That Bill Shorten was a major player in the sacking of two Labor prime ministers is a well-known fact of recent Australian political history.
The ABC’s 2015 series, The Killing Season, nailed the Opposition Leader’s pivotal role in bringing down Kevin Rudd in 2010 and then doubling-down on Julia Gillard in 2013.
The recent bloodletting in the Liberal Party has shown that its Federal parliamentary members learnt little from Labor’s lack of regard for first-term leaders.
But the question remains whether Shorten understands the level of lingering distrust his repeated actions created among Australian voters and if that explains the obvious handbrake on his personal popularity ratings.
Monday was the first parliamentary sitting day since the Liberals axed Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister and most political observers were waiting to see the tactics Shorten would use against his replacement, given that Scott Morrison was the beneficiary of the beheading, but not the instigator.
This was Shorten’s opening to question time: “Malcolm Turnbull is no longer prime minister of Australia. Why?”
For someone who didn’t have the blood of two prime ministers on his hands, it might have been a clever approach.
But from Shorten, it was simply gross hypocrisy.
Morrison, the one with clean hands, was being asked the Caesar question by Brutus.
Shorten had two goes at the same question on Monday without causing Morrison too much discomfort and then fronted up again on Tuesday with another two attempts for the same result.
In the first Newspoll after Turnbull’s sacking, the Government’s rating collapsed to 44-56 and Shorten moved to preferred prime minister for the first time since early 2015 with a 39-33 lead over Morrison.
However, it took just two weeks for Morrison to run down Shorten with this Monday’s Newspoll putting him in front 42-36, compared with Turnbull’s final rating of 44-32.
So what does such a sharp return to dominance by the relatively untested Morrison tell us about Shorten’s relationship with the Australian public?
In my view it shows that Australians do not and will not trust Shorten because they know too much about his character.
While the coalition’s ratings remain a well-deserved train wreck, this trust issue is by far the best thing that Morrison and the Government have going for them.
And while only the ruddiest optimist in Liberal ranks would give it any chance at next year’s election — if the Government can hang on that long — there must be deep misgivings in Labor’s ranks about their ability to fight off a negative election campaign targeting Shorten’s character.
When The Killing Season aired in June 2015, the Age newspaper’s late political editor, Michael Gordon, wrote about Rudd’s deep bitterness.
“And the thing that is most painful through it all is just the active sense of betrayal — betrayal by people who were very close to you, and betrayal by people who you thought you could trust,” Rudd said.
Gordon made this salient analysis: “Already, those on the government benches are salivating at the prospect of reminding the nation of the chaos and dysfunction of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years and, more specifically, of the role Bill Shorten played in both political executions.”
A year later, one of the researchers of the ABC series, Patricia Drum, revisited the program’s disclosures and what she thought it told people about Shorten.
“He has claimed that he acted in the best interests of the party and the country, but the unanswered question is the extent to which he was also driven by expediency and self-interest,” Drum wrote.
“Shorten refused to give his own account of the events of 2010 to The Killing Season, no doubt aware it would give ammunition to his political opponents.
“And, perhaps more significantly, he has been the beneficiary of the discipline the Labor Party now shows. Julia Gillard herself deflected questions about Shorten’s role in her interview for The Killing Season, protecting the leader of the party.”
Shorten’s approach in question time this week suggests he is either not aware of Australians’ concerns about his untrustworthy nature, or that he is thick-skinned enough not to care.
Drum concluded her analysis with this observation: “In 2013 the Labor caucus chose to overlook Shorten’s role in one of the most polarising acts in modern political history, and install him as leader.
“In the intervening years, Shorten has not offered the public a full and frank account of his actions and motivations during that period or exposed himself to scrutiny on the topic.”
When Gordon analysed The Killing Season, Shorten had slipped behind Tony Abbott as preferred prime minister for the first time in a year.
Qualitative polling in the Mitchelmore Report had just been released showing voters thought the Labor leader was “wishy-washy, unconvincing, not a leader and lacking in charisma.”
“Does this suggest voters have looked at Shorten and decided he is not prime ministerial material?” Gordon asked, before answering his own question:
“No, insists pollster Tony Mitchelmore. Rather, he says respondents fall into two camps: those who are decidedly unimpressed, and those who still don’t have a handle on Shorten.”
Abbott lasted only another four months before bringing himself down, something for which Shorten should be eternally grateful.
But since then, Shorten lost an election he should have won and has been unable to restore any sense of trust in the Australian public while being the beneficiary of Turnbull’s many political missteps.
Morrison’s strong bounce-back in the preferred PM standings was too quick to be merely a return to the status quo.
The differential between Labor’s strong primary rating in Newspoll and Shorten’s personal rating represents a swinging voter choke factor grounded in mistrust.
It is possible that the only thing standing between Labor and victory might be Shorten himself.
Many Australians held their noses and voted for the allegedly unelectable Tony Abbott in 2013 to get rid of a divided government.
But will they vote the same way next year?