Bill Shorten at Clifton Park Bowling Club on the night of Labor's loss in the 2013 election. Photo: Wayne Hawkins
The two miners were still buried a kilometre under Beaconsfield when the first poison darts hit Bill Shorten. ''Ghoulish fame whore?'' queried a blogsite, skewering the then Australian Workers Union national secretary fronting cameras at the Tasmanian minesite tragedy.
''As far as I know he has no expertise in mining or mine rescues, and no active role in the rescue effort,'' said the cyber critic. ''Yet he manages to hog just about every media report on the rescue effort.''
One thing saves Good Bloke Bill from inner Slick Willy. He likes people - and in the workaday world, a lot seem to like him.
The sniping was but the tip of an iceberg then and since. Criticism of Shorten comes not from rank- and-file unionists but from high in the foodchain where some on his side of politics sledge him as a man on the make.
Bill Shorten announces his late decision to switch his support to Kevin Rudd on June 26, 2013. Photo: Getty Images
Says a union leader who helped Shorten in the past: ''The boys used to call him Showbag Shorten … He's got an ego and in politics that's fine, but if there's no loyalty [to those who helped him] then what? The 'discard after use' label applies to most of us.''
Such criticism has become more personal since the irresistibly tabloid story of Shorten's split with his ''Liberal blueblood'' wife to be with the glamorous - and now pregnant - married daughter of the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce.
Soap operas don't come much better - or worse. Shorten politely ducks talk of his personal life. So does his estranged wife, Debbie Beale, at least on the record; she is, however, witheringly frank with friends about the affair. Some of them are in the uncomfortable position of knowing and liking the man who, until a year ago, was one half of an astonishingly well-connected power couple, and often touted as a future Labor leader.
Bill Shorten and partner Chloe Bryce. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Bill Shorten will wince when he reads that. He might even swear - a union habit he's trying to quit - because he agreed reluctantly (and generously, in the circumstances) to Fairfax Media's request to co-operate with a warts-and-all profile.
He's always backed himself.
William Richard Shorten shone at debating at Melbourne's prestigious Xavier College the way sportier boys kicked goals or hit boundaries. He learnt early the value of rebuttal: the verbal counterpunch.
The then AWU national secretary in Beaconsfield during the mine rescue. Photo: Jason South
A classmate recalls that when Shorten was 15, he brought the house down in a debate by tearing up his notes and tossing them on the floor - declaring his opponents' argument ''so hopeless'' he could demolish it ad lib. And he did. He represented Victoria at debating, honing his instinct for the theatrical gesture and witty phrase.
Shorten doesn't need notes to defend himself over Beaconsfield, either. When news of the mine disaster broke on Anzac Day 2006, he was in Canada on union business. His reflex response was to go where his members were in trouble, just as he had when the Longford gas plant exploded in Gippsland in 1998; as he had for other, little-known, industrial dramas around Australia.
The difference, this time, was that the media was eager to cover ''a union leader doing his job'', he says. On the way back to Australia, he got a message from his mother in Melbourne: the mother of the mine manager, Matthew Gill, was an old friend of her family. He was able to use that personal connection to build bridges between the besieged mine management, angry miners and a hungry media.
At first, it seemed that not only Larry Knight, but Brant Webb and Todd Russell had been killed. Shorten returned to Melbourne as the search for Webb and Russell continued.
When the electrifying news broke, days later, that the pair were alive, he borrowed Richard Pratt's private jet to rush back to the mine. He didn't worry about perceptions attached to asking favours of one of Australia's richest industrialists, a friend of Shorten's father-in-law, the wealthy former Liberal politician Julian Beale.
As for ''hogging'' media exposure - no one at Beaconsfield would claim that, says Tony Wright, now national affairs editor for The Age, who covered the rescue and befriended the miners and their families. Any criticism ''came from beyond'', Wright says. The media, desperate for material, ate up Shorten's ability to get information from the rescue workers - his members - and turn dry technical terminology into crisp grabs. It also suited the mine company for him to act as de facto spokesman for the rescue.
Survivor Brant Webb says he is still grateful for the way Shorten and his union kept his family informed and looked after them. ''Everything Rachel [Webb's wife] knew came from Bill - the mine wasn't telling her anything,'' he says. ''I've got a bit of his respect and he's got a lot of mine.''
Rescuer Garth Bonney also praises Shorten. ''Bill did a top job,'' says the veteran miner, who worked shifts around the clock with eight others to save their mates. ''Bill is a genuine bloke who still stays in touch.''
A born networker.
Late nights, long lunches and suicidal hours have not left their mark on Bill Shorten's face the way they do on too many politicians and union bosses. At 42, he is clear-eyed, fresh-skinned and boyish - easily recognisable as the year 12 kid in the photograph of the Xavier class of 1984.
Even his fraternal twin, Rob, a banker-turned-financial consultant who doesn't live a politician's hard life, looks a little older, as well as being taller and darker.
There are other differences, too. When they were small, their mother recalls, the boys once handed out how-to-vote cards for a family friend standing for Caulfield council. Rob politely handed them to anyone who passed; Bill bowled up to voters and ''sold'' them.
Teachers remember the twins with affection. Margaret Howse taught them at Xavier's junior school, Kostka Hall. Both were gifted, she says; Rob more diligent, Bill ''quick and witty'', his writing ''superb''. Well-crafted poems in the school magazine are signed William Shorten. Former school psychologist Jan Wilson recalls ''a deep thinker'' with a skill for drama.
Rob, always good at sciences, did economics-law. Bill liked humanities and did arts-law. Rob, naturally athletic, was a middle-distance runner; Bill, naturally competitive, took up fencing - at least until he discovered girls.
