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'People Keep Comparing Him With Albo': Figuring Out Bill Shorten's Popularity Problem

He leads the more popular party -- but why can't the Opposition leader cut through?

The favourite game of Australia's armchair politicos kicked back into full swing over the weekend following a speech from Labor MP Anthony Albanese interpreted by some as a not-so-veiled stab at his boss, opposition leader Bill Shorten.

“Our job is not to sow discord,” Albanese, the Member for Grayndler, said at the annual Gough Whitlam Oration on the NSW south coast.

The speech was interpreted by some as a dig at Shorten, and his recent comments about being at "war" with business.

Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese in 2016 (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

Shorten himself later shrugged off suggestions Albanese was taking aim at him, saying he supported other Labor members speaking up.

But the rhetoric stuck -- as it has often in recent times, after any Labor member hints at even the barest whiff of a rebuke of Shorten -- for one reason.

While Labor leads all the opinion polls, Bill Shorten himself remains unpopular.

Labor lead the latest Newspoll and Essential figures by 52-48, and the Ipsos by 53-47.

Such a swing on a national uniform basis would see Labor pick up at least nine seats.

However, Shorten trails Turnbull badly on preferred Prime Minister stakes; 46-31 to Turnbull in the Newspoll, 51-33 to Turnbull in Ipsos; only 33 percent of voters in Newspoll and only 40 in Ipsos approve of Shorten, with Turnbull at 40 and 50 respectively in those measures.

But why?

"Opposition leader is a shithouse job frankly. Nobody wants to do it but they do it for the prize, they want to be Prime Minister," Haydon Manning, associate professor in politics at Flinders University, told ten daily.

"They're actors on a stage with a script, and they deliver them over and over again."

Shorten has consistently won praise for his more off-the-cuff and personal remarks at rallies and smaller meetings, but has attracted criticism for previously stilted delivery and cheesy one-liner 'zingers'.

Shorten, with deputy leader of the opposition Tanya Plibersek and Senator Penny Wong (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

But Shorten's personal numbers might not mean much on the road to electoral victory.

Tony Abbott won the Prime Ministership in 2013 despite hitting 57 percent disapproval as opposition leader in 2011.

He won the 2013 election despite recording 52 percent disapproval, only 37 percent approval, in an Essential poll two weeks before the vote.

In Australia's electoral system, of course, we vote for a party, not the leader; and clearly Shorten leads the most popular party at the moment.

Manning claimed the negativity that inherently came from being leader of the opposition was a factor.

A prime example of such negativity came Monday, via a TV ad that lists Turnbull's financial record in the wake of income tax cuts and asks "who exactly is he looking after?"

"It’s a tough job being opposition leader. You're always negative," Manning said.

"That won't win you a high rating, even though that negative message does cut through when people choose who to vote for. They might vote for the opposition party, but when you think of the man delivering the message, you think of carping, negativity."

(AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

That sentiment, and wanting to battle negativity, may be part of why Labor prominently crafted its 2016 election message around its "100 positive policies".

The constant spectre of Albanese -- a one-time Shorten leadership rival, who won the support of Labor rank-and-file members but not the backing of the party caucus, delivering Shorten a narrow leadership ballot win in 2013 -- also damaged Shorten, said Dr Jenny Stock, of the University of Adelaide.

"People keep comparing him with Albo, who is more popular with the public," Stock told ten daily.

"I notice the right wing press have a real ‘get Shorten’ campaign, as does the Coalition."

The "kill bill" strategy sees Coalition backers attacking Shorten directly, viewing him as a possible weak link in Labor's election-winning lead.

Shorten's union past, as well as his role in the demise of both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, has been continually raised in parliament and in public by critics.

(AAP Image/Glenn Hunt)

"They'd love to spook Labor into a change of leadership. They won't want Albo as leader, but any speculation about leadership is good for them," Stock said.

"Their strategy is to try and force Labor into thinking about a change. The polls have been so steady for so long, the government keep waiting for bounces in the polls that don't come."

"People pay far too much attention to them"

Stock and Manning both also raised other aspects -- his voice, delivery, his infamous (and now retired) 'zingers' -- as potential reasons for Shorten's lagging poll numbers.

"But if you sit and have a coffee with him, he's not like that. I’m told he's not like that," Manning said, saying Shorten's public persona differed from his private one.

(AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

However, both academics said Australian politicians and media put too much stock in opinion polls, and that as the next election drew closer, and voters paid more attention to Shorten, his personal numbers may improve.

"People pay far too much attention to them. In other countries they don't pay nearly as much attention," Stock said.

Manning said poll numbers were likely to shift.

"Particularly this far from an election, things can change quickly. Labor look steady to take office but that could dissipate quickly," he said.

"The gap isn't huge, especially when we have so many swinging voters. That firms up when you get into a campaign and people can't avoid a fair dose of what's happening politically. "