Bill Shorten has taken his party to favourite to win the national election without developing widespread personal appeal.

By David Walker

Posted on May 15, 2019

The polls and most political commentators say Bill Shorten is Australia’s most likely prime minister after this Saturday’s election. If so, he will enter the office as a veteran of Australian political life – yet without the public enthusiasm that surrounded his recent Australian Labor Party (ALP) predecessors as opposition leader.

Bob Hawke, who died just yesterday, entered the job on a wave of popularity and touched a November 1984 high of 75% in the Nielsen Poll. Kevin Rudd had a 65% approval rating during his time as opposition leader and reached a peak of 74% in office.

Nielsen no longer conducts Australian political polls, but Shorten is clearly far less popular than either of those two. Newspoll has his approval rating at 38% and the latest Australian Financial Review-Ipsos poll puts it at 43%. Both polls record his disapproval rating as higher than his approval rating. Yet polls give him 51% of the vote – if they’re right, enough to win government.

As a relatively unpopular opposition leader, Shorten’s closest recent analogue is the Coalition’s Tony Abbott, who came to office with a low approval rating and a relatively low-detail policy platform. In contrast, Shorten has sought to detail both policies and costings before the election.

Election analyst Peter Brent, an adjunct research fellow at Swinburne University, says Shorten is actually best compared to Gough Whitlam, who also spent more than five years in the opposition leader’s job. Whitlam actually trailed the Coalition’s Billy McMahon in approval just 12 months before the 1972 election.

“I think any opposition leader would be unpopular after five-and-a-half years in the job,” Brent says. “But people have never really warmed to him.”

Brent doesn’t think lack of approval will influence Shorten’s governing style. “Once you’re in, you’re in,” he says.

Indeed, Brent suspects that the popularity of Rudd and Hawke artificially inflated their party’s support, which dropped through their winning election campaigns. In this election, support for the ALP has stayed within the 51–52% range over 16 consecutive polls by several organisations – although some of that may be due to adjustments by the posters themselves.

The closeness of the election does leave open the possibility that Shorten may have to negotiate with independents and minor parties in the Senate and possibly even in the House of Representatives, where Australia’s governments are formed.

Shorten has been training for such challenges his entire life. He is a long-time leader of the ALP’s right or moderate faction and a former leader of the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU). He came to public attention for his role in Tasmania’s Beaconsfield mine disaster. As a minister in the Labor governments of 2007–13, he played a key role in two of its biggest reforms, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the package known as the Future of Financial Advice. He was also an important player in both the overthrow of Kevin Rudd in 2010 and his short-lived 2013 restoration.

Shorten took the opposition leader’s job immediately after the 2013 election, defeating the left’s Anthony Albanese. Ordinary Labor Party members took part in the election under a new voting system and gave Shorten just 40% of their votes, but support from 64% of Labor members of parliament got him over the line. Those who know him best, that suggests, may like him most.