Watch This Face
Bill Shorten, Beaconsfield, 2006. © Wayne Taylor / Fairfax Syndication
It took Bill Shorten less than three years in Parliament to make his mark. But will it cost him?
Shorten’s forebears were union through and through. His late father, Bill senior, was the grandson of union secretaries back in Britain – one with the boilermakers, the other the shipwrights. He was a sailor from Tyneside when he met Shorten’s mother, Ann, on a cruise. In Australia he became a member of the infamous Painters and Dockers on the Melbourne waterfront. Ann was a teacher, then a lecturer. Her father was the head shop steward for the printers’ union, her uncle was a senior shop steward at the Melbourne railyards and a cousin ran the Seamen’s Union for 27 years.
Visitors around the Shorten kitchen table in working-class Hughesdale included Pat Shannon, the Painter and Docker shot dead in a South Melbourne pub in 1973, and union secretary Jack ‘Putty Nose’ Nicholls, who denied having let the contract for the hit. To supplement her husband’s wharfie’s wage, Ann taught full-time to send young Bill and his twin brother Robert, now a corporate banker, to the Jesuits at Melbourne’s Xavier College. By then in her fifties, Ann even found time to study law – her son says she remains “one of the smartest people I’ve ever met”.
John Roskam, who runs the Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank, recalls meeting Shorten at Xavier on the first day of school: “Everyone says, ‘I always knew Bill was going to be prime minister as soon as I met him.’ It wasn’t quite [like] that, but Bill always had an opinion, Bill always had a view.” Shorten was popular, though his cleverness saw him “get right up the nose of some of the jocks”. He shone in classroom debates if not in sport – his size was against him there. By Year 11, Shorten was directing the numbers for house elections. “He was just doing it because he could and because he was good at it,” recalls Roskam.
Shorten commenced an arts/law degree at Monash University in 1985, the same year his mother took out the law faculty’s Supreme Court Prize as its outstanding graduate. There he joined the youth wing of the Labor Party. Fellow student Charles Power, now a partner at Holding Redlich, recalls Shorten set out to take on the dominant Left faction, building his numbers among fellow students. “We got sucked in very quickly,” says Power. “Bill would promise an army of Young Labor warriors and we would deliver.”
Power says Shorten, who by then lived in a student share house, relished political intrigue. “It was his ability to do it around the clock. When we were all reeling around hung over after some big night, he’d be hard at it, ringing around, meeting people. He just had a thirst for it that no one else could match. [The rest of us] were just these kids worrying about passing our subjects. Bill had a shocking disregard for his classes, because he was focused on this quest for political aspiration … He just used to borrow our notes and scrape through.”
While at university, Shorten became a delegate to the ALP state and national conferences, took on the presidency of Young Labor, worked as a youth affairs adviser for Victoria’s Cain Labor government as well as for federal Senator Gareth Evans, rooted out left-wing influence in a local Labor Party branch and attempted his first union takeover. At the time he worked Saturdays as a ‘blue coat’ for his beloved Collingwood football team, ushering fans to their seats before the game. Having signed up to the Australian Theatrical and Amusement Employees Association, Shorten enlisted some of his Young Labor comrades. “We thought we’d have a crack at running the union, so we ran a ticket,” he says. “We conclusively lost.”
After graduating, Shorten joined the labour law firm Maurice Blackburn. “He was a very enthusiastic articled clerk,” remembers his boss, John Cain, son of the 1980s Victorian Labor premier. “While that enthusiasm was useful, I was often just trying to wind him back a couple of notches because he was always off and looking for the next important issue … It was no secret, even back then, he didn’t see his future in the law. He saw it in some area of public office.”
By then a rising star of the Labor Party, Shorten’s powerbroking antics were riling factional enemies. These included, for a time, David Feeney, now a senator, close friend and one of Shorten’s ‘faceless’ co-conspirators against Rudd, and also, on the Left, Julia Gillard. (Shorten admits that for the first 10 of their 20 years of knowing each other, he and Gillard did not get on. Now, he says, “She’s great.”)
In 1994, Shorten joined the AWU rather than entering politics at once, partly on the advice of his friend and mentor, Bill Kelty, the former ACTU boss. “I said unions were a great organisation to learn because you understand how business works, you understand how the economy works, and you understand the organisation of people,” explains Kelty. Shorten’s challenge was to transform the AWU, which was riven by infighting and nearly broke. “Bill was able to recruit, represent people and organise. He was able to have a fight, but he was also able to compromise and negotiate, not out of weakness but out of strength, and have a good relationship with business leaders,” recalls Kelty.
