Ad appeal to white Australians fails miserably for Labor leader

Sydney Letter: Multiple missteps leaves centre-left leader Bill Shorten vulnerable

Sometimes an ideology that looks like a political winner collapses just as you copy it. For Australia’s opposition Labor Party, that idea is fervent nationalism, or nativism as it is increasingly called.

In a world where Brexit and Trump just happened, a political advertisement featuring Labor leader Bill Shorten and 12 ordinary workers with a banner saying "employ Australians first" must have looked like a sure-fire winner. But within hours of its launch, Marine Le Pen got trounced in the French presidential election, putting a break on the rise of nativism, and Shorten's ad was being denounced as racist on social media not just for its message, but for its delivery.

Of the actors portraying the “ordinary workers”, 11 were white, one was Asian-Australian and that was it. There were no Aboriginal faces, nobody of African background, no Maoris or Pacific Islanders, and no one who looked like the Middle East, or even southern Europe, featured in their DNA. In a country where 24.6 per cent of the population was born overseas and 43.1 per cent of people have at least one overseas-born parent, the ad was careless, bordering on reckless.

Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese, who lost a party leadership battle to Shorten in 2013, was not impressed. The first he knew of the ad was when he saw it on television. "I am a member of the [Labour] national executive, I assure you that I hadn't seen it," he said. "[The ad is] a shocker. [It] should never have been produced and it should never be shown. It is not the sort of ad I want my party to be promoting."


When asked to be more specific about his concerns, Albanese said “anyone who sees it will know exactly what’s wrong with it”.

Poll lead

Though Labor has a strong lead in polls, Shorten's own numbers are low. His constant theme since becoming Labor leader has been to portray the Liberal-National coalition government as being out of touch with ordinary people. But exactly who is out of touch is now up for debate, when Shorten's almost monocultural ad followed his defence of government handouts for the richest, most privileged people in Australia.

When prime minister Malcolm Turnbull announced last week that government payments to 24 of Australia's most expensive private schools (13 of them Catholic) would be cut, Shorten went on the attack. Speaking at Our Lady Help school in Melbourne, he said "cuts to local Catholic parish primary schools" would see fees there increase by AU$2,600 (€1,757) a year.

In fact, as education minister Simon Birmingham pointed out, Our Lady Help would receive an extra $3.5 million over the next decade under the government's plans.

Birmingham is a rarity in the Liberal Party in that he was educated in the public system. Shorten is something of a rarity in the Labor Party in that he was educated in one of the most expensive schools in Australia, the Jesuit Xavier College in Melbourne. Tuition fees at Xavier are $27,120, with a sport levy of $550 and technology levy of $900 on top of that. And if you board, that’s another $22,610.

Privileged voters

In defending people who spend more on school fees than most Australians earn every year, Shorten presumably thinks the most privileged in society are suddenly going to vote en masse for Labor as their saviour. If so, he is deluded.

The kind of schools where parents donate 300 tins of food to needy families at Christmas and $500,000 for a new gym at the school are not generally hotbeds of centre-left politics. A parent interviewed by ABC television outside St Aloysius Jesuit school (fees $17,624) on the shores of Sydney harbour criticised the cuts the school was facing, but said he couldn't bring himself to vote Labor.

And the cuts are minuscule compared to what these schools collect in fees and government handouts. Loreto Kirribilli’s fees are $19,800, on top of which the school gets $6,171 per student, per year from the government. Under the proposed changes, this will fall to $5,385 by 2021 and $3,454 by 2027.

One more misstep from Shorten and Albanese might challenge him for the Labor leadership. On the government side, Turnbull's position is even more precarious, with a challenge from immigration minister Peter Dutton expected before year's end unless the coalition's polling numbers improve.

If Turnbull was expecting some respite at his weekend meeting with Donald Trump in New York, he didn't get it. Trump kept him waiting for hours and media reports referred to him as Brian Trumbull and Malcolm Turnball.