Shorten evokes Whitlam the hero, but is it really going to be his time?

The T-shirts said “it’s time” but the energy in the room followed up with a question mark. Could it really be this time?

Inside the low slung hall, you could have been in any Australian town, city or rural. But Bowman Hall, Blacktown, was deliberately chosen, a building as talisman from 1972 for Bill Shorten’s last big speech before the election.

Gough was being summoned.

Music from Shorten’s generation boomed from the speakers: Jimmy Barnes’s Working Class Man, AC/DC’s Thunderstruck and From Little Things, Big Things Grow. All anthems of sorts, designed to stir the spirits of a certain demographic.

Alone, Paul Kelly’s song of the fight for Aboriginal land rights invoked the image of Gough Whitlam, pouring red earth into the cupped hands of campaigner Vincent Lingiari.

A man holds up a copy of Gough Whitlam’s It’s Time speech at Bowman Hall in Blacktown on Friday.

A man holds up a copy of Gough Whitlam’s It’s Time speech at Bowman Hall in Blacktown on Friday. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Most people in the crowd had not known Gough as prime minister. The kids selling the “it’s time” T-shirts were not born in 1972. It did not stop the riff on the old Labor hero.

“Turn your phones to silent, the show is about to start,” said a voiceover, before Labor frontbenchers were featured on video talking about Shorten. One-time leadership rival Anthony Albanese opened it in a show of unity.

The Labor frontbench has been a campaign staple, focusing in on Labor women, particularly deputy Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong, adding depth to Shorten’s persona. His wife Chloe was ever present.

Plibersek warmed up the crowd. “We are nearly there,” she told the crowd. “We are so close.”

Again, the question mark. Even though the crowd were true believers, still, the nerves pinged between thoughts of success and failure.

Chris Bowen, Penny Wong, Chloe Shorten and Tanya Plibersek at Bowman Hall in Blacktown.

Chris Bowen, Penny Wong, Chloe Shorten and Tanya Plibersek at Bowman Hall in Blacktown. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Shorten reversed Gough’s opening line.

“Women and men of Australia,” he told an eager crowd.

“47 years ago, when an earlier Labor generation filled this marvellous hall with their hope and their passion, the door was ajar for our nation and Australians had to choose – would we hide from change? Would we turn our backs to the world?

“Would we shrink to our familiar habits and submit to our old fears? Or would we cross the threshold and push open the door? Would we broaden the sweep of our national ambition?

“Would we reach for something bigger and bolder of more of the same? Would we step forward into a more confident, more modern, more self-reliant future? This was the choice then and this is the choice this week and this year and now.”

In a speech that echoed 1972 in construction and pitch, Shorten reminded the crowd that Whitlam’s campaign promises still reflected Labor’s 2019 priorities of education, health and an economy that works for working people.

“The three challenges then remain fundamental now, but there is a new challenge that the previous generation could not have imagined. I speak of the delay and denial on climate change.”

Shorten kept coming back to climate, a last-minute call to both those on the left, making eyes at the Greens and those centrist Liberals, with pencils wavering over Coalition boxes.

“I promise that we will send a message to the world that when it comes to climate change – Australia is back in the fight,” he said.

“It is not the Australian way to avoid and duck the hard fights. We will take this emergency seriously – and will not just leave it to other countries or to the next generation.”

Emergency is a new word, a strong word in a campaign marked by broader electorate equivocation. Scott Morrison mocked the event as a “coronation”, but it was anything but.

Rather, it was as if Labor was not allowing itself to let go and finally believe the party could win. It has been a hallmark of this campaign, this feeling that the government could change, but it might not. That there might be a Labor landslide, but it could be a hung parliament.

All this, after Labor has led the polls for years.

Which is why Shorten himself kept pressing the point.

“Never has your vote been more important. Never has the case for change been more clear or more urgent. Because just as Blacktown tells us the story of the change that Australia voted for back then, it also speaks to why our country should vote for change now.”

With only two days left before the poll, Shorten asked the question, as much to himself and his team as Labor supporters: “Do we have the capacity to push through it?”

Saturday will answer that question.


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