Bill Shorten interview: ‘The old politics has to change’

New ALP leader Bill Shorten has committed to not letting Prime Minister Tony Abbott “off the hook”. AAP/Lukas Coch

Bill Shorten, the Labor party’s right faction’s poster boy, won the party leadership by having a number of left-wing caucus members vote for him. Now he has the task of persuading back to vote for the party those Australians who gave up on it at the last election.

Shorten wants to pitch himself in positive terms, rather than just attacking the ruling Coalition, and explains his idea of Australia as a “nation of the second chance.”

In this unedited interview with The Conversation, Shorten flags his willingness to take a carbon pricing policy into the next election, assesses Tony Abbott – and reveals he is a “devotee” of Roman history.


Michelle Grattan: The Labor party has gone back to caucus selecting the front bench, but no one who stood wasn’t elected. So, in fact, the factions chose the ministry as they always seem to do. Is this really a genuine election?

Bill Shorten: That’s not what happened, Michelle. What we’ve got [on the frontbench] is 29 skilled and talented and committed Labor performers. The process of having caucus be the people who decided means there’s a distinct departure from the last six years.

I’ll allocate the portfolios in consultation with my colleagues, and I’ll certainly nominate parliamentary secretaries, again, in consultation with people.

But what’s really important here is that, under my leadership, the elected members of the federal parliamentary Labor party will have a say. And what you call factions, I describe as the inevitable consequence of people talking to each other.

I’m not an expert on who are the best 30 people in the team, I’d rather trust the judgement of my 85 colleagues and that’s what’s happened.

Michelle Grattan: As leader, are you going to stop playing any role in the right factional group?

Bill Shorten: Yes, I will. During the leadership campaign, I pledged that I would no longer take an active role in factional activities.

Michelle Grattan: Just one other thing on factions: the factions have had very big grip on pre-selections and you – in Victoria – have been a major player. Would Labor get a better spread of candidates if the factions stepped back from that role?

Bill Shorten and leadership team colleagues Penny Wong, Tanya Plibersek and Stephen Conroy. AAP/Lukas Coch

Bill Shorten: I believe that this leadership ballot, which I participated in for me to get elected, showed cross-factional support for me. There were significant numbers of MPs who were more to the left and a significant number of moderate MPs [who] all supported me.

What I want to see under my leadership is – whether or not you are a Rudd person or a Gillard person, whether or not you’re an Albo person or a Bill person, whether or not you’re left or right, is secondary to – are you a Labor person?

So, I believe that’s the approach we need to take in pre-selections, that the best candidates should emerge, and someone’s background should be of secondary importance in terms of internal ALP processes.

Michelle Grattan: But on the actual pre-selection on the ground, do you think…

Bill Shorten: Most people in the Labor Party don’t belong to a faction. I believe what’s important is to have more people in the Labor party participating, to have more ranges of candidates and also to have more people participating in selecting more diverse candidates.

The old politics has to change.

Michelle Grattan: You’ve said repeatedly that Labor will oppose the repeal of the carbon tax, but it’s likely to be repealed courtesy of the new Senate - do you think Labor should persist with carbon pricing as a core part of its policy to the next election?

Bill Shorten: How do you change carbon pollution without putting a price on it? It’s not going to happen unless you put a price on carbon pollution. We indicated in the lead-up to the last election that we were supportive of moving to an international price earlier, which was sensible, I think, in the circumstances.

But the idea that you don’t put a price on pollution, to me, it just doesn’t work. You’re not going to deal with climate change unless you do.

Michelle Grattan: And you think you can sell it?

Bill Shorten: Well, I think that the proposition is, what good is this country if all we do is put off problems for the next generation to handle? That’s not having a good future for Australia or Australians, delaying dealing with problems.

Michelle Grattan: You’ve talked about a positive agenda, what are your priorities? Health? Education?

Bill Shorten: My priorities during the [leadership] campaign is for Labor to reinforce a vision for Australia writ large. We recognise, for instance, that to write Australia large, [we’ve] got to be pro-immigration. We’ve got to be pro our regions; Australia is more than just three cities on the east coast.

We need to be the party of science, research, and higher education. We need to be a brave party that stands up for people who don’t have a voice in our community. I’ve raised the need for national leadership to tackle the problems of domestic violence.

As a nation, we can’t afford to waste the potential of people in our community - that’s why talking about how we develop a better go for people on the disability pension is fundamental.

