Menu Close

Grattan on Friday: In Conversation with Bill Shorten

Opposition leader Bill Shorten has found himself in a better than expected electoral position a year into his leadership. AAP/Lukas Coch

Bill Shorten will have been a year in his job next month. After its trouncing at the election, Labor is in a much better position than many would have expected, leading on a two party basis in the polls. It has been helped by the government’s mistakes, but the national security issue is likely to play to the Coalition’s political advantage.

In an interview with The Conversation, Shorten talked about his style, those he turns to for advice - who include “mentor” Bill Kelty and former PM Paul Keating - and Labor’s history wars, raging with the release of Julia Gillard’s book.

As Gillard and Rudd continue the blame game, Shorten, a key player in both the 2010 and 2013 leadership changes, admits the 2010 one was “far too quick in hindsight”, but “my focus is on the future – it is not my aim to be the museum curator”.

Asked where a centre left party positions itself these days, Shorten says it is as “pro-growth with a strong safety net”. “It is reaching for higher ground. It is utilising all the talents. It is uniting the country, not dividing it.”

He says he makes a point of speaking to business leaders “every week” and describes his relations with business as “very good”. On the other side of the industrial fence, unions are “an important part of who the Labor party are” but the party must speak for people from all walks of life.

Shorten really fires up on climate change, declaring it a “massive issue”. With the ALP committed to the challenge of campaigning on an emissions trading scheme in 2016, he says “this government is so right wing on climate change it just defies belief”.

On the dispatch of forces to the Middle East, the opposition leader makes no apology for sticking close to Tony Abbott. “I take the government at their word. They’re conscious of not engaging in mission creep. We’ve set out our principles. The government hasn’t misled me thus far and I’ve got no reason to think they will.”

His approach for the 2016 election will be that “we won’t over-promise and break promises like Tony Abbott. Nor will we under-promise and be a totally small target”.

He says he’d bring to the nation’s top job the aim of getting “the smartest people into the room. I think I’m good at harvesting what people think and distilling it”. Describing himself as “a very compassionate person” he would like to be “prime minister for the powerless”.

The interview was on Wednesday evening, in Shorten’s Parliament House office, with the news dominated by the introduction of tough anti-terrorism legislation and Tuesday’s horrific incident in Melbourne that left a young terror suspect dead and two policemen injured.

Michelle Grattan: How difficult has it been to transition from senior minister to this job?

Bill Shorten: It’s a big privilege doing the job. It’s a different job to being a senior minister. My challenge in the first twelve months has been to unify the party, to help start the process of building policies for the next election and to hold to the government to account. It’s distinctly different, there’s not people waiting for you to make the decision which will allocate resources, it’s not the same work as a minister, it is quite different.

MG: Harder?

BS: Yeah, it’s harder than being a minister, leading the opposition.

MG: Because?

Shorten with deputy Tanya Plibersek. AAP/Lukas Coch

BS: Different tasks are involved. Labor lost the last election quite decisively, so the rebuilding work is a different challenge. Unifying the party, attracting more people to the Labor party, holding the government to account, starting to build our policies for the next election, making sure we have good candidates, making sure that we have a positive narrative as well as holding them to account.

The other thing is, their budget was so ridiculously unfair and so divisive that frankly I was taken by surprise by their willingness to break promises. There seems to be only a few promises they’re interested in keeping and everything else is an optional extra.

MG: Just standing back, what’s been the toughest aspect of year one for you?

BS: I’ll leave that for other people to decide.

For me it’s been trying to hold this government not to commit the mistakes it’s making with the Australian people. The toughest thing is how unfair their vision of Australia is.

MG: I would have thought that was, in a way, the easiest aspect [for you]?

BS: The toughest aspect of it is they can’t win. We can’t let them win on wrecking Medicare. We can’t let them win on treating the unemployed the way they are or trashing higher education. So that is the biggest, toughest challenge we’ve got because they have the numbers in the House of Representatives.

MG: But those were ammunition for you.

BS: I’d rather the government wasn’t doing it. I don’t want people being used in this way, it is dreadful.

MG: In terms of how you do the job, how do you manage the enormous demands that the job places on you. Tony Abbott for example is very fit and this sort of job is quite physically exhausting isn’t it?

BS: It is. My family are supportive, that’s crucial. I’ve got to reserve some space for being present for my family when I’m home, they keep it real. I’ve got excellent staff. My colleagues have been very supportive and very encouraging. So that’s how you manage and I do like to exercise most days when I get the opportunity.

MG: What do you do?

BS: I run – slowly.

MG: What distance?

BS: Seven or eight kilometres.