One of the first workplaces Shorten visited was a scrap metal foundry in Melbourne’s industrial north. It was “a very difficult site”, remembers Percy Pillai, who worked there as a lab technician. “There had been a recent death and many severe burns and injuries. Most workers were old and had got here by boat; they spoke little English. Bill came in as a new union recruiter, this ex-lawyer from Maurice Blackburn. Workers were terrified of talking to Bill: word from above was that if you joined a union, you got fired. It took Bill four or five visits, but eventually that place, 150 workers or so, became completely unionised. Thanks to Bill, we got automatic loaders instead of having to manually shovel all that metal straight into the furnace.”
As Shorten rose up the ranks of the Labor Party and the union – within seven years he was national secretary – he lived for a time with his then girlfriend, the present Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon. In 1999, Shorten sought and won pre-selection for the Victorian state seat of Melton, only to change his mind. Shorten says he didn’t feel ready for politics and the union needed him more. “What makes me tick is a sense of getting things done, empowering people, people having control over what happens to them, people without power not being picked on.” Had he stood, however, John Roskam thinks he would have been premier. Paul Howes agrees: “He gave that up to turn the union around.”
Howes credits Shorten with transforming “an old monolith” into the only blue-collar union with a growing membership. “He was a great union official. The members loved him, they still do. They called him ‘Billy the King’. He had an amazing ability to connect with them. One of the most frustrating things about being his deputy was his constant desire to be out on the shop floor. I could never get him in the office. He loved getting involved in a dispute and resolving it.”
In the course of negotiating a thousand-odd workplace agreements, Shorten completed an MBA at the University of Melbourne in 2001, earning a professor’s prize in “advanced organisational behaviour”. His grasp of economics and winning ways helped him befriend corporate chiefs, industry leaders and conservatives, including the woman who became his first wife, Deborah Beale, a stockbroker and daughter of a Liberal party stalwart. Ray Horsburgh, a former CEO of Smorgon Steel and now chairman of Toll Holdings, says Shorten was unique among union leaders in recognising early the impact of globalisation and the imperatives to stay competitive. Horsburgh trusted the union boss to such an extent he gave him the company’s performance results “so he could examine what was affordable”. “He always used the argument, ‘The bigger the cake you can bake, the bigger slice we can take.’ It was in his [members’] interests for us to be more successful and improve productivity.”
At around the same time, Shorten became embroiled in a fight for control of the powerful Victorian right-wing faction, Labor Unity, the main prize being the pre-selection of candidates for federal and state seats. To this end, Shorten and his foe turned ally, David Feeney, then ALP state secretary, had to take on ALP national president Greg Sword, whose power base was the National Union of Workers.
“Greg Sword and Bill Shorten never got along, they just didn’t, and in part I think that’s ‘old bull [versus] young bull’ stuff,” says Ben Davis, Shorten’s friend from the AWU. “Ultimately it was about personalities and political power.” For a time, the power balance in the Victorian Right shifted back and forth between the rival camps. Then, in 2009, Shorten and his fellow Victorian right-wing powerbroker, Senator Stephen Conroy, cut a deal with the Left, dividing key party positions and seats between them until 2014, thus buttressing Shorten’s power.
What really propelled Bill Shorten on to the national stage, however, was the Beaconsfield mine disaster of 2006, when, as national secretary of the AWU, he became the public face of the two-week rescue effort to save two miners trapped underground. His mother Ann was friendly with the mother of the mine manager, who was more than happy to avoid the heat and let Shorten do the talking. Night after night on national television, Shorten explained the progress of the rescue. Meanwhile, he consoled distraught families and pursued safety issues. He attended the funeral of Larry Knight, the miner killed in the rockfall, set up a fund for the miners’ families, flew relatives from interstate and became, as then Opposition leader Kim Beazley put it, the disaster’s “interpreter for Australia”. When Todd Russell and Brant Webb were finally rescued, one tabloid headline read: ‘Bill for PM’.
My time with Shorten in Brisbane had begun the night before, at Parliament House in Canberra, where he was giving a speech on workplace health and safety at an awards dinner. On the walk from his office to the Great Hall, he rattled off the reforms he’d pushed through in financial services, superannuation and industrial relations, and relayed a quick precis of how he saw himself; that is, how he’d like to be portrayed. “What you see is what you get,” he said, declaring an aversion to the use of weasel words, including by politicians on his own side. “I write my own speeches – well, most of them. I’m winging it on this one, but it’s a pet subject.” He stressed that he was not interested in going over “ancient history”, by which he meant his past, and his present, as a commander of the internecine power plays within the party.
