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Opposition Leader Bill Shorten shows he can take the shine off the Coalition

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Pat Dodson during a joint press conference at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Lucy Turnbull greet Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Chloe Shorten at the International Women’s Day breakfast at Parliament House. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Illustration: Michael Mucci

On Thursday morning, at an hour when most people are still going through their wake-up yoga routines or walking their dogs, the nation’s political leaders were at work.

With bright Canberra sunshine pouring through the windows of the Mural Hall, they convened for an International Women’s Day breakfast at Parliament House.

Over corn fritters and fruit platters, the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader addressed the crowd, one after the other. And if you closed your eyes, it was difficult to tell them apart.

Both men spoke earnestly of the need to tackle domestic violence and economic inequality. Both referred glowingly to their wives and how they were the real experts on gender equality. Both made self-deprecating jokes.

True, speeches at these kind of events tend to follow a template. But it was striking, nonetheless, how evenly matched Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten were.

This was not the uber​ urbane PM versus the bumbling, uninspiring Opposition Leader – the one who causes even Labor voters to slap their foreheads in despair (wherefore art thou Albo?).

It is no great revelation that Shorten has been wallowing in something approaching poll hell over the past six months.

The Abbott to Turnbull leadership change saw the Coalition assume a thumping lead over Labor, with figures like 56 to 44 per cent two-party-preferred. The personal picture for Shorten has been just as grumpy, with his preferred prime minister rating taking a trip to the teens.

This of course has sparked reports about internal anxieties and Labor MPs talking about you know what.

But while Shorten ended 2015 on a low (he even crashed his late mother’s car in November), 2016 has begun on a much perkier note.

Everyone laughed at the Labor leader for trying to engage supermarket shoppers in small talk about lettuce while campaigning against a GST rise. But he bashed away and bashed away on the possible increase to the point where people started comparing Labor’s efforts to Tony Abbott’s crusade against the “toxic” carbon tax.

When the government eventually took a GST change off the blessed table, it wasn’t just because Turnbull was facing a backbench revolt and it wasn’t worth the pain. It was fuelled by the knowledge that Labor would punish the Coalition all the way to polling day if it raised the tax to 15 per cent.

Last month Shorten announced changes to negative gearing and capital gains tax at the ALP’s NSW conference, which he says will save the budget $32 billion over a decade.

But the government’s counter campaign on Labor’s tax policy hasn’t been anywhere near as effective.

Turnbull has warned that house values will be “smashed” by the move and yet the attack has been lost in translation. It hasn’t helped that Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer confusingly said the cost of housing would increase under Labor’s plan. Or that Treasurer Scott Morrison tried to slam Labor’s plan with a report that had a big fat mistake in it.

But all of this would just be niggly white noise if the government had a tax plan of its own. The plain fact is, the Coalition continues to flap around like a disoriented duck, while the opposition actually has a policy (whatever you make of it) and is prepared to debate it.

Labor scored another early 2016 win over the now defunct assistant defence minister Stuart Robert.

The opposition – led by shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus​ – was relentless in question time. It put the blowtorch on Robert and his “personal” trip to China, he couldn’t stand the flame and the opposition got a scalp.

The former frontbencher was also undone by the steady stream of reports – both from the media and the Prime Minister’s own department – that cast increasing doubt on the kosherness​ of his travels. But Shorten and Co. were right in the centre of the fray.

This week, the Opposition Leader also showed he could make fizzy pop out of lemons with the great Joe Bullock/Pat Dodson switch.

Under the usual order of things, Bullock quitting as a West Australian senator would have focused attention on the outmoded things the guy had to say. And raised serious questions about what Labor was doing preselecting him in the first place.

But within hours of the news, Shorten was standing up with a surprise star candidate to replace him. Beyond the excellent PR maneuvering here, Dodson for Canberra (along with Linda Burney’s preselection for the Sydney seat of Barton) backs up Shorten’s commitment to increase Indigenous representation in Parliament.

That is, he’s done what he said he’d do.

All this comes as the polls slide back a bit. The Essential Poll this week had the major parties at 50-50, mirroring last week’s Newspoll. The most recent Fairfax/Ipsos poll also showed things tightening up, 52 to 48 per cent.

Shorten looks better as Turnbull stumbles. It boosts Labor’s cause that many of the hallmarks of the Abbott era – backbench griping, damaging leaking, policy confusion and embarrassing bungles – are still present and accounted for.

But for all the haters, Shorten is hanging in and scoring points. Labor is also managing to stay relatively unified (Gary Gray’s contribution on voting reform and Bullock’s bombshell notwithstanding).

No one – not even his own side – is predicting the Opposition Leader will take the Lodge. But if Shorten continues to take some of the shine off Turnbull, we may be in for a more interesting election than we thought.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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