MG: A day?

BS: Yeah, four or five days a week. Not very fast though.

The Shorten family’s bulldogs, Matilda and Theodore. Supplied

The other thing I should tell you just on that is that I’ve got not one but two British Bulldogs now, so I walk them for an hour – well, they don’t walk for an hour actually.

MG: How much time would you spend on the road?

BS: Travel has been extensive and is very demanding. Over a year it’d be 120 nights away.

And then there’s plenty of day trips as well, where you leave early and come home late. So, I’d be on the road three days a week.

MG: Do you think the travel, the constant campaigning is excessive these days?

BS: I’ve never been the leader of the opposition before, I have nothing to compare it to. I like people, so I like campaigning. I like travelling the length and breadth of Australia.

Also, there’s a lot of people who want a strong Labor Party and that’s quite galvanising and energising. I’m also impressed our MPs are working pretty hard, so you get to see what people do.

MG: Can you outline where you get your advice? How much do you rely on your personal office, do you have a circle outside to whom you go and how difficult is it to get fresh ideas?

BS: I get advice from my office, I get advice from my shadow ministry, I think I have a consultative style. Any of the major speeches I’ve given, from higher education, to indigenous affairs, to climate change, to national security, my colleagues are smart so I get advice from them.

I’ve always believed in trying to find three or four experts in any given area who are the smartest in the country and talk to them as well. So I try and reach beyond the parliament for advice and counsel. I’ve got advisors from the business world. I talk a lot to [former ACTU secretary] Bill Kelty, who is a mentor of mine. Again, my wife gives me good advice.

So I’ve always reached out to people across the political spectrum and across the spectrum of the community. I’m always interested in who does it best in the world on an idea and what people have got a view on what the future looks like. I’m also interested in how you get consensus.

MG: Bob Hawke used to laud John Curtin and now politicians on both sides have accolades for Hawke. Who’s the leader you most admire and is there anyone that you use as a role model for this job?

Former prime minister Paul Keating offers advice to Shorten. AAP/Daniel Munoz

BS: It’s a combination of people. I listen a lot to, as I said, Bill Kelty. Paul Keating’s been very helpful and very generous with his advice. I’ve had the chance to talk to Kim Beazley when I’ve been in Washington - he’s always very professional but he has good insights.

Reaching back, everyone from Whitlam to Curtin to Chifley have got lessons for us. I’m heavily influenced also by Martin Luther King. When in doubt, most of the questions we deal with have been thought of in some context before, so reading widely is a prerequisite.

MG: And you get a bit of time to do that?

BS: You have to make time for that – it’s not an optional extra.

MG: If you became prime minister how would you approach the job? Tony Abbott, for example, said he wanted to be the prime minister for infrastructure - what would you want to be the prime minister for?

BS: I’m a very compassionate person, I would like to be the prime minister for the powerless. People who don’t have a voice in society. I’d like to be a prime minister who tackled tough issues. I’m interested in being a prime minister who looks at the future as well. Being prime minister for science would be good.

I think one attribute which I would definitely bring to that leadership position is: you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room - what you have to do is get the smartest people into the room. I think I’m good at harvesting what people think and distilling it.

There’s a lot of smart people in Australia who want to make a contribution, the trick is to harness it, to not take forever listening. So I think that would be part of the attribute - I would bring people into government with diverse views.

MG: What about in style? Over the years we’ve seen prime ministers who’ve got their hands in everything, we’ve seen prime ministers who stand back and let their ministers do their work.

BS: I prefer to have a champion team than be the first among equals. I’m interested in getting the best out of my whole team. In my experience, it doesn’t matter if it is workplace relations or disability reform or superannuation, you get the best people and you get the best out of them by giving them some degree of autonomy, voice and control.

MG: We’re talking about ministers here?

BS: Yes. I don’t want to micromanage people. We set our priorities, we set our directions, then you trust people to implement the steps towards those directions. My role is to help navigate, but there is a lot of people who can help row.

MG: Are there any other aspects of style that you would highlight, that you want to bring to that job?

BS: I don’t divide society into goodies and baddies or lifters and leaners. My style is I’ve always believed in reaching for higher ground. The story of Australia is one of creating wealth, of growth, with great strong safety nets. So I wouldn’t want to waste anyone’s potential. I think everyone’s got something to offer.

Someone once said that everybody is somebody, and what I want to do is make sure that everybody can be the somebody that they were destined to be.

MG: Your initial year has been much helped by the government’s problems - are you at all concerned that Labor’s lead in the polls, which has been consistent for quite a while now, is not a real lead in the sense that it could evaporate when people were actually making a choice?