His speech that evening was well honed – Shorten was in his element. Workplace safety, he said, was about a three-year-old daughter saying goodbye to her father in the morning, and seeing him return in the afternoon. He mentioned the need to boost productivity. He said Australians were great adaptors and imitators of good ideas, “but we’re not inventors”. And, as he so often does, he referred to the drama at Beaconsfield, his touchstone, the miraculous moment he’d prefer to be remembered by, rather than that night in June 2010.
“You’ve got a minister who gives a stuff about workplace health and safety. You’ve got another year and a quarter of that” – he paused, for the sake of a laugh – “at least.”
Chuckling on the sidelines was Peter Strong, who runs the Council of Small Business Australia. “There’s a Hawke-ishness about Bill,” commented Strong. “The way he talks and connects, he makes it look casual, like there’s a naivety about him, but he’s wilier than that. And it’s all off the cuff.”
Shorten stayed on to hand out awards, enjoying himself, despite the 6 am flight the next day. The lack of sleep might have played a part in him being slightly off his game in Brisbane. His first appointment, a visit to a radio studio for his regular sparring match with Joe Hockey, facilitated by Neil Mitchell in Melbourne, did not go well. Mitchell is one of the sharpest interviewers in the country, and Shorten, trying to be a little too clever with Hockey, tripped himself up. He sounded tetchy, even petulant.
The rest of the day went by in a rush of colour and contrast. As well as addressing the memorial service in Roma Park, where some 2000 construction workers dressed in orange and yellow vests had gathered, Shorten delivered a half-hour speech at a lunch of financial planners. In between there was a chance encounter with Greg Rudd, the lobbyist and brother of Kevin, with whom Shorten gets on remarkably well, and a visit to a packaging factory where disabled people on subsidised wages greeted him like villagers welcoming home a famous son.
Add to that the charade of creating a technical budget surplus and the incessant drip-drip-drip of journalists seeking a ‘gotcha’ angle on the leadership, at doorstop interviews and on the phone, not to mention a vicious rumour about his personal life doing the rounds, and any man, let alone an impatiently clever one like Shorten, might start to sound a little chagrined. Indeed, it clearly frustrates Shorten, whose performance in terms of getting significant reforms through Parliament is second only to Gillard’s, that, just like her, he’s not being taken more seriously.
Paradoxically, the media’s leadership obsession is starving him of the space he needs to portray himself as a contender. A few weeks earlier, he’d given a speech, ‘The Future of Work’, to the conservative Sydney Institute. At a time when the government was trying to sell itself as the non-Gina, non-Clive and non-Twiggy party, Shorten’s speech took a deliberately different path by also reaching out to the big end of town: the future of work, as well as a more equitable super network and other concomitant labour rights, relied on boosting productivity. Unfortunately, hardly anyone took note; it got only a sliver of press. Perhaps he should have called it ‘The Future of Labor’.
One of Shorten’s refrains is that he wishes people would concentrate on policy. Only later, when it was time to head back to the airport, did it become apparent that the factory visit had been staged for my benefit, in lieu of a actual interview. “We figured it would be good for you to see him in action, among the people,” said his adviser. “I hope you got what you needed.”
In his maiden speech to parliament in early 2008, Shorten noted that his seat of Maribyrnong, in Melbourne’s north-west, was ALP heartland, home to such icons as Dame Edna Everage, the Cox Plate and HV McKay, the company involved in the landmark 1907 Harvester judgement which awarded Australian workers a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. “I am inexpressibly proud to be here as part of this new, fresh and hopeful Rudd government,” he said. But those who know him say he was privately smarting at not being handed a ministry. Nevertheless, as Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services under Jenny Macklin, he became a determined champion of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, a long overdue program to support the 2 million Australians living with disabilities.
According to his friend John Roskam, Shorten received minimal support from above, Macklin excepted. “Bill was treated appallingly and rudely by Rudd,” he says. “I got a very strong impression that Rudd did not [support] the scheme or give Bill the time of day. Bill pushed and pushed and pushed and got it up … He wanted to prove to Rudd he could make this work.” Last December, Shorten won the gratitude of the disability sector, and admiration from supporters and critics alike, when the government announced the NDIS would be up and running at a cost of $6 billion by 2018. “Those with disabilities and their carers have been ignored in the political process for a very long time by both parties,” says Roskam. “Bill took their concerns seriously and understood what they were going through.” He likens Shorten to Labor’s reformist legends, Hawke and Keating. “When I think of the Labor Party over the next 10 to 20 years, who is going to put the party on the path of economic growth and jobs? It’s got to be Bill or someone like Bill.”
