In a civil evening, Canberra’s Labor faithful arrived early and well-dressed for Bill Shorten’s first, and perhaps his only, public meeting in the ACT.
Such meetings are unfamiliar to Canberrans—not so much in style as substance. The ACT has two federal divisions: Canberra and Fenner. Both are safe Labor seats. As such Party leadership tends to ignore the territory, knowing Canberra is in the bag.
But the meeting, which occurred under Gai Brodtmann’s invitation, packed out Albert Hall. The seats and curtains were red. And attendees, which skewed white female and elderly, were respectful and many.
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Shorten — who looks stronger and sharper in person than on television — arrived late and with a light security entourage. He was shouted at by refugee activists on arrival.
“Across the world and in Australia people are disillusioned with politics as usual,” the opposition leader said in his opening remarks, alluding to the global rise of the far right which formed the backdrop of the evening.
“They think too much that it’s a done deal behind closed doors and that it is all about the focus groups”.
Shorten emphasised Labor’s commitment to a Royal Commission on the banks, medicare funding, more apprenticeships, opposing penalty rate cuts, climate change and inequality. After a brief opening statement he took audience questions, which formed the bulk of the evening.
Questions were long, angry and often taken as opportunities to vent instead of ask a question. At other times, they were flatly bizarre, such as when a questioner from Tuggeranong asked the opposition leader about gum trees at schools.
Memorable moments came hard and early, such as when Mr Shorten was asked about refugees, echoing the protestors at the door.
“I challenge you to find any comment I’ve made in public life which has used the word illegals or demonised refugees in the slightest,” Mr Shorten replied.
“But I understand much of the sentiment behind your question.”
Shorten’s defensive reply was followed up on by Fenner MP Andrew Leigh, who broke ranks and asserted his support for refugees. “We need to close down Manus and Nauru. They were never intended to be permanent facilities,” he said.
Leigh’s federal division, Fenner, houses three major universities and tilts heavily to the left. Leigh is widely regarded as a prominent figure of Labor’s left faction.
Mr Shorten also hit out at the Nationals, whom he gave an unprompted lashing despite their having almost no electoral presence in the ACT. “The Nationals are just the country arm of the Liberal party”, he said.
“They’re the absentee landlords of Australia.
“They just do what the Liberals ask them to. They’re terrified of One Nation but don’t know what to do”.
As the night drew on, the locus of discussion swapped from social issues towards economic ones—particularly inequality and global warming.
Questions on global warming came from young and old alike, and asked for greater urgency as well as how the federal ALP would negotiate with the Queensland ALP on coal mines on the barrier reef.
Shorten was most on song and most comfortable discussing economic inequality and the growing gap between the rich and the poor, a theme he touched on and off throughout the evening. “Corporate profits are at a 40 year high and yet wage growth is flatlining at a 20 year low,” he said.
“We see the minimum safety net under attack. [We’re told that] Somehow the crumbs from the rich man’s table will make everyone better off.”
At night’s end Mr Shorten was asked for his opinion on Donald Trump, to which he replied that he hoped that much of what was said about him before the election would not come true.
The meeting ran overtime, but few left early.