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Bill Shorten explains his vision: “We’re pro small business”

Michelle Grattan /

Bill Shorten, the Labor party’s right faction’s poster boy, won the party leadership by having a number of left-wing caucus members vote for him. Now he has the task of persuading back to vote for the party those Australians who gave up on it at the last election.

Shorten wants to pitch himself in positive terms, rather than just attacking the ruling Coalition, and explains his idea of Australia as a “nation of the second chance.”

In this unedited interview with The Conversation, Shorten flags his willingness to take a carbon pricing policy into the next election, assesses Tony Abbott – and reveals he is a “devotee” of Roman history.

Michelle Grattan: The Labor party has gone back to caucus selecting the front bench, but no one who stood wasn’t elected. So, in fact, the factions chose the ministry as they always seem to do. Is this really a genuine election?

Bill Shorten: That’s not what happened, Michelle. What we’ve got [on the frontbench] is 29 skilled and talented and committed Labor performers. The process of having caucus be the people who decided means there’s a distinct departure from the last six years.

I’ll allocate the portfolios in consultation with my colleagues, and I’ll certainly nominate parliamentary secretaries, again, in consultation with people.

But what’s really important here is that, under my leadership, the elected members of the federal parliamentary Labor party will have a say. And what you call factions, I describe as the inevitable consequence of people talking to each other.

I’m not an expert on who are the best 30 people in the team, I’d rather trust the judgement of my 85 colleagues and that’s what’s happened.

Michelle Grattan: As leader, are you going to stop playing any role in the right factional group?

Bill Shorten: Yes, I will. During the leadership campaign, I pledged that I would no longer take an active role in factional activities.

Michelle Grattan: Just one other thing on factions: the factions have had very big grip on pre-selections and you – in Victoria – have been a major player. Would Labor get a better spread of candidates if the factions stepped back from that role?

Bill Shorten: I believe that this leadership ballot, which I participated in for me to get elected, showed cross-factional support for me. There were significant numbers of MPs who were more to the left and a significant number of moderate MPs [who] all supported me.

What I want to see under my leadership is – whether or not you are a Rudd person or a Gillard person, whether or not you’re an Albo person or a Bill person, whether or not you’re left or right, is secondary to – are you a Labor person?

So, I believe that’s the approach we need to take in pre-selections, that the best candidates should emerge, and someone’s background should be of secondary importance in terms of internal ALP processes.

Michelle Grattan: But on the actual pre-selection on the ground, do you think…

Bill Shorten: Most people in the Labor Party don’t belong to a faction. I believe what’s important is to have more people in the Labor party participating, to have more ranges of candidates and also to have more people participating in selecting more diverse candidates.

The old politics has to change.

Michelle Grattan: You’ve said repeatedly that Labor will oppose the repeal of the carbon tax, but it’s likely to be repealed courtesy of the new Senate – do you think Labor should persist with carbon pricing as a core part of its policy to the next election?

Bill Shorten: How do you change carbon pollution without putting a price on it? It’s not going to happen unless you put a price on carbon pollution. We indicated in the lead-up to the last election that we were supportive of moving to an international price earlier, which was sensible, I think, in the circumstances.

But the idea that you don’t put a price on pollution, to me, it just doesn’t work. You’re not going to deal with climate change unless you do.

Michelle Grattan: And you think you can sell it?

Bill Shorten: Well, I think that the proposition is, what good is this country if all we do is put off problems for the next generation to handle? That’s not having a good future for Australia or Australians, delaying dealing with problems.

Michelle Grattan: You’ve talked about a positive agenda, what are your priorities? Health? Education?

Bill Shorten: My priorities during the [leadership] campaign is for Labor to reinforce a vision for Australia writ large. We recognise, for instance, that to write Australia large, [we’ve] got to be pro-immigration. We’ve got to be pro our regions; Australia is more than just three cities on the east coast.

We need to be the party of science, research, and higher education. We need to be a brave party that stands up for people who don’t have a voice in our community. I’ve raised the need for national leadership to tackle the problems of domestic violence.

As a nation, we can’t afford to waste the potential of people in our community – that’s why talking about how we develop a better go for people on the disability pension is fundamental.

We need to be a party that promotes the onward march of women throughout the institutions of power, and an outwardly-focused society which understands that small business is fundamental to the economy and [that] it’s fundamental to community-building in every suburb and town in Australia.

These are the issues upon which Labor can provide a positive vision for Australia’s future.

Michelle Grattan: Let me just take up one of those – immigration. You’re not afraid to call yourself a “big Australia” person?

Bill Shorten: No, I’m pro-immigration, absolutely. Other than Aboriginals or Torres Straight Islanders, we are all boat- or plane-people. But I’m also not afraid to try and stamp out people smuggling and human trafficking.

Australia is the nation of the second chance. From our convict forebears to waves of immigration since, and we need to be a nation that understands our success is that we’ve always provided a second chance to people – both Australians by birth and Australians by choice.

Michelle Grattan: But, of course, you’d remember in the 2010 election, we saw a retreat from that sort of talk.

Bill Shorten: I’m not going to disparage previous election campaigns, what I will say, though, is that I believe in the value of immigration to the development of Australian society and our success in the future.

Michelle Grattan: So could we take another 50,000 people a year?

Bill Shorten: I’m not going to get caught up in numbers, I’m making it very clear though that if you’re probably not going to, our policies are interested in how we have a tolerant diverse society. And, by the way, when you say you’re pro immigration, you can still be pro the values in Australia of equity, fairness, individual initiative.

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