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Change is the constant certainty in politics

Things in politics change. As unlikely as it now seems, things could pick up for Bill Shorten. I can't see how but I don't have a crystal ball.

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The man who was thought of by many as the man about to become the next prime minister is now wandering supermarket aisles trying to generate publicity for himself. If Bill Shorten was hoping to show himself as a smart and savvy leader it didn't work. If the best you can do to imitate real life conversations for the benefit of the media is ask a woman which type of lettuce is her favourite you have hit rock bottom.

The whole exchange was clumsy, but a leader with confidence and charisma might have got away with it. Knowing that lettuce preferences aren't the sort of things that make great conversation, an engaging leader might have, for example, made a joke about remembering when the only lettuce the local greengrocer had was the good old iceberg. It would have been jovial; realistic and authentic rather than stilted, limp and contrived.

It would open up further lines of normal conversation about other things that have changed.

What was meant to be an event that would portray Shorten in a positive light showed him as lacking spontaneity. Things in politics change. The man most likely now seems the man least likely. But change is perennial ... it just keeps coming. As unlikely as it now seems things could pick up for Bill Shorten. I can't see how but I don't have a crystal ball.

What I can see is the past, and that shows us all that what looks certain today may not be so tomorrow. Andrew Peacock was a hero for nearly winning back government in 1984. Circumstances changed all that. John Howard was considered unelectable, with one magazine cover asking, "Why does this man bother?" Circumstances changed.

When Kevin Rudd was soaring in the polls in February 2010, no one predicted he would be deposed as leader within six months. When he was, most people said it was all over for him. Circumstances changed. When Malcolm Turnbull lost the Liberal leadership some may have thought it was all over. When Tony Abbott was performing as probably the most effective opposition leader Australia has seen, even Turnbull must have had moments when the possibility of ever being prime minister seemed more than remote.


Equally, when he was prime minister, Abbott may have occasionally given himself a shower-time rendition of The Future Belongs to Me. He certainly behaved as though he thought it was well and truly his.

Guess what? Circumstances changed. It's easy to forget how quickly things change in politics. We imagine that the year ahead will be the inevitable rolling out of whatever we imagined was the political landscape in December when Federal Parliament last sat. Quite why we behave as though we have the attention span of gnats I don't know.

Perhaps because so much of the reporting of politics is so short and itself limited in focus we have started to treat the reporting as the reality. We possibly forget that although the news of the day is today's reality, it came about because of earlier events. There was a yesterday, a last month, a last year and there will be not just a tomorrow but next week, next year and next decade. We are all, today, just part of a much bigger picture.

It is easy to lose that perspective and become consumed by the moment. We all do it occasionally in our personal lives and it certainly happens in politics. Politics is in one sense the battle of ideas and, like boxers in a ring, one may see only the opponent. The trick, however, is to win the war.

That's a task for stayers not sprinters, for strategists not spin doctors. Yes, you have to land punches but you need to be able to do more than that. Good leaders treat every day as an opportunity to apply their experience and to get more. They don't just mouse-wheel through tough times. The tough times are good for them. They are character building and a test of the inner strength we call resolve. Bad as tough times may be, they can teach future leaders a lot about themselves, about their colleagues and more. Without these hard lessons leaders can struggle. Their self-belief loses the all important broader perspective. Seeing yourself as the sun king never wins friends. There are any number of deposed leaders who learnt that lesson too late.

Malcolm Turnbull may not have liked getting flicked as leader, but it may well be the best thing that happened to him politically. It taught him, and recent events with Briggs, Brough and Dutton would have been a salutary reminder, that it's not all about how good you are ... it's also about the team you have and about the circumstances of the day that get thrown at you.

Good leaders don't just ride out the hard times, they learn from them. They prepare themselves for the time, the opportunity, when circumstances change. Asking "What's your favourite lettuce?" just didn't cut the mustard.

Heading out for another supermarket sortie without recognising the risks was a simple failure to learn, which resulted in the hilarious admonishment from a child, "Don't touch me". It's mouse-wheeling. Par excellence. But remember, circumstances could change.

Amanda Vanstone is a columnist with The Age and was a minister in the Howard government.