June 2016


Could he actually win?

By Chloe Hooper
Bill Shorten

© Tim Bauer

On the road with Bill Shorten

Bill Shorten is in the passenger seat of a Comcar being driven west of Brisbane along the Warrego Highway. Past the windscreen, lattice-fringed Queenslanders stand on uneven stilts, and both the surrounding farm sheds and the machinery parked outside them are covered in thick rust. It’s as if the whole place has recently been underwater – which, Shorten reminds us, it was in the 2011 floods. This is the Lockyer Valley, and Shorten’s critics would be surprised the politician doesn’t mention he had a hand in overhauling the insurance industry so that those ruined by a river’s flooding will no longer go uncompensated due to the fine print.

Shorten is studying some briefing papers. Occasionally he turns around to ask for a fact, or to make some scathing observation about the government. In the back sit Amit Singh, Shorten’s policy director, and Ryan Liddell, his media director – two men in their early 30s inured to a stream of avuncular sarcasm. They’re clearly fond of the man they call “Boss”, but when Liddell stops to dust bronzing powder onto Shorten’s face it’s with the efficient tenderness of a frisk.

The car arrives at the University of Queensland’s campus in the town of Gatton, and we drive in circles looking for the solar research facility where the Opposition leader will announce his environment policy. (Shorten tells the apologetic driver that universities are the most common place for politicians to get lost.) Eventually the hi-vis vests of milling journalists lead to the destination. Shorten dons the same gear and the hard-hatted press pack follows him as he walks along rows of solar panels while talking to both Professor Paul Meredith, the physicist in charge of UQ Solar, and Mark Butler, the shadow environment minister. It’s impossible to hear what they’re saying, but the images, after all, are what’s important. (Malcolm Turnbull, as it happens, is back in Brisbane having his picture taken with female construction workers in … wait … hard hats and hi-vis vests. Australian politics has become a perennial Bob the Builder episode.)

“Lift your head into the light,” calls one snapper.

Shorten angles his face and smiles. “All good? Got the money shots?”

The politicians mutter sotto voce about corneal damage, and Butler asks if they get taipans this far south.

In the background, solar panels bend and tilt like mechanical sunflowers to better chase the blazing light. Beyond them is yellowing pasture, and a horizon dotted with dead trees.

“Today,” Shorten begins, “I’m really pleased to announce that at the next election the Labor Party will have positive plans to deal with the harmful effects of climate change. Climate change is one of the greatest challenges to households, to our economy and to Australia in the future.”

As he speaks there’s a sense of déjà vu: one half expects the crook of a giant vaudevillian cane to emerge and yank yet another leader offstage. But Shorten has learned from his predecessors, and this time saving the planet is really about saving household budgets. The Opposition leader warns of the cost of insuring against extreme weather events, of drought and the billion-dollar threat to our food supply, of the challenge to Australian tourism revenue as areas of the Great Barrier Reef are bleached, of rising sea levels and the risk to Australian coastal properties.

After three years of watching climate change denied, scientists traduced and the renewable energy industry run down, it’s almost surreal to hear Shorten speak of “the renewable energy revolution”. “There’s $2.5 trillion up for investment in the Asia-Pacific region alone, [which will provide] most importantly for Labor, new jobs.”

When he refers to Malcolm Turnbull, Shorten uses the word “fraud” as often as possible. The prime minister will now mount a “rich man’s Tony Abbott scare campaign”, he warns. Understandably, he doesn’t point out that Labor’s policy isn’t far removed from what Turnbull came up with as Opposition leader in 2009. Instead we’re reminded that the prime minister “has to pretend to be what he’s not unless he was pretending before”.

Shorten hands over to Butler. The wind is styling the shadow minister’s hair into a cowlick. With his dimples, and tie blowing at 90 degrees, Butler has something of a schoolboy manner. Shorten could be the principal he fears pissing off – these days, Labor’s leader sounds clear, sharp and zinger free. The only false note is one common to politicians: when he consciously tries to smile more it can misfire as a grimace.

