Opposition Leader Bill Shorten acknowledges applause from the public gallery after delivering the budget reply. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
It would be fair to say that the budget address-in-reply is not exactly an event that stops the nation. Or one that even makes it look up from its dinner.
After the thunder and numbers of the much-anticipated budget on Tuesday, the opposition’s response two nights later has anti-climax practically built in.
So it was no surprise when the TV ratings came out on Friday that they showed the ABC’s 7.30 budget reply special had its second lowest rating of the year so far, with just 605,000 people tuning in. On Tuesday night, 967,000 watched Joe Hockey’s equivalent ABC interview and 946,000 watched his speech.
And yet, Shorten’s reply was arguably the high point of his leadership to date.
When the 36-page effort was dropped off to the press gallery in the hours before the speech, it didn’t read like a ripper (at least not to this reporter). It began with a repetition of his budget week doorstops, i.e. Australians are "shocked". "This is a budget of broken promises."
We are well used to Shorten’s doorstops by now, which, like many others, have a tendency to feature standard lines that sit somewhere on the spectrum between corny and exhausted.
Shorten’s speech was also low on concrete announcements. We already knew that Labor did not like changes to the age pension, Medicare and Newstart. And while the speech itself railed against hits to families, it was a lot stronger on fighting words than specific action. Indeed, the only budget measure Shorten said Labor would "vote against" in words of one syllable was $5 billion of cuts to higher education (without saying exactly what these were).
Yet, as Shorten got going at the despatch box, it became clear that this was a speech that was all about the delivery. And it was the delivery of a leader.
Shorten’s voice was controlled but full of feeling as he took the government to task. "This is a budget built on lies," he said, before declaring, "Labor will never, never give up on Medicare … we shall fight this wicked and punitive measure to its ultimate end."
The crowd – that was predominantly made up of local Labor members – gave Shorten increasing applause and woops as he built up steam.
"[We] will have no truck with these brutal and cruel [$80 billion] cuts to hospitals and schools," brought enthusiastic clapping. As did the "solemn pledge" that Labor would "fight for a fair pension" and "prevail".
But the biggest impact statement came right at the end. "If you want an election, try us," he dared Tony Abbott to hollers from the chamber. "If you think that Labor is too weak, bring it on."
Shorten wrote his speech on Wednesday and Thursday with help from his speechwriter James Newton (a speech writer in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet under Labor) and input from colleagues and mentors, including Paul Keating and Bill Kelty.
But the election/bring it on part was his own – and only added about five minutes before he went live.
As Shorten wrapped up, the Labor frontbench was jubilant. Tanya Plibersek gave him a big hug. Kate Ellis and Mark Dreyfus beamed. As one MP described the effect of the address, "it reminded me of why I’m Labor".
Shorten took so long being congratulated that he was nearly late for his scheduled interview in the ABC studios upstairs. On the way there, ALP staffers stepped out of their offices to applaud.
Later that evening, a group of about 50 of them went to celebrate at the Kingston Hotel. After attending a fundraiser with Shorten and other frontbenchers, Tony Burke joined the Kingo party (along with Wayne Swan and Brendan O’Connor). Inspired by Shorten’s performance, he jumped on a chair to rousingly encourage those assembled to keep up the fight against the Coalition’s budget plans.
In this messy post-budget world, it is difficult to predict what will happen to the controversial measures that Abbott and Hockey have announced. With their maiden effort, the Coalition has (impressively) managed to get almost everyone offside. From the balance of power holders in the current Senate (the Greens) to those in the next (Palmer United, Family First, John Madigan.)
And that’s before you get to the likes of Campbell Newman and Mike Baird.
So while Shorten’s stand will play a part in the budget mix, it won’t be the only determining factor.
What his reply did do, however, was give Labor some mojo. And prove that he could give the big speeches. For a party that has spent much of the past three years in the dumps, there is a noticeable spring in its step.
Shorten’s task now is to maintain the mojo.
Judith Ireland is a Fairfax Media journalist.