Being underestimated is not always a problem”, Bill Shorten says. It sounds like a dictum from one of the military histories he likes to bury himself in, but he’s talking about the “faction man” label he’s been lumped with for most of his political career.
“It’s a lazy tag, its journalism by Google. If other people want to say it I can’t stop them, it’s a free country. I don’t think it really grasps who I am though.”
Shorten, the former chief of one of Australia’s biggest blue-collar unions, has been living for this moment since his days as a champion schoolboy debater.
“It will be really exciting if we can win,” he says, as the RAAF jet we’re on streaks across the southern edge of the continent.
“We can end the climate wars, and Australia can rejoin the 21st century …. [we can] stop the drift to the right in our politics, the dog-whistling, the intolerance. I’m excited about what we can accomplish: reconciliation and recognition, a more Australian foreign policy, thinking for ourselves. We have become a country which has become a little afraid of the world.”
Shorten, 52 on Sunday, has had nearly six years as leader to prepare for this final dash to the summit. Yet his campaign performance has at times been surprisingly uneven. Some days he has nailed it, with the right balance of theatricality, poise and policy punch – as in his first two televised debates with Scott Morrison, or his solo appearance on ABC TV’s Q&A. The latter triggered a rare moment of emotional rawness when some News Corp papers accused him last week, unfairly, of selectively editing his mother’s story.
At other times he’s left careless openings for the government to exploit, failing, for instance, to frame the climate change debate on Labor’s terms at the outset of the campaign; or leaving ill-defined the boundary of a signature policy like the massive $10 billion promised over the next decade to top up the wages of low-paid childcare workers.
Last Sunday’s launch in Brisbane was his strongest performance to date. It showcased his vision of “fair go economics” and his frontbench team. Gone was the woodenness that has weighed on his popularity. It was designed to generate at least an appearance of unstoppable momentum.
Most political professionals believe the coalition is starting too far behind to win. Yet like or loathe Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister has proven a more formidable opponent in election mode than his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull.
Shorten says his first reaction to the leadership spill of last August, when the Liberals committed their second act of regicide with the toppling of Turnbull, was “probably relief that it wasn’t Peter Dutton. Dutton would not have been the best person for Australia”.
But he says he doesn’t underestimate any of the Liberal leaders he’s been matched against. “I’m on my third … Whoever they pick, I can’t control, so I don’t tend to waste a lot of time worrying about it. They have nothing to say about the future of the country.” He makes a point of referring to Morrison as “the current fellow”, rather than by name.
Shorten has one huge advantage in this tight contest. Internal division and ministerial departures have stripped the Coalition of many of its high-profile figures, among them Turnbull himself, Christopher Pyne, the perennially popular Julie Bishop, Kelly O’Dwyer and Craig Laundy.
Shorten’s frontbench on the other hand is peppered with talent: Penny Wong in foreign affairs, Chris Bowen as shadow treasurer, former deputy prime minister Anthony Albanese in infrastructure, deputy Tanya Plibersek in education, climate change shadow Mark Butler and defence spokesman Richard Marles to name the most seasoned.
The optics at the party’s Brisbane launch were all about unity, with immediate past Labor prime ministers, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, in the front row. If either still nurses bitterness towards Shorten for his significant hand in the machinations that toppled Rudd as prime minister, then brought down Gillard and briefly restored Rudd, it’s buried deep – for now.
Shorten, a numbers man par excellence, rose to power through the Australian Workers Union and the notoriously feud-ridden Victorian branch of the Labor Party. His long years of factional manoeuvring, deal-making and shifting alliances have at times shadowed his relations with the powerful right-wing of the New South Wales party.
He doesn’t deny that it took him time to embrace some of the bolder economic and tax policies being developed by Bowen, the senior NSW frontbencher, who championed Labor’s proposed restrictions on negative gearing, and the abolition of tax credits on franked dividends for those who pay no tax.
“I’m willing to take policy risks after I have thought about all the angles,” he says. “I’m grateful to Chris and the whole team, they have got behind the initiatives … I want to make sure that when we do something we have thought out every question, but I have no hesitation about any of the policies we are pushing.”