We need to be a party that promotes the onward march of women throughout the institutions of power, and an outwardly-focused society which understands that small business is fundamental to the economy and [that] it’s fundamental to community-building in every suburb and town in Australia.

These are the issues upon which Labor can provide a positive vision for Australia’s future.

Tanya Plibersek was the long-time favourite to be Shorten’s deputy. AAP/Lukas Coch

Michelle Grattan: Let me just take up one of those - immigration. You’re not afraid to call yourself a “big Australia” person?

Bill Shorten: No, I’m pro-immigration, absolutely. Other than Aboriginals or Torres Straight Islanders, we are all boat- or plane-people. But I’m also not afraid to try and stamp out people smuggling and human trafficking.

Australia is the nation of the second chance. From our convict forebears to waves of immigration since, and we need to be a nation that understands our success is that we’ve always provided a second chance to people – both Australians by birth and Australians by choice.

Michelle Grattan: But, of course, you’d remember in the 2010 election, we saw a retreat from that sort of talk.

Bill Shorten: I’m not going to disparage previous election campaigns, what I will say, though, is that I believe in the value of immigration to the development of Australian society and our success in the future.

Michelle Grattan: So could we take another 50,000 people a year?

Bill Shorten: I’m not going to get caught up in numbers, I’m making it very clear though that if you’re probably not going to, our policies are interested in how we have a tolerant diverse society. And, by the way, when you say you’re pro immigration, you can still be pro the values in Australia of equity, fairness, individual initiative.

Michelle Grattan: Just on science and research, what are your particular interests in these areas?

Bill Shorten: The greatest resource we have in Australia is not the minerals beneath the ground, it is in the minds and capacities of Australians. We need to get behind our scientific and research community.

We need to encourage careers in science, we need to make sure kids aren’t dropping out of maths and science in junior secondary school, right through to working with our PhD students to make sure they can go the distance, and then have the opportunities to apply the quality of their research in practical endeavours.

Today – and I’ve been the leader for a day – the way I work, I’m not going to outline all policies, what I will do, though, is work with my parliamentary team and people in the broader community. But people in the science, innovation and education community can be confident that with me as Labor leader, their issues are going to get debated in the national parliament and in the national political arena.

Michelle Grattan: The disability scheme is an example of where, despite everything, bipartisan support was reached for the common good, and this, of course, was a scheme in which you had a fundamental role right at the start. Do you think we should see more reaching across the political divide on big ideas? If so, where?

Bill Shorten: What I believe is that the role of Labor is to be a good conscientious opposition, which is to hold the government to account for their promises and for their actions. But it isn’t enough, I believe, for Labor to be simply negative about the Coalition. We need to have a positive agenda on which we judge the actions of the government.

How is what we are doing in politics and in public life assisting to develop the future lives of Australians, developing our nation, making sure Australians can have long lives full of quality and meaning? That’s the approach I believe we can take successfully.

In terms of developing policies, we have three years to do that, and that work starts now.

Michelle Grattan: Your roots are very strong in the trade union movement, but you have also had reasonable business contacts. How do you aim to restore business confidence in the Australian Labor Party?

Bill Shorten: Well, Labor needs to reach out to business, we need to make it clear that we’re pro small business, that we are pro the role of the creation of national wealth. That, in the Australian model, which is a Labour model – which is not just about a social wage and a proper safety net – is also about the creation of opportunity from small business start-ups to supporting Australian business to compete with the best in the world. That’s why the NBN [National Broadband Network] is so important, it’s an enabler.

But it is a priority for me to improve our links, not just with business generally, but with small businesses, [and] with businesses in regional Australia too.

Former leadership rival Anthony Albanese has congratulated Shorten on his victory. AAP/Lukas Coch

Michelle Grattan: Governments usually seem to get a second go. Do you accept you can’t get back in three years, or do you think you can break the mould there?

Bill Shorten: I believe I, and the Labor team, can make Labor competitive. The challenge for Labor isn’t what the Coalition thinks of us, we know what they think of us. The challenge for us is to convince Australians that our ideas, the application of Labor values, is the best chance on which Australians can aspire to lives of quality and meaning in the future.

Michelle Grattan: But you do also concede that it could be a Gough Whitlam-like two-stage process?

Bill Shorten: I don’t think anyone is automatically guaranteed power. There’s not an inch of complacency in me, I don’t believe that, in some point in the future, it will simply be Labor’s turn.

What we have to do is demonstrate and satisfy Australians that our ideas are relevant to their futures.