After the announcement Shorten retreats to a nearby portable office where a light lunch is served. He eats moderately and keeps working. Butler comes in searching for his half-finished can of Diet Coke. The burly Professor Meredith holds a can of the same drink. The two stare at each other awkwardly, before Meredith flashes a gap-toothed smile. “It’s you or me.”

“That’s very true in our profession generally,” Shorten deadpans without even glancing up.

Late last year Bill Shorten looked every inch the next federal election’s loser. As he puts it, “Malcolm arrived and a lot of people, particularly in Sydney, but also within ten kilometres of the GPO in Melbourne and Brisbane [thought], Ah, Bill has no chance. Who’s this dull, plodding guy?” The September ascension of Turnbull had thrown a harsh light on deficiencies in Labor that Abbott had helped voters overlook. By December, Shorten emerged free of criminal charges from the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, but he knew the stories of misappropriated funds, which he describes as “stomach-churning … just hopeless”, had had a bruising effect. His approval rating was at a nadir of 14%, and members of his party were agitating for a sword-falling. Then Turnbull started to screw up.

The Opposition leader was well aware that he couldn’t win a popularity contest against the new prime minister. His only chance was to keep pushing the discussion towards policy and relying on what he passingly called the Liberal Party’s “circular firing squad” to keep shooting. Shorten had worn a bit of mockery for declaring 2015 “Labor’s year of ideas”, but his staff had devoted themselves to creating a comprehensive policy framework. Now they just had to make their leader a more appealing candidate.

Earlier this year Shorten started running a series of town hall meetings in marginal electorates. This free-flowing format, where he could hear people’s views and try to convince them of his own, felt “more like the old-style me when I was a union rep talking to people with less interpreters”. He’s now held 25 such events. “I’d do two a day if I could. Every session I’ve done I get a new idea.”

A few weeks earlier, in mid April, I watched Shorten convening in the gym of Willmott Park Primary School, in Melbourne’s outer north. He was accompanied by his wife, Chloe, a bright-mannered, impeccably dressed corporate communications specialist who has apparently played a key role in her husband’s recent image reboot. Shorten looked trim and slightly tanned. As in all good comeback stories, he’d decided to get fit. He runs seven days a week, albeit slowly enough to make phone calls. (“I like to do more than one thing at a time.”)

In the gym, basketball hoops at either end, Shorten warmed up as he went along. He continued to get better over the hour and a half, even as some of the audience wilted. There was a question about carers in schools from a woman with two disabled kids. Another from a father worried about how his children will afford to buy a home. A young steward from a union that represents hundreds of laid-off Ford employees asked what Shorten will do to create jobs.

The Opposition leader said he’s “happy to fight an election on housing affordability, negative gearing, climate change, marriage equality, a royal commission into the banks, penalty rates, and properly funding our schools and hospitals”. In fact, the organiser in him was already working out what he’d prioritise, if elected. “The first 100 days in office defines any government, it sets the pattern of work.” He believed both Abbott and Turnbull merely had “thought bubbles” in their first three months.

When it comes to successfully executing ideas, Shorten obviously has form. From the beginning of his career at the Australian Workers’ Union, he found that not only did he like people, he liked organising them. “I don’t have to be the smartest person in the room; what I have to be good at is getting all the smart ideas in the room organised.” During Labor’s last tenure he was a main architect of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. He also made changes to financial planning laws, advanced the equal-pay case for women in community services, and was a key negotiator for the Gonski agreements.

A man in the gym took the microphone. “I’m Robert,” he said. “Since 2011 I’ve been a full-time carer of my son who’s got schizophrenia. He’s 36 years old … I lost my wife last year from an incurable cancer. You go down to Centrelink and you ask for help and they treat you like crap. I feel we should be treated better by people when we’re trying to help the people we’re looking after, [whom] we love. Surely they know who’s bunging it on and who’s not.”

Shorten thanked him for being so honest, adding, “I don’t necessarily blame an individual at a desk for the conduct you’ve received, because the pressure at Centrelink is ridiculous. And they are dealing with more and more people getting unhappy and angry.” He took the chance to lay into the Coalition. “It’s almost like the government wants to contrive this conflict in our community. The government loves to use us-and-them language. Lifters and leaners. Because people receive benefits doesn’t make them a bad person. Sure, there are people who do the wrong thing, but you can get people doing the wrong thing in all walks of life. The churches, the banks, sport, and they probably have more power than someone on the carer’s payment. I want, if Labor is elected, just to put a bit more respect back into our national conversation.”

