The people Labor Party leader Bill Shorten admires and why

Bill Shorten says the first lesson he learnt was the value of standing up for his views

As Australia prepares for a general election, the focus is sharpening on the man who has steadied the Labor Party ship.

This article is from the April 2016 issue of INTHEBLACK.

Leading the opposition is known as the toughest job in Australian politics. Bill Shorten stepped into the role after the Labor Party’s leadership turmoil contributed to it losing the 2013 election. 

Two-and-a-half years on, Shorten has not only managed to stay opposition leader, but has kept the party together and brought greater policy focus in an election year.

His political journey has taken a similar route to that of widely respected former prime minister Bob Hawke. Both were union leaders before entering politics, bringing with them an affinity with working Australians and touting a fair go for all.

It was a catastrophic collapse at a mine in the Tasmanian town of Beaconsfield 10 years ago that catapulted Shorten into the public spotlight. Then national head of the Australian Workers’ Union, he travelled to the site to attend what he expected would be three funerals and to ensure the workers weren’t blamed for the disaster that had killed one miner and trapped two others almost one kilometre underground. 

As opposition leader, Bill Shorten has focused on reuniting the Labor PartyShorten explains to former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley FCPA, in an interview for INTHEBLACK and the television program In Conversation with Alex Malley, that he was roundly criticised for his public role at Beaconsfield. Nevertheless, he defends the miners’ rights to have union representation during such an event.

With an immigrant father who worked on the docks and a mother who, as a mature age student, added law to her teaching qualifications (she was studying law at the same time as her sons – Bill and his twin brother Robert), Shorten says he seeks to live and work as he was raised.

Alex Malley: Tell me about the Shorten family home.

Bill Shorten: Well, it was a 1930s or late 1920s Californian bungalow in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. It was like most other people’s suburban house. Dad was a seafarer, a migrant from the north-east of England. He grew up during the Depression and in the Second World War, got himself a fitter and turner apprenticeship, then he went to sea for 20 years. He met mum, he came ashore and worked on Melbourne’s docks.

Mum also came from a pretty modest background. She was the eldest girl of four in an Irish Catholic Australian family. She was the first in our family to ever go to university. She is a very strong and brave person. Mum believed that merit was a legitimate human condition and she would never let the door being slammed in her face as she pursued her educational career ever stop her.

“Mum showed me the power of education and showed me that, whatever your background, you deserve a fair go.”

Malley: Your mum got an award for her law degree in the very same year you were at university.

Shorten: Yes, it was a big deal. The Supreme Court prize is for the best performing law student that year across the universities – mum did win it but what I think made that special was two things. One is she was 50 when she won it. She’d been a teacher and worked in the education faculty and I think all the smart young commercial lawyers and the legal fraternity were a bit surprised that a grey-haired 50-year-old mother of two, with no previous track record in the law, could beat all the students.

But the bigger point is that when she was 16 or 17, she wanted to do law but there was not enough money in the family and she had to take a teacher’s scholarship so that she could pay for the education of her younger sisters and brother. So for mum, it was the fulfilment of a [decades-long] dream.

Malley: That whole frame around education, migration and where women were in those days – has that formed many of your views that now inform policy?

Shorten: Mum taught me that women are the equal of men. She showed me the power of education and she also showed me that, whatever your background, you deserve a fair go. Dad was the same. 

My parents brought me up, in particular my dad, to get on with people. Mum taught me that ... everyone’s got something good in them. But quite often society can be organised in a way where smart people, people with something great in them, don’t get a go because they didn’t go to the right school or they don’t have enough money or they don’t know the right people. My family taught me that everyone is worthy of respect, and if you give people an opportunity, most people – not everyone, but most people – will do something with it.

From lawyer to union official

Malley: After finishing university, you went to [legal firm] Maurice Blackburn for a period of time and at 27 you went as a trainee [union] organiser, which almost sounds like it was a downward step. Was that a conscious thought at the time?

Shorten: It was. I enjoyed the law but I found working as a solicitor … I was dealing with people after they’d got hurt or after they’d been ripped off or after they were in a bad place. I thought as a union organiser, I can help prevent people getting hurt at work. I could prevent people getting not paid their proper entitlements. You can do a lot more good by preventing problems than arriving like an ambulance after the problem and trying to fix it up then.

"For every person who has a job, there’s an employer who’s putting themself on the line to give that person a job."

Malley: You moved on to be state secretary within four years, at 31 years old.

Shorten: The AWU [Australian Workers’ Union] was a moderate union. It was willing to stand up for its members, but it didn’t have a view of the world which said that employers are the enemy, because they’re not. For every person who has a job, there’s an employer who’s putting themself on the line to give that person a job. So I saw how you could create better standards for the employees but not at the expense of having long protracted arguments.

The Beaconsfield mine disaster

Malley: You were national secretary of the AWU for about seven years and during that period Beaconsfield came along and, by any measure, that was an extraordinary impact on your psyche and on your career. What brought you to Beaconsfield?