One former party operative hands Shorten “full credit for being open to being convinced of the merits of these policies. He is taking the hard road to the Lodge”.
Labor has set out one of the most ambitious election agendas for a quarter of a century. As Shorten put it to one of his “town hall” meetings in Woy Woy on the NSW Central Coast in the campaign’s opening week, “we make no apologies for saying that we want to manage the economy in the interests of working people”.
That means scrapping proposed tax cuts for high earners, restoring penalty rates, and big-spending programs for childcare, pensioner dental care and multibillion-dollar health and education initiatives.
Travelling with Shorten to help him sell this package is a tight retinue of seasoned players, including former treasurer Wayne Swan and the wily Peter Barron, a former long-time adviser to Bob Hawke, Neville Wran and Kerry Packer. Paul Keating and Shorten’s mentor from his union days, Bill Kelty, are among those he’s consulting.
Asked if he feels the weight of having more personally riding on the outcome than Morrison, who’s only been in the job eight months, he turns the question around. “I feel there is a lot more riding on it for the people. I don’t want to let the people down. So the pressure I feel is not to let the millions down who want a Labor government.”
Derailed by a basic miscalculation
Shorten’s big cancer care announcement – made during his budget reply speech – was his tent-pole theme for the first week of the campaign.
The policy, to underwrite millions more scans and specialist consultations for cancer sufferers, was a personal project for him, as he looked for a way to build on his record as the driver of the National Disability Insurance Scheme through the Rudd-Gillard years.
In the opening days of the campaign, journalists travelling with Shorten traipsed in and out of hospitals and clinics in a series of carefully staged events where he would meet grateful staff and even more grateful patients, telling them “cancer can make you sick, but it shouldn’t make you poor”.
But his determination not to be sidetracked from his signature health policy contributed to a bad miscalculation on day five.
Shorten and his media cavalcade had flown into Adelaide from the Victorian capital. It was unseasonably hot, the country around Adelaide baked bone dry. Standing outside Flinders University College of Medicine, journalists clustered around trying to get a fresh story from the one doorstop of the day when Channel Ten’s reporter, Jonathan Lea, unleashed a barrage of questions at him on the cost of his climate change policies.
Instead of seizing what could have been an opportune moment to stake out a strong response, Shorten repeatedly cut Lea off. There was an unmistakeable undertow of animus. It was an unnecessary clash and looked worse on the TV news that night. Shorten missed another danger signal when asked about superannuation changes, and replied that Labor had none planned. This, he said later, was a case of misunderstanding the question, thinking it was about new changes on top of those the party had already announced.
It took several days for Labor’s campaign to recover and for Shorten to devise a more effective counter-attack on climate change. It’s the line he’s running full pelt with now: that inaction is the greatest threat, and will in the long run carry the far greater cost.
“The first week of the campaign smartened me up. I stepped up a gear, no question,” he concedes. “[I realised] the years of policy work itself won’t do the work … I’d been focused on getting the story right, [but] I needed to tell the story.”
One eye over his shoulder
Shorten won the internal ballot to lead the party after Rudd’s defeat in September 2013. The contest weighted the votes of party members and Labor MP’s 50:50. Albanese won the grassroots vote but was narrowly defeated by the majority of caucus locking in behind Shorten.
One former insider has a vivid recollection of the night the right’s factional bosses met to decide who to swing behind. It was the evening of Rudd’s 2013 campaign launch and key powerbrokers had gathered at a private house in Brisbane. The fear was that if Albanese won the leadership post-election, he would try to further tackle the power of union blocs inside the party.
“They knew they were going to be up against Albanese, and the view was if he got the reins, he would completely reform the current system and it would be a disaster for the right,” the insider recalls. “So everyone agreed it was going to be Bill”. But there was little enthusiasm. “The thought was they will get him in there, let him have a run, get it out of his system, and then possibly put in someone else.”
That lack of enthusiasm has evaporated now, the same source declares. “What he has done from those low expectations, is really build himself up. He is now quite a beloved figure in the party. He’s managed every crisis, he’s managed the politics and kept everything together. He has changed people’s view of him.”