Shorten with his wife, Chloe. AAP/Julian Smith

BS: Well there’s no election on Saturday, so the numbers are not what fundamentally drive me. We have had a good start. I think that’s fair to say. It’s not just because of the government’s unfair budget. I think it’s also because this is a government who staked their reputation on telling the truth and they haven’t.

Also, my team have been united. They’ve been pretty disciplined and they’re starting to work on the strands of our narrative for the next election, so that’s helped too.

I think the most recent bout of history wars or legacy wars going on in the books just remind people that that was then and Labor has moved on from then.

MG: Where does a centre left party position itself these days?

BS: On the centre left.

MG: What does this mean in practice?

BS: It means we’re pro-growth, we’re pro an international economy, we want to be pro small businesses, we’re pro competition and pro productivity, we’re pro the creation of national income. But we are also for the efficient distribution of the national income. We’re also for a strong safety net of social justice. We’re not for leaving the poor behind. We believe it should be merit that guides people’s access to universities. It should be a strong superannuation safety net so that people just don’t have to rely in the future on the aged pension or the part pension.

So it is growth. It is reaching for higher ground. It is utilising all the talents. It is uniting the country, not dividing it. It’s based upon a strong safety net – pro growth with a strong safety net.

MG: You have been criticised for replicating Tony Abbott’s negative tactics in many areas - do you think that’s just the way politics is played these days?

BS: I’ve been criticised for replicating Tony Abbott’s negativity and I’ve also been criticised for being too agreeable with him at times. It’s not bad going to be both at the same time, is it? Too agreeable and too oppositional.

Our opposition or our support will be based on the issues. There is no doubt that Tony Abbott helped create one of the most negative political environments that Australia has ever seen in peacetime, but when it comes to the budget and the unfairness of it, we didn’t ask him to divide the country or to make fairness a motif for what goes on.

They’re not a brave government. It doesn’t take courage to attack the most vulnerable, to make the sick pay more tax, to make the pensioners have a slower rate of indexation, to make it harder for working class kids to go to university. It’s not brave to massively slash funding to the states because you’re too scared to have an argument about tax reform.

MG: By the time you get to the third year of the cycle do you think you’ll have to take on a quite positive…

BS: I think I’m quite positive now. When it has come to national security, when it has come to talking about how we engage in recognition of Australia’s Aborigines.

MG: Before we get onto that, I guess I meant in terms…

BS: I’m not accepting the assumption of raw negativity.

MG: I mean in terms of presenting positive policies.

BS: We will.

MG: And that will be the third year that you start to roll that out?

BS: It won’t be three minutes to midnight like Tony Abbott did. We won’t over promise and then break promises like Tony Abbott. Nor will we under promise and be a totally small target. Our process now that we are engaged in is listening to people. National policy forums, the work of my shadow ministers, reaching out to business on a constant basis, listening to the not-for-profit sector, talking to all the actors in our community.

MG: So you’d start to roll out things when?

BS: Before the next election. Well before the next election.

MG: You said yourself there are areas of agreement, which is very true on national security and the government’s military commitment to Iraq. Do you think that this will last in the medium term or do you expect mission creep of one sort or another will in fact fracture the consensus?

BS: I take the government at their word. They’re conscious of not engaging in mission creep. We’ve set out our principles. What we’ve endeavoured to do – and I’ve been greatly assisted in this by our national security team, including Stephen Conroy, Tanya Plibersek, Mark Dreyfus and others – is set out our principles.

Former Labor minister Gareth Evans speaking to Shorten.

Gareth Evans has been a useful source of advice in all this. We’ve set our principles which will guide us as circumstances change. So the government hasn’t mislead me thus far and I’ve got no reason to think they will. They understand that an extended on-the-ground, ground combat, unit role isn’t going to drain the swamp of terrorism and you can’t solve all these matters through military intervention alone.

Our guiding principle has been how do we assist innocent populations with humanitarian relief, from what is a dreadful, dreadful situation and that’s what guides us. The Iraqi government has requested this support. It is quite different perhaps to the second Gulf War. There is much stronger international coalition on this matter.

MG: So you trust Tony Abbott on this, you don’t think he is backing you into some corner?

BS: I think national security is the most important issue. The politics of the day are a second order matter for the way we evaluate these. We’re interested in what’s right and wrong, not what is right and left.

MG: You have assured the prime minister in a letter today that you’ll expedite that passage of the foreign fighters legislation through parliament after an inquiry into its detail. On first blush do you think Labor will want many changes to that legislation?

