On Being Bill – the Wanneroo ‘Town Hall’ Public Meeting

I’ve never warmed to Bill Shorten, that wooden, business suited, monotonous TV interview persona, has inevitably left me underwhelmed. However somebody on Twitter the other week, gently chided me for thinking that way, saying if I ever had the chance to meet and listen to him in person, I would change my mind. I replied “Fair enough.” After all, I’ve been wrong about politicians before, Malcolm Turnbull is a prime example. I really liked Malcolm, pre PM days, but the relentless Prime Ministerial years of ‘Not being Malcolm’ have sadly exposed him as hollow. I don’t dislike him as such, I just feel sorry for him – you wouldn’t want him in the trenches with you, as the old saying goes. Was there a chance I would want Bill in the trenches with me?

In a simple Dylanesque twist of fate, Dr Anne Aly, the Labor MP for Cowan, sent out invites to an old style ‘Town Hall’ meeting with Bill Shorten, to be held on Monday 9th April at the Wanneroo Tavern. Now I love Town Hall debates, I participated in one as an Independent  candidate (failed!) during the 2013 WA State Elections, you have to think on your feet and answer truthfully, even though you’re aware somebody in the audience is inevitably going to be offended, possibly even outraged at your response to an unscripted question. And of course, here was my chance to see Bill Shorten away from the TV studios, I replied in the affirmative.

It’s 11.00pm, some two and a half hours after the event concluded, I learnt a lot and I’m still mulling over some things. Firstly, the venue was packed, with people standing on the sides and rear of the venue. I assumed they were mostly rusted-on Labor voters, with the odd sprinkling of Doubting Thomases, such as myself, plus a few LNP plants. However what really stood out, was age, I’m prepared to bet the average was about 65yrs, these were ‘Howard’s Battlers,’ hard working pensioners, some still working, facing the impossible demands of cost versus savings and pension. Yes, there were a few younger people here and there, plus the usual enthusiastic young ‘How To Vote’ card booth volunteers, but the subliminal message was that young people are simply not engaged in politics, whilst older people are.

Alannah MacTiernan was there, which made me smile, as Bill had studiously ignored any talent and experience she has (and she has it in spades) when she was on his federal team. I didn’t see Tim Hammond, although I guess he didn’t want to rain on Dr Aly’s parade. There were some other Labor MPS, State and Federal, but their names didn’t ring a bell with me, plus one or two local councillors.

Bill Shorten made his entrance with his wife Chloe alongside, a good move, the entire hall stood and applauded, the true believers were indeed in the room. Yes, I stood and applauded, it seemed polite, rather like the old days in the movie theatre when ‘God Save the Queen’ was played. You stood as you were worried somebody would cuff you for your indiscretion.

Anne Aly acted as MC, thanking everyone for their attendance and introducing Bill and Chloe, then launching into her good news story re Bill’s announcement to give the Joondalup Hospital major funding if Labor is elected. She presents well and is confident, although somebody should have road tested the mic before the event. She then announced the Q&A session would begin.

Now this wasn’t a true Town Hall debate in the old style, although some unannounced questions were taken from the floor towards the end of the session. Participants, including me, had been asked to submit their question by email and as you signed in, you were given a slip of paper with your question typed out and told to read it if called upon. Anne picked out the questions, one assumes to suit the narrative, telling us Bill would deal with three questions at a time. He’d made notes in answer to the questions, although he didn’t refer to them when speaking. That’s the nature of politics these days, stage managed as much as possible, which just may have something to do with the disconnect, lack of trust and antipathy so many people feel towards politics and politicians.

And so to Bill Shorten, smartly dressed in a suit and tie, I thought back on a golden rule I always taught salespeople in my days as a luxury car dealership marketing manager – “Don’t out dress the customer!”  If I was his advisers, yes, have him arrive in the suit, but three minutes in, say “I know I’m overdressed, I’ve just done several TV interviews, do you mind if I relax and whip off the jacket and tie?” Then have him lean against a table facing the audience, walking forward into the audience on key points. Won’t work at a Business Breakfast, but it will work talking with ‘Howard’s Battlers.’

There was no doubt he was across the questions he answered and his grasp of figures is noteworthy. Yes, it was Dorothy Dixer, in that the questions were pre-selected, but his answers were important and detailed, I was impressed with his honesty in how he replied to the extremely important (for all West Aussies), question on the GST carve-up, it was very informative and acceptable as a compromise. But a Hawke like larrikin Man of the People he isn’t. I began to form the impression his forte is large audiences, he’s possibly not particularly comfortable one on one, that’s not a fault as such, a lot of people are like that, it also would explain his wooden TV performances.

Having said that, every now and then, he’d make a joke, for example, answering a question on aged care, he at one stage said, “… it’s the canary in the coal mine,” then laughed and said, “Well, perhaps not a coal mine, some other sort of mine!” It got a deserved great response. Later, he mentioned Michaelia Cash, then said, “Not that I ever want to talk about her!” bringing loud laughter from everyone, including me. I thought, “Strewth, this bloke actually has a sense of humour, he’s quick witted and funny, why the hell doesn’t he let Bill Shorten the person of the leash?”

