The rockfall was Anzac Day, 2006. May 9 is the day when, astoundingly, Webb and Russell were finally rescued.
It was the biggest news story in Australia, and one of the biggest in the world.
Bill Shorten would be swept up in it, too, giving many Australians their first view of the man who 13 years later is on the cusp of becoming Australia’s 31st prime minister.
Shorten was in another hemisphere, on a union delegation trip to study industrial relations in Canada, when news of the mining disaster hurtled across the world.
As he alighted from a small plane in Ottawa, he took a phone call. It was from Paul Howes, then the AWU’s national vice-president.
“There’s been a catastrophe at the Beaconsfield mine,” Howes said. “Three men missing.” Three AWU members, in fact.
Shorten got himself on a plane to Chicago, another to Los Angeles and a connection home to Melbourne.
Just after midday, April 28, he strode to the park across the road from Beaconsfield’s mine and took charge of what was a highly emotional environment.
Todd Russell’s father had just completed the only media conference anyone in his family would give during the drama, his hands shaking as he read from a statement for the cameras.
A photographer chased the upset father and another son to their car, despite an agreement they would be left alone. Hard words echoed across the little town. Emotions threatened to get out of hand.
Shorten’s arrival calmed things almost instantly. The media, deprived of information on what was happening deep beneath the earth, were desperate for any angle, and Shorten filled the bill.
He had recently been preselected for the federal seat of Maribyrnong, in Melbourne’s inner west – a brutal Labor affair that had employed well-known ethnic branch stackers to “persuade” the sitting member, Bob Sercombe, a junior member of Kim Beazley’s opposition frontbench, to withdraw.
Critics from afar took short time to accuse Shorten of using the disaster at Beaconsfield to gain a national profile to fire his political trajectory.
The imputation gained momentum as it began to look as if no one would be rescued alive at Beaconsfield. The nation’s newspapers and TV and radio stations, trying to fill empty air, began speculating that Shorten had the qualities to become a future prime minister.
In Labor politics, there is little more danger to a career than the suspicion that a newcomer is getting above themselves. And everyone who knew Shorten was aware he had ambitions to leadership.
Only months before, my colleague at The Bulletin magazine of the time, the author Paul Daley, had written a three-page profile of Shorten – almost certainly the first large word portrait of the man.
It was entitled “Get Shorty”, but the kicker lines were more pointed. And prescient.
“The name’s Bill. Bill Shorten,” it began. “Remember it well. He’s a union supremo at the moment. He’s pals with both foxes and hounds. He’s the face of 21st century Labor. Heading for The Lodge? You better believe it.”
The piece had both excited Labor supporters and set teeth on edge, particularly among Labor figures who had their own ambitions. Some of them felt threatened by the idea of a 37-year-old right wing smart guy from Melbourne beating them to the prize. Why, some commentators were talking about Shorten, the leader of the biggest union in Australia, as the new Bob Hawke.
I’ve told Bill that when if gets to The Lodge, we’ll bring up the camper and toss an electric lead in through the window and stay for a while
The sly comments about Shorten using a mining tragedy for selfish political purposes was a wounding accusation that set the tone for years of doubts about Shorten’s character and his authenticity.
Shorten himself insists it was simply the thing AWU officials did when union members were enveloped by disaster. They rushed to the site, just as they did when an explosion killed two men at Esso’s Longford plant in Gipplsand in 1998, or when an explosion and fire occurred on New Years Day, 2004. Still, self-exculpation rarely washes in politics.
Brant Webb is blunter, and he ought to know.
“People who reckon Bill was there for the glory are bullshitting themselves. He did heaps of things that nobody knew about,” he says. “Bill was really compassionate to my wife Rachel when I was trapped.
“He was always around, worried about how she was getting on, trying to keep her going. He really felt for her. I think he saw how it would be if it was his wife.
“And you know he stayed at the Riviera Hotel down at Beauty Point where my dad was staying, and he was always there for him.
“When we got out [of the mine], he stayed around for days, just to make sure we were getting along. He could have shot through, like everyone else, but he stayed.”
These years later, Webb and his wife remain close with Shorten and enjoy time with both him and his wife Chloe.
Webb, who finds it hard to get steady work these days, says Shorten listens to him when he gets into a rant about the challenges facing working Australians and those facing financial hardship.
Shorten cops it to his face. Each time the Webbs travel to Melbourne, they stay with the Shortens in their Moonee Ponds home.
And on Anzac Day and May 9, Brant Webb gets a call from Bill Shorten.
The previously unreported friendship between a former hard rock miner and the new prime minister says something about Shorten’s ability to form relationships across social and political divides.
It was on show, indeed, during the Beaconsfield episode. At the end of the first week, with nothing to report, Shorten returned to Melbourne. The next evening, Webb and Russell were discovered to be alive.
Shorten rang a friend to beg the use of his private jet so he could hurtle back to the Tasmanian town. The friend was the “cardboard billionaire” Dick Pratt, then among the richest people in Australia, who would die in 2009.
That the AWU man had such a friend was no surprise to those around Melbourne who had known Shorten for a while, and who had come to accept his unorthodox networking.
He was best man to John Roskam, a fellow with the extremely conservative Institute of Public Affairs, who was a classmate at Xavier College. Shorten’s first wife, Deb, was the daughter of former Liberal MP and multi-millionaire Julian Beale, who became a confidant. Shorten made these relationships work while also knocking around with the hard men of the labour movement. His own great-uncle and mentor Bert Nolan, was a former official in the militant Seamen’s Union, and he took advice from former prime minister Bob Hawke and former ACT chief Bill Kelty. Years later, Liberal PM and multi-millionaire Malcolm Turnbull tried to upset Shorten by accusing him of hypocrisy for mixing with the wealthy and “selling out his union members”.
“There was never a union leader in Melbourne that tucked his knees under more billionaire’s tables than the Leader of the Opposition,” Turnbull said. It was true, but it hadn’t really mattered for years: Shorten flaunted his connections.
But what of the charge of cynically using Beaconsfield to launch a political career?
In fact, for those of us who were in Beaconsfield during the long days when Webb and Russell were all but presumed dead, and the week when the nation held its breath, knowing they could perish any moment, Shorten’s role at Beaconsfield proved critical.
He took over regular briefings for the media, freeing up the harried mine manager, Matthew Gill, for the urgent work of overseeing the rescue.
Reporters found they could rely on Shorten’s information – he got it direct from the miners working on the rescue a kilometre below. Suspicious of outsiders and the gathering multitudes of reporters and camera crews, the miners would speak only among themselves… and to Shorten. He was their union chief, and he wore a union bomber jacket.
On May 9, 2006, Brant Webb and Todd Russell emerged into the light, blinking and punching the air.
And now, Bill Shorten, having survived 13 years of conjecture about his motives for all sorts of behaviour, not least of which was his part in the removal of two prime ministers, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, is poised to finally emerge into the light, too.
“Yeah, what you’ve got to do is be patient and try not to panic,” Brant Webb told me years ago when I asked how he had lived trapped through those endless hours from Anzac Day to May 9.
And what of the friendship between the Webbs and the Shortens?
“I’ve told Bill that when if gets to The Lodge, we’ll bring up the camper and toss an electric lead in through the window and stay for a while,” Webb chortles.
You wouldn’t put it past him.
Tony Wright is the author of Bad Ground: Inside the Beaconsfield Mine Rescue (Pier 9).
Tony Wright is the associate editor and special writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.