BS: I’m not going to usurp the work of the parliamentary committee. They did make a range of changes which the government has thanked us for on the first bill. So on the second bill it is almost 200 pages long, it needs to be investigated and debated. We need to hear from the security agencies, we need to hear from stakeholders. Our message is that we approach this with goodwill. We don’t approach this with partisanship.

Of course the detail is important and that is why we made clear we want the committee to do its work, as parliament should do and as this committee has done in the past.

MG: Do you think Labor’s bipartisanship will disillusion some of your base supporters?

BS: Is that because we’re being too positive not too negative?

MG: Yes, too positive on this.

BS: It’s difficult, isn’t it, in this job. If you’re too negative, too oppositional, well that’s too much, and if you show any bipartisanship well that’s too soft. There seems to be a very fine line here which is not always easy to detect to the human eye.

MG: Well there are also different constituencies of course.

BS: There are.

Shorten during question time. AAP/Lukas Coch

No because we’re taking a principles based approach. I can make no apology for prioritising our national security. I do not think that there are very many people involved at all in planning dreadful evil acts against Australians. But the truth of the matter is there are some. It’s a very small number. So you’re silly to ignore the intelligence briefings that you get and the facts at your disposal.

By the same token, as I said in parliament today, we’ve been through difficult times in the past as a nation, we will live through challenging times in the future. What we require is to exercise wisdom and knowledge and that is what people expect of us. So I take this on the merits of the issue and the priority of security, balanced against the liberties of ordinary Australians.

MG: Do you think the national security issues inevitably benefit the government, in the short term at least?

BS: Well there’s a political set of opinions that say the government of the day benefits. I can’t afford to let that be the issue. What benefits the nation is consistent long term principled decisions. What’d benefit Labor is if we adopt consistent principle positions about the national interest.

Politics is a second order issue when we deal with matters like this - it just has to be second order. The first order issue is our communities, our nation, our families and that’s the way I approach it.

MG: This week the United States Secretary of State John Kerry said that one can make a powerful argument that climate change might be “the most serious challenge we face on the planet because it’s about the planet itself”. Do you agree with him?

BS: I think it’s a massive issue. They’re his words, but climate change is one of those tests of the parliament, because it is not just about the here and now, it is about the future. This government has been appalling on climate change.

When you see Joe Hockey complaining about wind towers making him sick. When you see the government retreating the whole renewable energy model, a multi-billion, multi-thousand employing sector, treating it as some sort of basket weaving enterprise, this government is so right wing on climate change it just defies belief.

MG: You’re committed to campaigning on an emissions trading scheme in 2016, this does look a hard sell against a scare campaign from Tony Abbott.

BS: Well we are not going to have a carbon tax at all. We believe in the power of the market, Tony Abbott doesn’t. It’s funny isn’t it - he doesn’t want to send a price signal to the market when it comes to sustainability and climate change, but he’s happy to put a price signal for poor people going to the doctor with sick children.

MG: So you think you can sell it?

BS: I don’t think there is any choice about the campaign. If Tony Abbott keeps trying to scare Australians about climate change, he is betraying the future.

MG: Next year will be Labor’s national conference - what’s the minimum you will expect that to deliver in party reform?

BS: We need to be a membership-based party, not a faction-based party. We need to have the mechanisms whereby we can get the best candidates possible. We need to be a party that is genuinely open and accessible to people from all walks of life, not just some of our traditional bases.

MG: The material coming from the union royal commission is potentially a serious problem for Labor. What are your plans for managing the party’s relationship with these powerful union affiliates without making it appear compromised or beholden to them?

BS: Well just to go to the assumption in your question: this is Tony Abbott’s royal commission into trade unions. It is a forum for people to settle old scores. I’m not going to provide a running commentary or preempt what the royal commission does or doesn’t do.

In terms of our relationship with unions more generally, unions are an important part of who the Labor Party are and they’ve got an ongoing contribution to make. But I do not see the Labor Party as purely being the political arm of trade unions. We’re not the political arm of anyone except the Australian people.

Some trade unionists won’t like what I say, but I don’t think they can fault my record in terms of being committed to the rights of working people. The Labor Party needs to not just be perceived as acting for certain of the institutions of Australian society. People from all walks of life need to feel that the Labor Party speaks for them. There is no going back.

Shorten considers himself pro-business. Supplied

MG: How important and how possible is it for you to improve the Labor-business relationship, which has been strained in the last few years. Surely business is going to pull out all stops to prevent the re-election of Labor at the next election?

