Bill Shorten.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten. Photo: Jason South

Bill Shorten's best chance of becoming prime minister by 2016 depends upon Tony Abbott making significant mistakes, and on his Labor team maintaining the sort of tight discipline that the Coalition itself maintained over the past three years. But whether a Shorten government can be called a Labor one, or whether Labor can hold on to power for any period, depends on whether it conducts an all-out inquest into the disasters of the past six years.

That's an inquest necessarily involving unpleasantness, acrimony, debate and consequences. And it's an inquest for all the party, not merely the comfy Shorten club.

All the more so give that even Labor voters did not want Bill Shorten as leader. Whatever he has done and what he stands for, he was, by 60 per cent to 40 per cent, not their preferred person to lead Labor back to power. And that was against soft competition, hardly trying. A well-mannered Anthony Albanese refused to identify a single policy or philosophical difference from him, and himself had a background as a fixer whose power depended on the manipulation of numbers and union power. What could have happened had there been a contest of ideas? Or about priorities? Or perhaps even ideals?

The public spotlight was inevitably on the new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and the new Coalition government, creating some time and some space in which the party might have been able to absorb some of the implications of defeat, and make some real changes. Instead we had a series of meetings around Australia at which Bill agreed with Albo, and vice versa, and each professed that they would be delighted to work alongside each other, and reiterated that they recognised the need for reform. But whenever anyone sought details of reform, the candidates became very vague, especially if the questions were about the control over the party exercised by union warlords. Democratisation of the party will never be led by insiders, whether of the Right or the Left.

Regard to membership opinion, and accountability to it, has been minimal. As the very adventure with a membership plebiscite over the federal leadership has shown, membership opinion is easily overridden in caucus by votes largely cast by old union hacks or people who are dependent upon old union hacks for their preselections. That sort of want of accountability has been as critical to the careers of Left figures such as Albanese, Kim Carr or Doug Cameron, as it has to Right figures such as Stephen Conroy or Sam Dastyari.

Nothing, indeed, could illustrate the smugness and complacency of the party's old guard than the way that Senator Dastyari - the self-styled apostle of party reform and democratisation - has imposed himself in the Senate by the ruthless use of established union power. Unless it was the way that Senator Bob Carr, who gave a rousing address to the Right on Monday, is preparing to stand down from the position to which he was recently re-elected for some probably personally unelectable favourite and insider of Sussex Street.

It was perhaps all of a one with the farce that Labor has been making of the process that it was Tanya Plibersek, new Deputy Leader of the Opposition, and now champion of the Left, who was playing the disciplinarian after discontents expressed displeasure about the factional deals over the frontbench. It is the Left, not Shorten, hosing down fire, particularly in the belly.

In such straitened times, it is said that neither Shorten nor the party can afford any impression of disunity. Debate, discussion, or anything able to be read as dissension will discredit the party. There must not be grumbling, or undermining. The party must appear united, not a rabble. Voters punish disunity. Labor, it seems, owes Shorten loyalty he has not in his past given anyone else.

One can imagine that his idea of reform is that it will come by osmosis, as a conclusion reached by him after intimate personal and friendly chats among the power brokers. When they agree with him, and after the Left is easily bought off, as it always can be, it will be presented as a whole deal for the

unions, the machine, and then actual members and the public to adopt. Debate or dissension will be regarded as deeply disloyal - an attempt to undermine the leader. Any public discussion on the subject should be at some carefully scripted conference, of the sort in which the machine specialises, in which all speeches have been pre-arranged, tame and harmless opposition presented, and no real debate is to be permitted.

It could work, but that is not because it is such a brilliant plan. The fate of the Abbott government will depend upon a lot more things than whether any changes to a rejected Labor are real or cosmetic. It turns on how Abbott governs and responds to circumstances, some unexpected. On the economy - and not only the one it can influence, but also the international economy, which it cannot. On whether Australia can do what he has promised - or even if he can afford it without raising taxes or running into further debt. It depends on how Abbott manages the Senate, and how he manages popular expectations. Abbott does not want to be like Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd, whose chief electoral argument, apparently unconvincing, was that the alternative was the devil incarnate. He wants to be re-elected on his merits, and to promote that cause almost without reference to Shorten. Abbott could, in short, simply lose the confidence of voters (as Gillard, or before her John Howard and Paul Keating, did). Shorten and Labor could return to office by default provided that they are not themselves a target, not by winning any particular argument.

Shorten must persuade a wary and sceptical electorate there is substance behind his show, character behind the carefully constructed image and ''personality'', and some philosophy and ideal behind the thicket of calming and cloying, and somehow unconvincing, cliches about decency, dignity and the rights of people who actually work for a living. One has to go back to an Andrew Peacock or a Brendan Nelson to think of anyone having more of a problem in this regard. Shorten is no Bob Hawke: he has no history, no special relationship with the people, no magnetism or charisma that allows this step to be bypassed. His popularity, such as it has been, has flowed not from his personality but his power, and, in opposition for the first time, he has little.

No one could doubt that Shorten knows about exercising power - if needs be, ruthlessly and without restraint. Nor are there questions about his self-discipline, ambition or resistance to distraction in the way there were about Abbott and Mark Latham when leaders of the opposition. Shorten is even capable of latching onto, and becoming identified with, a policy or two - even if it is a stretch to credit him with a national disability scheme.

But some wonder if he can make issues political and polarising, an asset for his side, a deficit for the other. His record is only of allowing the opposition in, and neutralising potential vote winners.

Far more important, however, is whether he actually has any insight or wisdom about where the nation is going and how his side of politics is going to change and adapt to it, so as to be even in the action and in the confidence of the electorate.

And even if that insight exists - and Shorten has never given any signs of it - of some willingness to take risks, with himself, the party and voters to cause change. The indications are that there are real limitations on his willingness to wander far from his comfort zone

Jack Waterford is the editor-at-large of The Canberra Times.