People clapped: most looked as if they wouldn’t mind respect, too.

Someone from a refugee background asked Shorten about the detention centres. He started his reply with a set piece about everyone but Aboriginal Australians being immigrants. He has a convict ancestor who was sentenced to seven years for theft. “I’m glad the union royal commission didn’t look at that … Statute of limitations.”

He told the room, who were predominantly from more recent waves of immigration, that “Eff off we’re full” bumper stickers drive him crazy, and that he believes we must recognise refugees are legitimate immigrants. “It’s not a crime to want to come to Australia. I think people who want to come are strong people, who make hard choices. [But] if I know I have a policy which will lead to mass drownings at sea,” Shorten paused, “well, I’m not going to do it. This is the one uncomfortable truth people have to deal with: when we had open slather onshore processing, people were dying at sea in large numbers … The Labor Party I lead will never demonise people for wanting to come here, but what I also recognise is the record of 1200 drowned.” This is Labor’s moral lifebuoy and Shorten’s not letting it go.

At the solar farm, Shorten finishes filming some election commercials before heading to Brisbane Airport. From the front seat he caucuses on climate policy, while in the back his advisers constantly work their phones, checking news items and press releases. The night before, on the ABC’s 7.30, Turnbull had said it was “beside the point” that the wealthy benefit most from capital gains arrangements. Today, on Brisbane’s 97.3FM, the prime minister had been asked what he bought his wife for her recent birthday. “It was just a new watch,” he answered, “a new Cartier watch, actually.” Photographs of the timepiece on Lucy Turnbull’s wrist suggested the model set him back close to $25,000.

I ask Shorten what he last bought his wife. His media chief explains the context.

“I’ve been outc —” Shorten corrects himself. “Outspent.”

“You were about to say outclassed,” I try.

“Yes, but I don’t think that’s actually right,” he answers drily.

Turnbull comes up constantly in conversation, whereas his previous rival – Abbott – hardly rates a mention. It can seem almost ungrateful. The former prime minister gave Shorten breathing space to grow into the role, and more recently the Abbott camp’s leaking and destabilisation have helped the Opposition in incalculable ways.

(On the way to the airport Shorten stops at an Ipswich overpass to announce a road upgrade, gazumping a Coalition policy that Labor by one means or another heard was on the cards. “Give ’em hell, Bill!” calls one passing driver. Shorten acknowledges the support with a quick-draw thumbs up.)

Of the wave of euphoria surrounding Turnbull’s initial prime ministership, Shorten says, “He was a great relief. How could you not be relieved? I was relieved.” Be this true or not, he continues, “Their whole case to get rid of Tony Abbott was Abbott was trailing us. Malcolm’s basic argument is ‘I speak well, I’m articulate. I’ve been an advocate for causes.’ But the problem is since he’s got there he’s shrunk into the job. The common word I hear to describe the last eight months of Turnbull is disappointment. You can’t say what you think your whole life, and then, when you get the chance to be in power and carry out the views people rate you for, say, ‘No I won’t.’” Shorten pauses. “I was appalled by their handling of the Safe Schools debate. That genuinely surprised me. I thought, They’ve just given in.”

Shorten waits another moment. He’s watchful by nature. Sometimes you sense him making a series of calculations, the negotiator sizing up whomever he’s dealing with. “Have you ever had to go to court and have a barrister represent you?” he asks me quietly. He has a point to make about Turnbull’s modus operandi. “Quite often they are of a certain type of personality, they’re very confident. You go to their chambers the night before, they hitch up their pants, put their boots on the table, fingers behind the ears, ‘I’ve got this one under control.’”

His portrait is not without a certain vividness.