BS: I don’t have an us-and-them view about business. It is one of the great myths about workplace relations in Australia. Most of my time was spent resolving issues for business and their employees. You can’t have someone have a job unless business is making a profit. It goes back to that basic proposition that I believe in reaching for higher ground, I believe in growth and the creation of wealth and that’s done with a strong safety net. So my relations with business are very good.

MG: You’re working on this actively?

BS: I make a point of speaking to business leaders every week, every week. And some of my closest confidants are people in business who give me good advice.

MG: Is that different business leaders every week?

BS: Yes, although I have some who are generous enough to give me advice on a regular basis.

MG: You referred earlier to the history wars. We’ve seen a spate of books and interviews about the Rudd-Gillard years. You were a key player in both coups…

BS: I just don’t buy your language on coups, Michelle.

MG: Well you were a key player in changes of leadership, if we put it in more polite terms. Do you regret how you acted in either of those?

BS: First of all just on the first part: people have the right to tell their story. I think Wayne Swan has the right to write his book and Bob Carr does and Julia Gillard does.

My focus is on the future. It is not my aim to be the museum curator. In the past I have made it clear that I think that the change in 2010 happened almost too quickly and in 2013 again I’ve stated, as I’ve said in the past plenty of times, that was incredibly difficult. I felt I had to put [first] the interests of Labor doing as well as it could electorally. So those difficult decisions were made.

MG: So is the summary there, that you’ve got some regrets about 2010 but not 2013?

BS: I have regrets that Labor was so disunified. I have regrets about the circumstances.

MG: But about yourself?

BS: As I said, I regret that in 2010 there wasn’t more explanation of what had happened and why, and in 2013, I regret that the relations had got to a point which made making choices inevitable.

Shorten with then-prime minister Julia Gillard. AAP/Rob Blakers

MG: But in 2010 do you think the party should have delayed?

BS: I think it was far too quick in hindsight.

MG: Should the change have been made at all?

BS: We made the changes and I still have the view that Julia Gillard was an excellent leader. None of what I have said is motivated by any negativity about Julia or Kevin.

MG: But it would have been better to leave it till after the election?

BS: I think it was done too quickly. But again, I’ve been in books, there’s nothing new that I’m going to say that I haven’t already said. My focus is completely the future.

MG: Looking to the fairly immediate future, if Tony Abbott reshuffles his ministry later this year are you likely to make adjustments in your own team?

BS: Well let’s see what he does administratively in terms of responsibilities. If he changes or if he shrinks George Brandis’ portfolio, or if he further emasculates Ian Macfarlane’s portfolio, or if they decide to do away with calling someone a minister for the environment all together.

I don’t have any desire to reshuffle, I’m satisfied with the team I have.

MG: But you don’t rule it out?

BS: No, it’d have to be a pretty extraordinary set of circumstances. I’m happy with the team I’ve got and I think consistency and continuity is an important part of what we do.

MG: Labor cuddled up to the Greens and then distanced themselves from them. In New Zealand the same distancing has been seen as a mistake in the last week or so in the wake of the election. How do you now see the Greens? Are they the party closest to Labor on the political spectrum or is that the Liberal Party?

BS: I don’t see Labor in the context of close or not to Greens or to Liberals. My plan is to rebuild confidence in the Labor brand and what we stand for. What the Greens do is up to them. What the government does is up to it. I can’t control those things and I don’t seek to. What I do seek is that the Labor Party at the next election, people can articulate what we stand for and they do it on the basis of three years having been quite consistent in opposition.

So for me the work is building what we stand for, communicating quite clearly to the electorate and engendering confidence in the electorate. It’s not whatever Greens, Palmer United, Liberals, Nats or anyone else do.

MG: Do you believe this could be a one term government and if that’s not a fulfillable aspiration, would you want to stay on as leader for a second election?

BS: My aim is to do as well as we can in this election and that’s what my sights are set on.

MG: Which is not necessarily victory?

BS: No, I’m in this to win it, but I accept that it has been accomplished very rarely in Australian political history to win in the first term. On the other hand, I don’t think we’ve ever seen a government have so long to bring down its first budget and to do such a spectacularly bad job of it.

MG: But do you think you would have the support and the personal political stamina for a six year run to power?

BS: I’ve got excellent stamina. I think what my team and Labor voters and indeed Liberals expect me to do, is to try our very best to win the next election and that is our focus. And to do so on the basis of having held this government to account and to do so on the basis that we’re united, to do so on the basis that we’ve got great candidates and a dynamic party growing and to do so most importantly on a positive set of ideas about what Australia looks like, not just at the next election, but in the next ten years and twenty years. It’s all about the future.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 179,400 academics and researchers from 4,902 institutions.

Register now