Bill Shorten receives the Quarterly Essay treatment
Alternative prime minister Bill Shorten emerges from an in-depth profile as a man with the job ahead of him, writes Troy Bramston
Faction Man: Bill Shorten’s Path to Power By David Marr Quarterly Essay 59 Black Inc, 128pp, $22.99
At the end of David Marr’s 100-page essay on Bill Shorten, it is clear the author is underwhelmed. He set out to try to understand who the Labor leader really is. He settles on the well-worn trope of an ambitious faction man, shrewd deal-maker and talented networker who desperately wants to be loved and is yet to define his leadership with bold action.
Marr, who has written revealing and damaging Quarterly Essays on Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd, comes up short on news this time. He relies on previous newspaper and magazine profiles, sources school and university publications, uses evidence presented to the trade union royal commission, and talks to some of those who know Shorten well. But he does not tell us anything significant we didn’t already know.
Even an interview with his subject does not yield anything noteworthy. Is this the fault of the writer for failing to probe his subject with an eye to discovering something fresh? Or is it the fault of Shorten for failing to take the opportunity to enlighten his profiler with the story of who he is? It is unclear.
Marr is one of Australia’s best long-form writers. His finest journalism has been published in The Bulletin, The National Times and The Sydney Morning Herald. He is a terrific biographer, most notably of Patrick White (1991) and Garfield Barwick (1980). And he is an inveterate critic of the conservative establishment, the Coalition and News Corporation, publisher of The Australian.
In this, his fifth Quarterly Essay, Marr produces an interesting dissertation on the man who wants to be Australia’s next prime minister. He sifts through the thicket of claim and counterclaim to tell the story of Shorten’s life from schoolboy to university student, lawyer, union secretary and minister, and his two years as Opposition Leader.
He carefully probes Shorten’s private life: the strained relationship with his father, Bill Shorten Sr; the loving and influential relationship with his mother, Ann McGrath; the previous marriage to Deborah Beale; the marriage to Chloe Bryce; unedifying rumours of marital infidelity; and the allegations of rape that threatened his career. Some of this makes for uncomfortable reading.
The essay is topped and tailed with a cursory mention of new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, hastily added after the historic leadership challenge. If time had permitted, the piece would have benefited from a more detailed analysis of what Turnbull’s political ascendancy means for Shorten’s leadership.
It is true, as Marr tells us, that Labor was heading for a likely election victory until last week. This is what the polls told us. It is why Abbott was ruthlessly cut down by his colleagues. Shorten was certain he could defeat Abbott at the next election. Abbott was Shorten’s political gift. Now he is gone. Some of Shorten’s colleagues fear Abbott’s woes made the Labor leader complacent.
Now the political landscape has been trans-
Bill Shorten with
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull;
and, right, addressing the media during the Beaconsfield mine
disaster in 2006