Does Bill Shorten have killer instinct? According to a great many political commentators he’ll need it if he ever wants to become Prime Minister. In common parlance the phrase is interchangeable with ruthlessness and is normally reserved for the sports columns but in politics it receives a peculiar application in that it’s normally applied retrospectively to account for an individual politician’s success or lack thereof.
Malcolm Fraser, Paul Keating, John Howard and Tony Abbott are all supposed to have had killer instinct while Billy Snedden, Andrew Peacock and Kim Beazley were all supposed to have lacked it Yet nobody much ever accused Kevin Rudd or Bob Hawke of displaying this enviable trait, curiously the two most popular Prime Ministers in Newspoll history. And when Mark Latham crashed so gruesomely against the rocks, nobody dared suggest it was because he lacked killer instinct.
We can therefore deduce that if a politician is described as having killer instinct it is because they enjoyed some electoral success and also publicly exhibited some mildly repulsive character traits, most commonly aggression. Conversely those who are described as lacking killer instinct will generally enjoy little success at the polling booths but will exhibit an air of amiability. If someone demonstrates the necessary machismo to have killer instinct but doesn’t win then some other excuse must be invented for their failures, in Latham’s case, it was a handshake.
Much greater political minds than mine seriously believe that killer instinct is what can swing an election and will point to the results as evidence supporting this thesis but I think that this is a facile interpretation. Consider the 1998 and 1990 Federal Elections where both Kim Beazley and Andrew Peacock were meant to lack killer instinct yet both won majorities on the two party preferred vote, they only lost because of the way in which electorate boundaries were drawn, were they supposed to overcome the unfavourable electoral boundaries by sheer force of killer instinct? And of course both 1983 and 2007 saw the candidates with killer instinct lose outright.
Bill Shorten is largely credited with organising the numbers to topple Kevin Rudd in 2010 then again to topple Julia Gillard in 2013, as such he already enjoys something of a reputation for ruthless and skulduggery. So if Shorten wins in 2016 it will make opinion pieces more entertaining to portray him as a formidable politician, armed with a deep focus and a killer instinct, but these traits won’t be assigned to him until after the event. And if he does win, it definitely won’t be because he had killer instinct, elections are determined by a huge matrix of factors and the possession of a killer instinct is not one of them.