Faction Man

Faction Man

Bill Shorten's Path to Power

David Marr



The old Female Orphan School on the campus of the University of Western Sydney is a shrine to Gough and Margaret Whitlam. There’s a gallery upstairs named after her and the shop stocks “It’s Time” t-shirts. Gathered downstairs in a room that may once have been a dormitory for desperate children are forty university students come to listen to the leader of the Opposition. “What I’m interested in doing is engaging,” he tells them. “By engaging, I mean listening. I want to hear your point of view.” There are television cameras in the room and a posse of journalists. Breaking all round him that week is news of the deals he had done with Cleanevent and Winslow Constructions all those years ago at the AWU. This would be addressed in a news conference in the courtyard afterwards. With the students he’s talking university fees, computer coding, the republic and the damage done to him by so many years of plane travel: “Doctors say I have flight attendant ears.”

It’s a curious performance: chatty and partisan. He’s beating up on the Abbott government and laying on the charm. It’s odd to watch the man who would be prime minister trying so hard to be their pal. He takes questions three or four at a time. It’s a new technique to let politicians riff freely across half a dozen topics without answering anything in particular. He’s not entirely evasive. He’s blunt about refugees. Once or twice he earns points by admitting he hasn’t an answer: “That’s a work in progress.” It’s hard to gauge the students’ mood but they seem pleased to be in Shorten’s presence – not remotely awed, but pleased. He is easier to read. He stands before them with his hands in his pockets and a look on his face that says: love me.

So much has been written about this man since he became chief of the AWU fifteen years ago. That’s when the newspaper profiles began. There is, for such a brief career, a hefty pile of them. Every profile addresses Shorten’s profound self-belief. Every interview about his childhood and university years turns up fresh evidence of his precocious determination to be prime minster. His confidence in himself only grew with time. It irks his colleagues. “He’s a capable guy,” John Button once remarked on ABC Radio. “In fact, he’s mentioned that to me himself several times.” His will to power makes sense of his career. As a former Gillard minister told me: “He wants to be PM because he wants to be PM. Everything is about him becoming PM.” That takes more than self-belief. Shorten is a serious candidate because he is also willing to lead the life it takes to reach the top: a life hostage at every point to public scrutiny, luck and the intrigue of his colleagues.

But there’s a subplot here: his hunger for public affection. Margaret Simons spotted it early in a fine profile written a decade ago as Shorten was manoeuvring to win Maribyrnong:

Bill Shorten likes to be liked, and he is good at it too. He is handsome, smart, boyishly charming and a reflex flatterer. He is almost a flirt. His weakness, say those who know him, is that he needs to bask in the glow of others’ love and admiration. He needs to be loved. 

Most politicians do. It’s magazine Freud: turning to the public to fill the void. Shorten works at love. He is good with people. He has to an astonishing degree a politician’s knack for remembering names and the stories of strangers’ lives. He connects. His best work is done face to face. Men and women senior in the party talk of him making contact years ago when they were no more than budding talents. He began bringing them in even then, building his base, recruiting. But in the rough and tumble of the party, his pursuit of affection can seem a little desperate. “It really drives him nuts when someone doesn’t like him,” a leading adversary in the faction wars told me. “He has to be loved. Even when he fucks you over he wants you to like him – he rings and tries to make up.”

Shorten doesn’t thrive on hostility. It’s hard to imagine him staring down the unions as Hawke did to open the Australian economy to the world. It’s hard to see him trying to persuade Australia to change its mind on any great issue. He works with what’s there. By temperament and political disposition he is a numbers man. Shorten isn’t built to stand up to panic in the name of principle. A fundamental political lesson of his career was the great wedge of 2001, when Howard took Australia with him by stopping the Tampa. Beazley had briefly allowed himself to be wedged. Shorten is determined to avoid that fate. It isn’t true he stands for nothing. There’s a list of decent, Labor policies he’s always backed: jobs, prosperity, education and health. What’s counted against him is that he stands for nothing brave.

A student asks: what will Labor do about plans to strip Australians of their citizenship? Shorten won’t pledge to block them. He promises merely to be “consistent and constructive.” He boasts of Labor’s fine-tuning of Abbott’s many security laws: “We have made plenty of changes and the government has accepted them.” He’s asked about refugees and his answer includes the detail that “Richard Pratt was a four-year-old refugee who fled Poland.” Would they have a clue who that was? Could they work out where Shorten stands in all this? He’s so fuzzy. With great charm he thanks them for their “outstanding questions and a couple of policy suggestions” and departs with the cameras, the press and the acting vice-chancellor in tow.


This is an extract from David Marr's Quarterly Essay, Faction Man: Bill Shorten's Path to Power. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.


David Marr is the author of Patrick White: A Life, Panic, The High Price of Heaven and Dark Victory (with Marian Wilkinson). He has written for the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, the Saturday Paper, the Guardian and the Monthly, and been editor of the National Times, a reporter for Four Corners and presenter of ABC TV’s Media Watch. He is the author of five bestselling Quarterly Essays.


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