Michelle Grattan: How will you plan to pace yourself in the coming three years? Will you load the policy development stage into the later part or spread it through the three years?

Bill Shorten: I’ll pace myself by not having all the answers today.

Michelle Grattan: Tony Abbott, in a speech to carers today, paid you some tribute in talking about the disability insurance scheme. Just putting aside the temptation to attack for a moment, what do you think of Tony Abbott as a politician and a person and an opponent?

Bill Shorten: I think he is a highly-educated, highly-determined person who has been strong in his advocacy for the Liberal cause. I don’t underestimate him at all. I believe that he has been able to connect with Australians and certainly Australians decided to give him a go beyond Labor.

And I think he was a successful opposition politician and he has the great privilege and gift that is to be prime minister of Australia.

But for me, it’s not just about the personalities, it’s got to be about who has the most relevant vision for the future of Australia for all Australians.

I know one thing – I hope as opposition leader that what I say in opposition will be what I do in government and I think that the Coalition has confected a budget emergency, and they are finding that’s not what they want to do in government, or they say they don’t. Saying they would simply stop the boats and now they’re not talking about even when the boats arrive.

I want to make sure that we don’t let him off the hook. He made some big promises in opposition and I’d expect him to honour them in government, or at least endeavour to honour them.

Michelle Grattan: So you think the carry-through of promises to performance is really important for a party and a leader?

Bill Shorten: Yes.

Michelle Grattan: I saw somewhere you were making the point that your parents had made big sacrifices to send you to Xavier College in Melbourne. Now for the first time we have two leaders educated by the Jesuits facing off. Does a Jesuit education give you any special skills for politics?

Shorten’s wife Chloe Bryce supported him during his successful leadership tilt. AAP/Lukas Coch

Bill Shorten: No, I think that what I’ve been able to add to the lives of people I’ve represented is due to a range of factors, including my schooling. But who we are as adults is made up in part by school, it’s made up in part by your parents, in part by your working experiences.

So I’m grateful for the effort my parents made for my education and that has no doubt had an influence on me, but I think I owe even more to my mother, and to the efforts that she and my family have made.

My mistakes are all my own, though. Any successes… and indeed now it’s my family who support me. None of us are an island and all of what we accomplish is done through the efforts of others and ourselves.

Michelle Grattan: Clearly in the globalised world, it is important to tune in to what is happening overseas, how much are you going to be looking to what’s happening in terms of social democratic movements overseas?

Bill Shorten: I’ve been travelling ever since I left school, not only to see family in Britain, but the rest of the world I find intensely interesting, so I’ve backpacked, hitchhiked and I’ve had the chance to represent Australia in global forums more recently. There are a lot of lessons everywhere else in the world, there is a distinctly Australian model in the world, of economy, of community, of society, blending fairness with prosperity.

There is a quote of Reg Ansett, said in the late 1960s, I think, and I want to paraphrase it correctly. When he bought a whole set of 727s he said, this is the best technology in the world, so it is only just good enough for Australia, or my airline.

I’m interested in the best ideas in the world because we always need to be comparing ourselves to the best in the world, but then we’ll see if they’re appropriate for Australia and good enough for us.

Michelle Grattan: Even politicians need their off time, what are your extra-curricular interests?

Bill Shorten: I run, my most important interest though is my family. I’m hoping, between now and when parliament resumes, to have a few days with my family. My work is my passion, my family, my children, I do like to run and I like to watch movies, I like to read books.

Michelle Grattan: What are some of the recent movies and books you’ve enjoyed?

Bill Shorten: I’m a devotee of Roman history, history is a genre of books I enjoy reading. It’s not always the absolute predictor of the future, but it certainly has some relevance.

Michelle Grattan: How did you come to Roman history?

Bill Shorten: I like all sorts of history, I like history.

Michelle Grattan: What about films, have you seen any that you’ve liked recently?

Bill Shorten: Oh my lord, I’d have to say, for the last three months, it has been pretty intense, I’ll have to take that on notice, until I remember what I’ve seen – on aeroplanes, as I haven’t been to a cinema in the last three months.

Michelle Grattan: Do you run everyday? Are you a Tony Abbott of the running track as opposed to the cycling track?

Bill Shorten: No, I would like to run more than I do. It’s a way of clearing my head, although I’m sometimes surprised when you’re running and people will still want to ask you questions. Anyway, that shows you how slow I run, that people think they can ask me questions.

Listen to Jim Chalmers on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.

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