He doesn’t smile naturally – perhaps he’s on guard and doesn’t want to detach from the serious political image he prefers, he certainly makes mention of his belief that the public are tired of the constant bickering, name calling and open warfare of politics these days. I’m absolutely sure he’s correct on that, but I’m equally sure Australians do love a bit of ‘Larrikin on the Loose,’

He took several questions from the floor in the last 15 minutes, it was a good move and he was obviously across the topics well enough to answer thoughtfully, although a question about WA’s Landgate, had him quite naturally perplexed, which he freely admitted to – it wasn’t a question to be aimed at any Federal politician. However he handled a disgruntled produce farmer very well and respectfully. The chap was in his mid-80s, and bluntly said he was going to vote informal as he no longer believed any politician, stating he had in excess of one hundred people working on his farm, just outside the town of Wanneroo, but couldn’t get any locals, every worker was a foreigner. He also stated he believed Australia is living way beyond its means and we are leaving a huge debt problem for our children to deal with, what did Bill Shorten and Labor intend to do about it all?

This was the test I’d been waiting for. Bill was good, using a short spiel on why the guy should not waste his vote, to give himself time to construct an answer. He then responded that with his policies on taxation, he intended to make the top of town contribute fairly, but not excessively, so that the burden of debt would not be crippling for future generations. He went on to say he felt our way of life had made farm work unattractive to kids, he believed we needed as a nation, to put farm work back on the agenda as an excellent viable and worthy way of earning a living and this should be done at a young age (presumably primary school level). It was a clever response, letting him segue into policy on education, superannuation and taxation.

Anne Aly then took to the microphone again, thanking Bill and everyone for attending, Bill also thanked everyone and dropped a clue about a forthcoming announcement for her electorate, saying he’d been resisting saying anything, as he needed something to say on Wednesday. He then good naturedly posed for photos and handshakes with the audience.  In our very brief meeting, he called me “Brother,” in much the same way Gough Whitlam once called me “Comrade,”

I drove away thinking deeply about the man and I’ve reached the following conclusions; he’s a politician through and through, not in the manner of Malcolm Turnbull, who sees himself as a leader – someone above politics! Rather, Bill lives and breathes politics, anything else is a distraction. The Bill behind the Bill Shorten mask is genuine, there is passion there, but he’s simply not a publicly demonstrative person. I suspect these ‘Town Halls’ are doing him the world of good, in that it’s helping him overcome an inbuilt unease with small, or one on one meetings. He is more likeable in person and far more trustworthy than he appears on TV.

Which segues into that when I arrived home, I read a number of Tweets from people complaining about Leigh Sales treatment of him on 7.30 Report earlier in the evening. I’ve only seen the clip where she persists in trying to get him to answer whether he’d told somebody he’d rip up any contract with Andani if elected. Unlike his ‘Town Hall’ event, he slipped into political mode and not only pointedly danced all around her attempts at getting a Yes or No response, he twice smiled a very false stage managed grin. Here was just another politician refusing to answer the question, reprimanding the interviewer for not understanding that he had answered the question and switching a false smile off and on as needed, perhaps signalled by a handler somewhere off camera. WTF? John Hewson sprung instantly to mind. The fact is, as with Richard Nixon, the medium of television is not Bill Shorten’s friend.

If I was called on to help get the Preferred Prime Minister opinion polls over the line, I’d tell him to be himself, tell him to crack those little jokes. Yes, maintain the dignity, but let that quick wit out, show us a bit of Hawke Larrikin, give us a little Keating Mongrel – but not too much of that, just enough to tease, grab the TV interviewers, confront and control them. Unsettling journos is dead easy, just keep asking them questions, they inevitably get annoyed, quickly losing control and voila, the audience is on your side. You keep playing by their rules, why?  The Murdoch media machine actively hates you, Labor and the unions with a passion, so forget giving them anything, the bad headlines will be conjured up day after day regardless, besides, you won’t get to young voters with anything Murdoch. Radio and social media, (probably Instagram), are the paths to the youth attention. Use the ABC and SBS more, but make it work for you, give some thought to connecting with young voters through school programmes and visits. You’ve already got the attention of ‘Howard’s Battlers,’ they’re beginning to understand how much the LNP dislikes them, regarding them as welfare recipients, or worse, cheats, dragging the economy down, a burden on decent society! It is a class war, but you didn’t start it, the LNP and the Murdoch media machine created it and revel in it.

I am going to vote for Bill Shorten – well, Labor in my electorate, for two reasons; I loathe where this hideous LNP coalition has taken our country, how they have destroyed our ethos of a Fair Go and after seeing Bill speak in person, my gut feeling is he’s quite possibly as boring as bat shit, but he’s likeable, genuine and capable of providing a much needed steadying pair of hands to a Ship of State currently rudderless.

Greg Ross

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