Shorten’s longevity in the leadership benefited in part from rule changes Rudd made to render challenges between elections more difficult. But it also stems from his relentless drive. “I’ve met a lot of very ambitious people, but he would top the list,” says someone who’s known him for most of his career.
Yet the last five-and-a-half years have not been without times of peril.
A dangerous interlude for Shorten came towards Christmas 2015. Unhappy with his leadership, some in the right began flirting with the idea of replacing him with Albanese.
Several factors fed the internal disillusionment with Shorten at this point. His poll ratings had nose-dived after the Liberals replaced Tony Abbott with Turnbull in September of that year. There was concern that Shorten was dragging his heels on big-picture policy reform. And some of his dealings with big employers in Victoria when he was head of the AWU – including big payments to the union – were coming under intense scrutiny at the royal commission into trade unions headed by Dyson Heydon.
No-one was sure where it was all headed. Author David Marr recorded that Kelty rang Shorten at this time and told him “if you want this job, there is something called pain. To be prime minister you have to absorb pain”.
By the following February, the clouds gathering over Shorten’s leadership had lifted. Heydon’s final report found he had engaged in no unlawful conduct. Shorten began to embrace the Bowen reform agenda and attack possible government GST increases. Turnbull slid in the polls. Talk of a challenge faded.
“His relationship with Bowen started to repair from then on,” a party source says.
Asked what he felt during the period, Shorten says: “It’s very hard to run a race when you are always looking over your shoulder. [But] I’ve always understood that I’m only in the job because of what I can do.”
He says the NSW right of the party has “always been there when I needed them”.
In 2018 there were more leaks suggesting Shorten’s leadership would be in doubt if he lost ground in the so-called Super Saturday byelections, held in July. Again, the rumblings came, then went.
A former insider says “the fact that he’s seen these off, and got through some pretty challenging internal policy debates, is because he has a better grasp of Labor’s factions and the movement more generally than Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard ever did”.
Former NSW premier Morris Iemma, a friend of Shorten’s since their days in national Young Labor together, says “to be skilled in managing a beast with so many heads is probably the best preparation there is for being a national leader”.
After his brush with political death in over the Christmas break of 2015-2016, Shorten doubled down on travelling the country, holding dozens of “town hall” meetings. He done more than 80 now, many attracting hundreds of people. They’ve stood him in good stead in his televised debates, where he’s mastered the knack of drawing personal stories out of questioners.
He’s learnt, he says, that “people don’t want to be shouted at. I might have a view, but my view will never suffer from listening to the other person’s view first”.
Shorten has had voice coaching over the years to take what he calls “some of the rabble-rouser” out of him after 14 years in the union movement. “You’d probably have to go back to Billy Hughes to find a PM or would-be PM who’s given more speeches off the back of a truck or on top of a milk crate”, jokes a colleague.
Shorten says he wouldn’t swap “any of the last 2020 days as Opposition Leader. There have been some terrible days and some great days … My team and I have spent years thinking about what we want the place to be like. I feel tested.”
‘People are starting to see the Bill I’ve known’
Among the “terrible” days was the one when his mother, Ann, died suddenly of a heart attack in April 2014.
No-one – wife and children aside – has been so important to Shorten. He describes her as a “feminist before people really knew what feminists were” and “the smartest person in my world”.
He’d told me her story three weeks ago, as we flew between Melbourne and Adelaide: how she had yearned to study law but had to take a teaching scholarship because of the family’s limited means. Of how she eventually achieved her dream of becoming a barrister in later life, but despite her brilliance, despite winning the Supreme Court prize, had encountered the unwillingness of people to hand out briefs “to a grey-haired woman barrister in her early 50s”.
Last Monday on Q&A he briefly invoked her memory to make a point about thwarted opportunity. Two days later he found himself accused of the “Mother of Invention” on the front page of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph.
Shorten’s sin, according to the Telegraph, was “omitting” the detail that Ann had finally, after years in teaching, qualified as a lawyer and achieved her life’s goal. It was a nonsensical claim by the paper. The facts had been on the public record for years.
