David Marr
Faction Man: Bill Shorten’s Path to Power

When pollsters ask us who we would like to lead the government and the Opposition, we answer Malcolm Turnbull and someone else. That’s a grim verdict, but Shorten has Abbott on his side.

Not anymore, he doesn’t. The events of September 14 mean David Marr’s latest Quarterly Essay, a profile presenting a mediocre opposition leader who nevertheless stood fair to become Australia’s next prime minister, looks rather different in the light of Turnbull’s ascendance. Yet, if some of Marr’s key assumptions and conclusions come unstuck with Abbott gone, his portrait of Labor’s best hope still offers insight into Shorten’s backstory and character; his prospects of success, less so.

“All the way to polling day,” writes Marr, “Australians will be invited to rake over every detail of his short life and hidden career.” Shorten’s career as a union boss is surely less hidden than it was before he gave evidence in July this year at the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. 

Despite Shorten’s practised evasiveness, counsel for the commission were able to draw suggestions of conflict of interest, if none of outright corruption. Marr writes:

He knew the danger he was in: people don’t follow the details. They just get the flavour. Whether the commission found anything against him hardly matters. The vibe was there: this man’s past is shady. He can’t be trusted.

Marr does follow the details, right back to Shorten’s blooding in university politics at Monash in the mid-1980s. He quickly became a star of the Labor Right. Where the Left had long been dominant in student politics, which fed into the Labor Party proper, Shorten found his gift as a recruiter to the moderate side. He was charismatic, a motivator, able to sweep up “the unaligned and the waverers”. A numbers man par excellence, he thrived on factional battles, backroom deals. “He is the master of a small room,” writes Marr, present tense.

The elaboration of Shorten’s Labor credentials – student politics, a stint at Maurice Blackburn, working up through the union movement, then the short step to a stitched-up seat in parliament – sounds familiar and none too edifying. Marr goes into bilious detail of the deal-making at the Australian Workers Union on Shorten’s watch, in which workers’ entitlements were routinely traded off against political favours and personal aggrandisement, and union membership was inflated by dodgy (if legal) means.

As AWU national secretary in 2006, Shorten became the public face of the rescue effort following the Beaconsfield mine disaster. When two miners emerged after a fortnight trapped underground, a brief tabloid flurry hailed “Bill for PM”. Was this the new Bob Hawke, the next populist leader to emerge from the union movement? Having played a key role in factional bastardry within Victorian Labor during the early 2000s, Shorten was lined up for Maribyrnong, one of the safest Labor seats in the country, in the 2007 federal election. But once in Canberra, rather than being catapulted into the Rudd cabinet, Shorten found himself sidelined.

Before he became opposition leader, Shorten was best known as the “faceless man” who, through his remorseless skill at getting the numbers, brought down two prime ministers: first Rudd, then Gillard. That side-switching, says Marr, is largely to blame for voters being as disinclined to trust Shorten as they were to trust Abbott, and for their preferring “someone else” as Labor leader.

Unlike his 2012 Quarterly Essay profile of Tony Abbott as opposition leader (“Political Animal”), Marr fails to find sure ground with Shorten. The Labor leader seems to be more of an unknown quantity to Marr. Perhaps it’s his hailing from Melbourne, or his legendary opaqueness. What’s certain is that Marr finds him a disappointment as a subject.

Marr’s operatic sense of character doesn’t lend itself to Shorten’s rather cement-coloured biography. There’s a sense, too, that Marr found less dirt on Shorten than he would have liked. Perhaps that’s why he felt compelled to quote a second-hand remark, attributed to Shorten, concerning the break-up of his first, childless marriage. The remark (made, allegedly, to a friend) reflects no real disgrace on Shorten; but repeating it in print must be hurtful to his ex-wife. Though perhaps such considerations are small fry when the prime ministership is at stake. 

Of the young Shorten, his Xavier College headmaster recollects only that, “He did nothing of moment at the school. But he was a fine debater and a capable student.” “Faction Man” leaves the reader with an impression of a bland and stolid opposition leader. Marr questions whether Shorten can “rise above the machine politics that brought him to the top”. It’s one thing to have been an exemplary deal-maker, “But does Bill Shorten scale up?” And does he have what it takes to win power in an open contest?

“My job,” says Shorten, “is to convince Australians I have a plan for the future” – a plan that Marr parses as “power for Labor and Bill Shorten, and decent administration for Australia”. For all his misgivings about Abbott, Marr gives him credit for boldness and the fire of his convictions. But the project seems to wilt with the effort of raising a spark from this man of the middle ground. Sounding not unlike Shorten’s headmaster, he writes:

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. 

No, he adds, “What’s counted against him is that he stands for nothing brave.”  FL

Quarterly Essay, 156pp, $22.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2015 as "David Marr, Faction Man: Bill Shorten’s Path to Power".

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Reviewer: FL