“Then, you’re there in the morning, you notice the barrister’s quite busy on a lot of things, but they give you that marvellous five minutes of attention, they say again, ‘It’s all under control.’ Then you’re waiting before your matter’s called and by about lunchtime you get the sense they’re rapidly losing interest in you. By the afternoon they say [Shorten makes his voice gruff], ‘This is the best we can do, you better take it or leave it.’ Then if it doesn’t go well, the barrister will blame the court or the argument, or they didn’t know this – you’d better back off. Then by night-time they’ve moved on. That’s our boy! It’s not [Turnbull’s] fault, whatever doesn’t happen.”

Still, the voters aren’t necessarily sure about the Labor leader. As Shorten moves through Brisbane Airport, one notices the molecules changing as people recognise him, but they’re hardly running up and queuing for selfies. He harks from the heinous and regicidal Rudd–Gillard era, when the curtain was raised too high for the public’s finer feelings. In the middle of that period he had a swift, high-profile divorce and remarriage. There’s a residual suspicion about him. The mob isn’t sure they trust the man.

“Because I was involved in changing the leader?” Shorten asks, mildly irritated. “That’s Malcolm!”

While we sit in a cloistered airport meeting room, where VIPs do business, I put to him that there’s a feeling he’s got a stronger than usual stomach for betrayal.

“That’s a bit harsh.” For a moment he looks genuinely wounded, but he recovers quickly. “You can always interview people who feel politics hasn’t worked out for them. I’m not sure Turnbull’s background isn’t littered with people who’d feel a sense of betrayal.”

I try out the “factional warrior” tag and get a brief history lesson.

“Madison [the fourth president of the United States] writes in his federal papers at the end of the 18th century of the necessary and inevitable roles of factions in democracies. I haven’t been involved in my faction, frankly, since I became leader, because I have to run my party in the interests of all. Inevitably, in a party of ideas people will coalesce around ideas. The trick is not to just make them personality cults.”

“Is it inevitable that people dealing in power can lose sight of their purpose?”

“It’s all about reform for purpose. It’s about change for purpose, otherwise you’re rudderless.”

He defends himself, trying not to sound defensive: it must be a nightmare to always face a new stranger who won’t allow you to escape their version of your past.

“The argument that the Labor Party has all these factions and the Greens and Liberals don’t – that’s a fiction,” he continues. “The other thing is, there are things you can control and things you can’t control. I can’t control what my detractors say. If someone doesn’t like you, they can find a reason to justify not liking you. This image that’s out there of willing to betray, willing to do whatever it takes, [a] factional organiser – I don’t think that’s the sum of me at all.”

For the record, the Shortens are on cordial terms with their ex-spouses, who in different ways are supportive of Shorten’s campaign; Rudd and Gillard also apparently keep in touch with him. But right now, Shorten’s back is up. He regards me with a steely look.

“When you’re in an underground mine proposing an enterprise agreement and a couple of guys who’ve been on shift for 12 hours throw their chairs at you, when a company goes broke and you find out a disproportionate number of bikies worked at this foundry, and your junior hasn’t ratified the redundancy agreement and 40 blokes might not get what they’re owed, when you’re standing on the seaward side of the pier and a group’s pissed off at you – that’s pressure. When you have a royal commission investigating your past in an unethical use and abuse of executive power, that’s pressure. What a journalist writes in a newspaper, sure it’s hurtful – but as long as the kids aren’t reading it …”

He reads it, though, and he knows past commentators have asked a question that, in this candid moment, he frames thus: “Shorten’s a good operator but can he scale up?”

No one can accuse the man of not throwing everything into the effort. On his phone, he shows me a log of the distances he’s been running (200 kilometres for April) along with a list of the books he’s read this year (predominantly histories such as Taylor Branch on the American civil rights movement and David Hume on ancient Rome), which he surely scours for strategy and tales of political turnaround. It’s incredibly difficult to transform while everyone is watching. Still, in just a few months his rival does appear to have shrunk, while he’s grown. If he’s scaled up, how has he done it?

“You learn about yourself on the way through,” Shorten says, leaning back as if to get some distance from the conversation. “You become better at understanding your childhood. I’m very lucky, my wife has taught me a lot about myself.”

