with the three elements that stopped the boats under John Howard, and stopped them again under Tony Abbott, is an utter fantasy.
Under Howard, it was the introduction of temporary protection visas, so that boat people who got to Australia couldn’t stay here permanently. It was offshore processing in places like Manus and Nauru. And most importantly, it was turning boats around so that boat people never got beyond Indonesia to mainland Australia.
Already, we know that Labor has committed to scrapping TPVs. They claim they’re still prepared to turn boats around but Rudd said that too and never had the guts. That just leaves offshore processing as the last remnant of the three elements of Australia’s successful border protection regimen. But not any more. By siding with the Greens in the last parliamentary week of the year to demand new laws to force governments to bring to Australia anyone deemed by two doctors to require medical evacuation, Labor has effectively ended bipartisan support for offshore detention and, in doing so, told people smugglers very clearly that a change in government means a change in resolve. If Labor is elected in May next year, they’re well and truly, back in business.
Labor has set its standard by favouring mandatory medical removal to Australia. And the standard that you declare in opposition is the one that you implement in government. If constipation is enough to get you off Nauru, there is no meaningful offshore processing and Australia’s border protection regimen collapses. Are we really ready for the consequences? Look at Europe — are we ready for that?
Look at poll after poll on immigration and the feeling that it’s out of control — is that the community sentiment we want here? And look at Labor’s record when last in office, especially the 1000 deaths at sea — are we really ready for that Australia, all over again?
Doing what’s right in the national interest, and standing resolute, is the difference between an opposition leader, and a prime minister. This is Shorten’s real test, and right now, he’s letting internal voices crowd out what’s best for Australia. PETA CREDLIN IS A SUNDAY HERALD SUN COLUMNIST