Raw with emotion, Shorten fought back tears as he slammed the story as “gotcha shit”. He’d told his mother’s story, he said, because it was what drove him. “My mum would want me to say to older women in Australia that just because you’ve got grey hair, just because you didn’t go to a special private school … just because you’re not part of some backslapping boy’s club, doesn’t mean you should give up.”
Iemma says what the public saw of the Labor leader in that moment is the Shorten he’s known for 30 years. “He’s always had a big heart as well as a big brain. People are starting to see the Bill I’ve known- warm, engaging and extremely personable.”
Several days later Shorten told me his near-tears were “not a calculated choice. I do get emotional when I think about the struggles Mum had in her life … it’s just crystallised for me why I run, why I joined Labor, why I want to make a difference”.
From the factory floor to Parliament
Ann was determined that Shorten and his twin brother, Robert, would get the best Jesuit education she and her husband William, a UK-born ship’s engineer, could stretch to. She sent the boys to Melbourne’s prestigious Xavier College, where Shorten fenced, debated, excelled at cards and decided at the age of 16 that he wanted to become an MP, a decision he partly credits to an inspiring history teacher, Des King.
He still hoovers up history. “I read a lot of it. When I was at uni I studied everything from African history through to Asian history, medieval, Roman; I’m interested in why societies rise and why they fall.”
Shorten arrived at Monash University with a ready-made aptitude for student politics and cut his teeth on schemes to try and wrest control of the ALP Club from the left.
After graduating, he spent two years working as a compensation lawyer but saw that the path to power lay elsewhere. He joined the AWU as an organiser and within four years was running its Victorian branch, and ultimately the union nationally. After prevailing in a ruthless battle for preselection in the safe seat of Maribyrnong, he entered Parliament in 2007 – the same year as Morrison.
Shorten moved easily between the union world he’d first come to know through knocking about the docks with his father in childhood, and the bluebloods he had encountered at Xavier.
His first wife, Deborah Beale, was the daughter of wealthy former Liberal MP Julian Beale, and their engagement party in 1999 was famously held at the mansion of cardboard tycoon Dick Pratt.
It was Pratt who lent Shorten a jet to fly down to Tasmania during the Beaconsfield mining disaster of 2006, when news came that two of the miners, Brant Webb and Todd Russell, were alive but trapped underground.
Shorten was the star intermediary between the managers, the families and the media until the men were brought to the surface two weeks later. It was his first taste of national public attention.
But he knew where he was headed. Cesar Melhem, who succeeded him as head of the Victorian AWU, remembered Shorten telling him, even then, that he would be running for prime minister against Malcolm Turnbull in 10 years’ time. It was eerily prophetic.
In 2009, Shorten married a second time – to Chloe, daughter of Australia’s first female governor-general, Quentin Bryce. One Labor source describes her as “a real partner, in a political as well as personal sense”. Going through his toughest times, “she would be there in his Canberra office, as his strength, sitting there to let everyone know she was behind him”.
Shorten muses on what his paternal grandmother Betty – a cleaner and barmaid her who lived her whole life in council housing in Tyneside, in the United Kingdom – would have made of his rise.
She would not “even be able to comprehend” that her grandson was running for the prime ministership, his visiting English cousins told him recently.
Questions remain about how Shorten will deal with the unions if he wins, given they are the “bulwark of his leadership”, as one insider puts it. “Are they going to play up afterwards? Yes. Are they going to go overboard? No. The loss in [the recent] NSW election went down really badly, no one wants to f–k it up federally.”
Shorten asserts that to run “a good Labor government, we will work with the unions, we will work with business, we won’t work for any particular sector”.
Ask him what kind of prime minister he would aim to be, and he name checks a potpourri of past Labor greats.
“A bit of [John] Curtin Australian independence and identity,” he says. “A bit of [Ben] Chiefly big-picture thinking, and building secondary industries; Whitlam’s scope of vision, from women to the arts, to land rights; a bit of Hawke and Keating consensus; Kevin [Rudd] was on the right track on climate change, and a bit of Julia Gillard education. There is stuff I can learn from all of them.”