It’s not as though he particularly wants to be talking like this, but he doesn’t shirk it either.

“I had a strong mum, maybe not enough support or approval from my dad. Sometimes you make up for things you didn’t think you had in your childhood. Do you think politicians look for approval?”

The answer’s so obvious I find I stumble on it. But that’s the case often made against him, that there’s a whiff of desperation, a certain neediness to be liked – traits I don’t happen to notice.

“So you learn, don’t you?” he says. “You learn through your relationships.”

I ask whether approval is less important to him now.

“Oh, I’m seeking approval in this election, but I’m much more comfortable in my own skin than I’ve ever been. I keep more emotional space for my family.”

He finds his way now to safer ground: “I’ve been lucky. My whole way through, my union members, the employers I’ve dealt with, the people involved in disabilities, they’ve all taught me more than I’ve done for them. There are lessons in people, that bloke who was complaining how he was treated at Centrelink …”

Out of nowhere he remembers Robert caring for his schizophrenic son.

“We live in a world where your perceived status in society influences whether you get heard, and that’s a real waste —” An airline attendant comes in to let Shorten know it’s time to board the flight. He thanks her and circles back to his point. “That’s why you’re there.” He’s now talking about himself in the second person, as people often do when they’re close to the bone. “To give people back power in their lives because they feel they don’t have any say.”

“Is it harder to remember that as you ascend?” I ask.

“Maybe it has been as I’ve been buffeted in the job in Opposition, but I’ve got back that view of the world. It’s resurged in me.”

“Is that because you’re no longer under the same level of attack?”

“Man, do you see what they write about me every Saturday?”

He reels off writers’ descriptions of him. “Insipid, boring, dull, manifestly incapable. People still say, ‘Shorten’s soooo unnnnpopular.’ I see people on morning TV say, ‘Oh, we all know Bill Shorten’s unelectable.’ And you think, Why do you say that? So I don’t think the attack has lessened. It’s not a royal commission up your backside. Have you ever seen an Opposition leader go through a royal commission, and two former leaders? Old Abbott, he was a vindictive guy, shocking piece of work. But I think I’ve got my focus … It’s almost like what the Liberals are doing now is coming at me in slow motion. They’re deadly attacks – ‘Shorten did this, Shorten’s that’ – but I feel I have clarity of purpose.”

A few hours later the Opposition leader is on the flight back to Melbourne. A steward finds me in row 27 and says Mr Shorten wants to speak to me. Up the front, he has the book he’s currently reading, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Catherine the Great and Potemkin: The imperial love affair, open on his armrest. He tells me there’s a word he’s just found that struck a chord. He finds it on page 49, in a sentence concerning a long dead Russian count: “When Panin returned in 1760, he was untainted by the poison of Elisabethan politics and acceptable to all factions.”

“Whoa!” Shorten says. “Here’s me thinking I invented it! That I had the patent.”

Having scored his point, he orders a scotch and soda, and starts to unwind. He takes out his smartphone and shares some photographs of his stepchildren, Rupert, 14, and Georgette, 13, and his daughter, Clementine, 6, along with his two British bulldogs, a breed his family owned in his boyhood. He asks to see photographs of my children, and he coos at the screen. It’s a version of kissing babies for the digital age. Shorten might be working his charm, but I don’t doubt his interest is genuine. He is curious about other people, about the details of their lives. (He wants to know the industrial nitty gritty of whether a freelance writer is a contractor.) And he’s good company. The conversation ranges from American politics (it’s Hillary for him, obviously) to space travel, to Dr Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! (he relates not to the elephant but to the speck of dust), to backpacking as a young man through Eastern Europe in a time before email when no one knew where he was, to grief. There are still things he wishes he could tell or ask his mother, who died two years ago.

The plane is dimmed to a warm glow, and outside the night sky is made magical with the city’s golden light pollution. Could this man actually win? He shows me again a log of the distances he’s run in the past few months. He’s been in training, but he’s been in training for the past 30 years. This is the race he’s giving his all.

Chloe Hooper

Chloe Hooper is the author of The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire and The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island, and the novels The Engagement and A Child’s Book of True Crime.

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