May 9, 2019

Federal politics

The Daily Telegraph’s slipshod hit on Bill Shorten

By Nick Dyrenfurth
Image of federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten

AAP Image / Lukas Coch

The tabloid’s Ann Shorten article completely missed the point

Bill Shorten has long been underestimated. He wouldn’t make it as a unionist, they said. Yet at the age of 31 he became the Victorian state secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union in 1998, and national secretary three years later. He wouldn’t survive the cut and thrust of political life, they said. Yet he won preselection and a seat in parliament, and he was a more than effective parliamentary secretary and minister during the Rudd–Gillard years, spearheading the creation of the NDIS. Against the odds, in 2013 Shorten won a ballot against Anthony Albanese to lead the federal Labor Party. As Opposition leader he saw off prime ministers Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull. Shorten has now been Labor leader for longer than Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard. In just under a fortnight’s time, Bill Shorten might become Australia’s 31st prime minister.

Ann Shorten never underestimated her son. Throughout his career, Shorten has defined himself and his politics through his mother: the story of a working-class woman’s prodigious work ethic and determination to overcome the odds; an ambitious, career-oriented woman who sacrificed much to raise a family; and a teacher who went back to study law, earned a doctorate, practised as a barrister, and worked as an education academic in a male-dominated, middle-class profession.

From a long line of Irish Catholics steeped in trade unionism and Labor politics, and the daughter of a Ballarat-born printer and unionist, Ann Shorten gave birth to twin boys, Bill and Robert, in May 1967. Ann had met the boy’s father, William, when he was the second engineer on a ship she was travelling on bound for Guam. She was an inveterate traveller by any era’s standards, let alone for the 1960s. William and Ann married soon afterwards; kids followed. After attending St Mary’s Catholic Primary School in Malvern East near the family home in Hughesdale, a lower middle-class suburb in Melbourne’s south-east, on Ann’s insistence the boys were then educated at the prestigious Jesuit-run Xavier College. Shorten went on to study arts and law at Monash University. His political education, however, did not come from university lecture theatres.

‘‘Mum taught me that merit is the measure by which we should all be judged – not by dint of birth or the accumulation of wealth or our gender,” Shorten wrote in his 2016 book, For the Common Good. “Merit is defined by hard work, attainment, taking responsibility and doing the right thing. She taught me that personal ambition goes hand-in-hand with looking out for and making sacrifices on behalf of others … I will be forever grateful to my mother … I miss her every day. I wish I could tell her that.”

Radical in many respects – prepared to buck the expectations of society, unaccepting of her lot and the lot of working people, wanting to change the status quo – Shorten’s mother, Ann, was possessed of the small-c conservative disposition common to many Australians. Family, work and faith were her creeds, even if the latter was expressed through a cultural Catholicism rather than dogmatic religiosity. A ferocious will to win, never forgetting where you come from, and an earthy, practical view of the world: these are the values, work ethic and resilience that Ann passed onto her son. It is no coincidence that Shorten likes to quote the Jesuit motto “to be a man for others” – he could be referring to his mum. And it was Ann Shorten’s faith that led her son to believe he could rise from suburban Melbourne to become prime minister.

You wouldn’t know any of this from reading The Daily Telegraph journalist Anna Caldwell’s front-page story yesterday alleging that Shorten omitted key facts from his deceased mother’s life in an appearance on ABC’s Q&A program on Monday night; that he was a “slippery salesman” who was “loose on the detail”. The story was not only factually incorrect but immoral. Shorten has written, touchingly, of Ann becoming a lawyer later in life, and referenced her achievements in countless speeches. It is simply untrue to say he has omitted facts from her life story. In any case, Caldwell’s article completely misses the point of Shorten’s account, which is this: his mother had to wait until her 50s to study and then practise law on account of her working-class background and her gender. How much further might she have progressed in the profession had she graduated in, say, the 1960s or ’70s? Her experience has inspired Shorten to prevent others suffering the same fate, as he told the Q&A audience: “What motivates me, if you really want to know who Bill Shorten is: I can’t make it right for my mum but I can make it right for everyone else.” He was rightfully livid when speaking about The Daily Telegraph article at a press conference yesterday. It might, however, turn out to be a significant own goal by the newspaper in question, humanising Shorten in the process.

I write this as someone who has worked for and admires Shorten. We are both the sons of driven, feminist-without-claiming-to-be-feminist, working-class Ballarat women who were the first of their families to attend the University of Melbourne on teacher’s scholarships, who became first-class teachers and more besides. To paraphrase actor Russell Crowe defending the sexist treatment of Julia Gillard: “If you wrote that about my mum … I’d be wanting to have a really, seriously deep conversation with you.”

The Daily Telegraph presents itself as the paper of working-class battlers. I have written for it in the past, but it has made a serious error of judgement in this matter. Working-class Australians innately understand that political attacks via a politician’s deceased parent are out-of-bounds. It is a matter of common decency. It is telling that Melbourne’s Herald Sun chose not to run the story. The public has a right to know if Scott Morrison’s Liberals had any involvement in this affair. In the meantime, The Daily Telegraph should issue an immediate, unqualified apology.

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of 12 books spanning history, politics and children’s fiction, including Getting the BluesThe Write StuffA Little History of the Australian Labor PartyMateship: A Very Australian HistoryA New History of the AWU and All That’s Left


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