Three weeks after the Brisbane trip, Shorten granted me a further half hour in his Moonee Ponds office. Again, it is a Friday, but he’s relaxed and looking forward to attending a football match between last year’s grand finalists, Collingwood and Geelong. Things are relatively quiet, politically, and the rumour has been dealt with, emphatically, through an appearance in the Sunday tabloids with his wife, Chloe Bryce, the daughter of the Governor-General. Hand in hand, they pleaded for decency in politics.
Still, Shorten can’t help giving the impression he’d rather be somewhere else. He says as much – that he doesn’t want the attention – but, more than that, Shorten seems to treat interviews like he knows, but quietly resents, that he’s on a leash. When he bristles at a question, and cocks a here-we-go-again eyebrow at his ever-present media adviser, you sense his frustration is as much with the adviser’s tacit opinion about how he should answer it as it is with the question.
Shorten, whose electorate includes some of the most disadvantaged western suburbs of Melbourne, doesn’t abide the notion that modern Labor, having helped create a middle class out of the working class, struggles to stand for something, or should loosen its ties to the union movement.
“The case for Labor is that Australian society is always changing, and now it’s changing even more quickly. The high dollar is accelerating change in industry, putting pressure on manufacturing. The mining boom is sucking up investment in one section of the economy and the rest is perhaps receiving less. There’s the impact of the internet on retail and elsewhere, the rise of Asia, ageing, the need for sustainability, the rate of carbon emissions growth, the way we treat people, the way women will have a greater say. So the question then for public policy and for political parties is, ‘Do you try and bring people with you or do you just let change roll over their heads?’ And that’s where Labor comes into its own.
“We accept we’re an open economy and a diverse society; we accept we can compete with the rest of the world. Despite the odd cry for rampant protectionism, we’re more on the side of open borders and open markets than we are of building giant walls. On the other hand, we also get the social justice angle. Not everyone benefits from change equally, not everyone is resilient, but given the right opportunity I think most people can benefit.”
Shorten believes resilience can be taught. “The best way you can cope with a changing economy and society is to have a set of skills and education that allows you to shift between opportunities. Basically everyone should be finishing with a Year 12 or a Cert III [trade] qualification and that should be the way for people right up to the age of 65.”
He is adamant that the government is governing as best it can. “Good things are being done – we are leaving a legacy. But there’s a lot left to do.”
So where is the thanks?
“Oh well. You can’t always blame the voters if people aren’t buying your product. The challenge is for us to communicate what we do. The fundamentals are good, but in the face of change we’re seeing people saving more, we’re seeing the rise of the cautious consumer, you know … You can understand why people are feeling a little unconfident. Also there’s a relentless negativity in the media and in politics.”
He catches his minder’s look. “I don’t want to sit here criticising the media. But because we’re a minority government, people think they’ve got a better chance of knocking off each reform. Each reform is more of a hand-to-hand street combat than some sweeping manoeuvre across open fields. Every issue is fiercely fought. Everyone who doesn’t want to see change feels emboldened. Because they just need to change one vote, people think they can win, and so vested interest is better organised in this country than it has been for a while.”
This minority government, however, was prompted by a change of leaders. Asked if he shares Paul Howes’ expressed regrets about his involvement in Rudd’s ousting, Shorten shoots his adviser a glance. “It’s up to Paul to say that. Do I have any regrets? No, I just support Julia Gillard. I don’t think I need to look back in the rear-vision mirror on that one.”
So it was the right thing to do, to remove Rudd? “Yes. Julia Gillard was the right person to lead the country then. I still think she is now.” Another quick glance, and he adjusts his words, nimbly mindful of voters’ sensitivities about the removal of ‘their’ PM: “I think Julia was the best person then to lead Labor, and she remains the best person to lead Labor.”
Could he foresee a return to Kevin Rudd? “No.” He pauses. “I’ll tell you one thing I do regret. That decision [to depose Rudd] was made conscientiously by a hundred-plus caucus members. I regret that anyone in the caucus is portrayed as being robotic or unthinking. That is not fair. People made that very difficult decision and it remains a very difficult decision.”
He leans back in his chair. “The voters in this seat want certainty. They want to think that when we go to work every day, we think about how their kids might get a better go, how their parents might get proper aged care, how jobs are being created, how they can get a fair go at work. The people in my electorate want to think that the Labor party is focused on their needs, not our own. That is incredibly important.”
Shorten says Gillard is a tough leader, and “leading is winning”. He dismisses the suggestion that, given the polls, the government appears to have nothing left to lose and may as well push through what it can of its agenda, rather than put off politically risky reforms such as mandatory pre-commitment for poker machines and the shake-up of schools funding to a hypothetical third term.
“Well, quite apart from the defeatist Russian winter nihilism of that view, I don’t buy that,” he says. “I don’t get up in the morning to lose.”
Additional research and reporting by Sally Neighbour.