Shorten: Beaconsfield was both a miracle and a tragedy, and they may sound like they are big words to use, but the idea that two men could survive trapped in a space smaller than the distance between you and me for two weeks, a kilometre underground, it was a miracle that they lived. It was a tragedy, though, that a man died. Families went through hell, and the family of Larry Knight never had their man come home.

My own engagement in that is these guys were members of The Australian Workers’ Union. When I first heard about the mine disaster, I was in Canada looking at industrial relations systems to see what we could learn. My first reaction was to go back home for two reasons: one is I thought there’d be three funerals, and [second] to stop the rest of the workforce from being blamed.

In my experience, in workplace disasters the poo comes down from the top and the people least able to protect themselves from the blame game are those at the bottom. So that was my job. 

The next two weeks was an amazing privilege to see the rescue, to see the fortitude of the families. This was a rescue by ordinary blokes of other ordinary blokes, and all of them were quite amazing.

It was a terrible situation where the rescuers, as soon as they rescued Brant [Webb] and Todd [Russell], were then going to lose their jobs. But, of course, that never made them blink. There was a role for the union … in situations like that, perhaps people who don’t like unions say that there was no role for the union. But I’m relatively confident that if you were to talk to any of the rescuers or the trapped miners or their families, they would say there was a strong argument for workplace representation.

From union official to opposition leader

Malley: What would you say are the one or two most challenging aspects of being opposition leader?

Shorten: It’s not for the faint-hearted. The opposition has an important role in our democracy. You tend to be reported in the media for the negative things you say about the government [rather] than the positive things you may say about your own ideas.

The first lesson I learnt is if you stand up for your views, more often than not, the wheel turns and your views triumph. I think the other thing is, the Labor Party and all political parties need to be united. So a big part of the last two and half years has been undoing some of the disunity which occurred in our period in government previously.

Leadership changes

Malley: When you reflect on the period of Rudd and Gillard and the demonising of leadership challenges, which has now happened on both sides of politics, do you have any regrets? What emotions do you go through in that process and do you ever repair relationships?

Shorten: In terms of the first change [Julia Gillard replacing Kevin Rudd], I feel that we didn’t explain the reasons for going to Julia Gillard strongly enough. In the other change, going back to Kevin Rudd, that was a very difficult decision and, at a human level, it was tougher but I was clearer.

By clear, what I mean is I knew one thing: I had to go and explain what I was doing and why. There is no place to hide. People want to hear what you think and why you are doing something.

The lesson is if you’re going to make a decision, explain why you’re doing it. People might not agree with you but I think they will always at least say you’ve fronted up and explained why you’ve done something. People don’t like being taken for granted. At a very personal level, some relationships never recovered. It is very tough.

Election year

Malley: It’s an election year. What do you see as the real debatable areas that will lead into our next election?

Shorten: Australian jobs, tax, fair taxes, quality healthcare, quality education, fair dinkum action on climate change and equal treatment of women.

Malley: Looking at the future of Australia’s economy and where we lie between the Asian markets, what’s the vision? What would you like to see Australia look like in 2030?

Shorten:
Smart people; it all starts with education. And I know we talk about innovation, which is really important, but you can’t have innovation without education. [We need] a deep and liquid savings market – so, lifting superannuation.

A really good transparent infrastructure system where we’re getting the infrastructure built that we need and we’re doing it in a political generational sense, not just a chasing votes sense.

It then involves engagement with Asia. It then involves making sure we’ve got a good healthcare system. It means real action on climate change. It means the equal treatment of women. Labor really believes that if you’ve got a good dose of equality in our society, you actually have economic efficiency. 

The value of our rocks in the ground will go up and down. What really turbocharges this country is people.

Shorten’s pick of world leaders

I’m a big fan of Angela Merkel. She’s boosted jobs in Germany. Twenty-five years ago, they were given a Herculean task – the reunification of East and West Germany. They took an economic basket case and they’ve not only knitted together politically, they’ve knitted together economically

 I’m very impressed by Barack Obama. America’s lifted itself economically out of the doldrums. Now that’s not all due to him – having cheap energy has been a great driver.[Merkel and Obama] helped revive manufacturing, and manufacturing is really important for small business, engineering, R&D, apprenticeships, creating good jobs.

They don’t just rely on a particular strength. Australia’s been very fortunate with our commodities, but that has tended to make public policy very focused just on mining.

The prime minister of Sweden [Stefan Löfven] is also committed to the reindustrialisation of manufacturing. Sweden has been a powerhouse in manufacturing from Volvo to Saab, even submarines. But it’s been declining. He recognises advanced manufacturing is good for business, for jobs, for your balance of payments, for science.

Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption

The truth is that the Royal Commission has uncovered some examples of corrupt and criminal behaviour, which is completely unacceptable. I’ve spent my whole adult life standing up for people, so I have no time for anyone who abuses the uniform of the labour movement to enrich their own pockets.

I don’t think though [that] this sort of wrongdoing is purely a phenomenon of a few trade unions. It happens in corporate life, too. The real challenge is to ensure there is one rule for all people.

This article is from the April 2016 issue of INTHEBLACK.

Read next: Laurie Oakes reflects on 50 years of Australian political journalism


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