The World

May the Least Popular Man Win

Australian voters are poised to elect a prime minister that none of them really like.

Bill Shorten brushes something off his shoulder.
Australian opposition leader Bill Shorten in Sydney on April 12. Lukas Coch/Reuters

As Australia heads into the final week of its pleasantly brief 38-day election campaign, with the opposition Labor Party strong favorites in both the odds and the polls, one peculiar fact stands out: Australia is about to elect the much less popular candidate. Labor’s leader, Bill Shorten, trails incumbent Prime Minister Scott Morrison of the (conservative) Liberal Party steeply in polls asking voters for their “preferred prime minister.” Shorten’s personal approval rating is deep in the negatives—he’s even broken the record for consecutive negative satisfaction ratings as opposition leader. And yet, barring any dramatic turns in the final week, he’s poised to become Australia’s 31st prime minister on Saturday.

Australia has a parliamentary system, meaning the prime minister is simply the leader of the party that holds a majority of seats in the lower house—the Nancy Pelosi, if you will. Australians vote for house members, not the prime minister, and the preferred party doesn’t always line up with the preferred leader.

Fortunately for Shorten, Australians dislike the Liberal-National coalition currently in power almost as much as they dislike him. With Australians now ranking climate change the most urgent threat to the national interest (above cyberattacks and international terrorism), there’s growing dissatisfaction with the current government’s lack of plan or action or ability to take the conversation seriously. The Liberal Party, meanwhile, has run through three prime ministers in the past six years, with factional infighting keeping them at one another’s throats and exasperating the public. In 2015, the “moderate” Malcolm Turnbull usurped Tony Abbott, and last year, Abbott’s far-right mates attempted to bring down Turnbull, only for treasurer Morrison to prevail (the National Party, meanwhile, lost a deputy prime minister who was involved in both a sex scandal and a citizenship scandal).

But still, Shorten, who has been leader of the opposition since 2013, has trailed all three of these men as preferred prime minister. In Shorten’s defense, the leader of the opposition usually lags behind the prime minister in this poll—when he was in opposition, Abbott trailed then–Prime Minister Kevin Rudd 33–47 just before he won the 2013 election in a landslide. There’s a great deal of negativity associated with being opposition leader, as Shorten himself points out, because you’re always criticizing and never acting, while the prime minister enjoys an incumbency advantage in the preferred PM polling, which some analysts dismiss as a “beauty contest.”

Even so, it’s clear “likability” isn’t Shorten’s strong suit. The former union leader is often described as wooden and uncharismatic, and unlike many other politicians relying on talking points, he fails to make his sound anything other than scripted. He’s not exactly the first guy you’d want to have a beer with, and he’s even been mocked for how long it takes him to “skull” (chug) one (same, Bill, same).

As leader of one of the Labor Party’s more centrist factions, he doesn’t exactly set left-wing hearts aflutter, and though his policies are pragmatically progressive—more spending on health and education, closing tax loopholes for the wealthy, raising wages, increasing funding to renewable energy projects, almost doubling the current emissions reduction target—he’s not adept at putting forward a compelling vision. He’s more “coach” than “messiah.” A majority of voters wish Labor had selected his left-wing rival Anthony Albanese or deputy leader Tanya Plibersek as their leader back in 2013, but Shorten has a stronghold on the party-room factions. While “people’s choice” Albanese was favored by 60 percent of party members, Shorten won 64 percent of the equally weighted Labor MP vote. Some see him as a backroom schemer, and others still blame him for the prime ministerial merry-go-round of the 2007–13 Labor government—Shorten’s influential backing was crucial to the vicious coups that cycled us between prime ministers Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, and Kevin Rudd.

Meanwhile, many potential swing voters distrust his union background. (And his background in general. And unions in general.) Shorten rose to fame as the secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, and entered Parliament off the back of his high-profile appearance at a mine collapse, which some naysayers now view as opportunistic. The right has repeatedly gone after his record as a union leader, implying conflicts of interest and corruption, even calling him to give evidence in a Royal Commission Into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, and although he has not been found guilty of any crime, it’s left a bad taste in the mouth of those already inclined to distrust unions. He does have some undeniably sketchy mates.

It’s worth asking how much this is the result of the media telling Australians over and over again how much we don’t like Bill and how much we actually don’t like Bill. The Murdoch-controlled media despises “unelectaBill” Shorten, something that backfired badly last week when a gotcha piece accused him of omitting details of his late mother’s career sacrifices and ended up humanizing him instead (and bringing his satisfaction rating to a four-year high of negative 10). I’m loath to buy into any Murdoch narrative, but his perceived unpopularity bears mentioning—and has been, repeatedly, throughout the campaign. In last week’s election special of the ABC program Q&A, an audience member even asked Shorten, to laughter and applause, “Why are you so unpopular?” (It was the second time in as many months he’s been asked about his “lackluster popularity” on a serious political program.)

In lieu of an answer (how is a politician actually supposed to answer that question?), Shorten offered this: “2,032 days,” or the record-breaking number of days he’s lasted in the role of party leader. It’s a good answer. Following five prime ministers in six years, many voters are simply looking for stability. And Labor is offering to provide it—this time around.

At this point, Shorten’s unpopularity might be the Liberals’ strongest selling point. Scott Morrison, a former ad man, knows this and has tried to make this election more like a presidential campaign, “the choice between Bill Shorten and myself.” The widely disdained Abbott and co. have mostly kept out of the national spotlight, in part because some of them are battling to defend their once reliably conservative electorates from climate-focused independents, allowing Morrison to push the “me” in team. But this isn’t a presidential election, and most voters know that they’re electing a party, not a prime minister. (They ought to know it by now, given how many we’ve cycled through in recent years.)

Still, Scott “Energizer Bunny on steroids” Morrison is hopping around the country, running his one-man show with very few policies, as Shorten, the proverbial tortoise, continues to sell his progressive platform and united team without much flare. Shorten has sometimes been unfairly compared to legendary Australian speed skater Steven Bradbury, who won a gold medal from last place by staying on his feet as all his leading competitors crashed near the finish line. At the end of the day, a gold medal is a gold medal, and a prime ministership is a prime ministership.