This Quarterly Essay was published a week or so before Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister of Australia. You would say that this changes everything for Bill Shorten’s prime ministerial prospects, so is the essay relevant? Yes – very – Marr leaves the commentary ideally set for the next chapter. Marr is a bit of a hack at these essays but all for good reason. His background knowledge is sound, his bias minimal, and his capacity for collating the events of a life into a compelling narrative is refreshing.
One major take-home from this analysis is Shorten’s oft criticised ambition. That’s not news to anyone, but framed against his desire to improve humanity’s lot, perhaps it is not a bad thing. His capacity to network and organise has also earned him some brick-bats, but is this not a critical talent for a leader? Little blemishes like a need to earn approval or to lie unashamedly to get out of trouble may not surprise. Such blemishes may be considered to pale against more stark character traits of recent national leaders. Would Shorten be a good prime minister? Marr gives us no reasons for alarm, as such. Can he convince an electorate that was ambivalent even before Turnbull became his opponent? Very problematical, especially when shape-shifting to that tougher role (than to defeat Abbott was) might make him even less attractive to voters.
Marr’s essay is considerably improved by the generous access Shorten provided, showing that either Shorten did not feel as vulnerable as Rudd and Abbott did in limiting or denying access, respectively, for previous essays, or that he is more desperate or approval seeking – a trait which Marr examines. This potted history of the recent union movement and Labor party machinations is a treasure and further enhances Marr’s credentials. It informs and sets the agenda for an interesting time leading up to the next federal election. I read the hard copy and cannot comment on any specific aspects the kindle edition.