The boys, born in 1967, grew up in a California bungalow on busy Neerim Road, Hughesdale, a lacklustre suburb in Melbourne's south-east. An average suburban home; an average family. The boys' mother was anything but.
The former Ann McGrath had bent the conventions of the day by putting education and career ahead of marriage and motherhood until she was in her 30s. The daughter of a Ballarat-born printer - and union leader - and a cousin of Seamen's Union leader Bert Nolan, she took a teaching scholarship. Law would come later: she won the Supreme Court Prize in 1985, when her boys were doing first year at the same university, Monash.
''I was a very embarrassing mother,'' she says, unrepentant.
The twins were named after their late father, William Robert Shorten. Ann met him on a cruise to Japan in 1965, by which time she was teaching university-level history in Townsville. Bill senior, a Geordie from Tyneside, was the ship's second engineer.
After the church wedding in East Malvern, where the McGraths lived, they had the reception on the ship. When the boys were born, Bill snr came ashore as an assistant dry dock manager. His grandfathers had been Tyneside shipyard union leaders - one a shipwright, one a fitter - and he'd played poker with stokers as readily as he'd dined at the captain's table. He got on well with tough waterside workers.
The boys got a whiff of the waterfront when their father took them to watch ''South'' at the Lakeside Oval before the club went north and transformed into the Sydney Swans. They later switched to Collingwood - an ideal choice for a future union organiser.
Though not religious, Ann Shorten was a cultural Catholic and an educator who respected Jesuit education. The boys had their mother's academic knowledge and their father's worldliness and practical know-how. Between the doctor (their mother had taken a PhD) and the docks, they soaked up both influences.
As little William turned into adult Bill, he could put people at ease simply by being at ease.
Six months after Victoria's horrific Black Saturday bushfires, Shorten is talking at a meeting at the Kinglake Community House. He is parliamentary secretary for disabilities and children's services and the Rudd Government envoy on the fire recovery effort.
He's wearing an open-necked shirt and has arrived in a Toyota sedan, driving himself. First, he announces a federal grant to fund a local park, responding to applause with an aw shucks touch: ''You should be clapping yourselves.''
He avoids the numbing bureaucratic jargon with which many politicians muddy their tracks. He nimbly links catchy phrases to amusing asides to avoid specific answers that might cause headaches back at headquarters. It's all deceptively casual, an assured performance by the debater who learned at union meetings how to disarm an audience.
''Yes, Brad,'' he says to a man with his hand up. Then it's Bev and Col and at least three more locals he knows by name - all recalled from previous visits. Doubly flattering, he seeks their opinions; smarter than offering too many himself.
One thing saves Good Bloke Bill from inner Slick Willy. He likes people - and in the workaday world, a lot seem to like him.
Without a common touch, he might not have rescued the Victorian branch of the AWU from irrelevance, corruption and decay. Along the way, he picked up supporters unfazed by gossip about a private marital hiccup.
Sam Beechey is a rarity: an exponent of manual labour still involved in the Labor movement, a throwback to times when those who lived by sweat and muscle could hope to make a difference.
Beechey is from East Gippsland. He was once among Australia's best shearers, a country footballer, a union rep who became a full-time AWU organiser. He met Shorten when the younger man turned up in the early 1990s to learn union business from the bottom up after 18 months with the law firm then called Maurice Blackburn Cashman.
The union threw the private schoolboy lawyer in the deep end. He had to go where he wasn't welcome, places some organisers dodged. This included brokering peace in a war between Turkish fruit pickers and Italian growers in the Goulburn Valley in the mid-1990s. Guns were produced, threats were made to burn ''scab'' camps, and a picker had a tomato stake shoved through his cheek. But Shorten survived and thrived. Workers responded to him and he remembered them.
A dozen years ago, Beechey introduced Shorten to shearers and hands in an Ararat woolshed. Months later, they came to a union ball at Crown casino ''and he knew every one of them by name'', says Beechey. Everyone who knew Shorten on the shop floor - from the Portland Alcoa plant to the Longford gas plant to racing stables - has examples of his freakish memory for names and faces. For a politician, it's a gift.
When Esso was fined $2 million for breaching workplace laws at the time of the fatal Longford explosion, Shorten said it amounted to ''a corporate speeding ticket''.
Eight years on, Jim Ward, the worker Esso tried to scapegoat for the disaster, still quotes him. ''He was thrust into the limelight and he made sure the world's biggest oil company didn't get away with it.''
Ward says Shorten is extremely pragmatic, not Machiavellian. ''He's left a trail of good,'' says Ward. ''But, off the record, I just wish he'd answer my phone calls.''
In eight hours of talking, Shorten avoids just two topics - his marriage breakdown and his political ambition. Sure, he's earned enmity in the Melbourne establishment where Debbie Beale gave him entree, and fleetingly acknowledges ''seeing'' someone in Brisbane, where Chloe Bryce is going through divorce from her architect husband. But others aren't as quiet about Shorten's ambition for the Lodge.
Says a senior business figure with Labor and sporting connections: ''His end game is so obvious that a lot of people want to spoil it. He's achieved gains for his union members so they trust him, but the Labor heavyweights have to decide 'Do I move aside for him or do I trip him?' The big test for him is Disability. Can he pull something through and get the money for [a universal no-fault insurance scheme]? I predict he'll do just enough that it looks like a win.''
An old school friend, now a prominent conservative commentator, says: ''His overnight success in the union took years and years. He did the crap no one else wanted to do, organising people who couldn't speak for themselves. But he … doesn't hate the capitalist system. He never was a mad dog.''
Mark Mentha, of the liquidation firm KordaMentha, got to like Shorten when trying to save Ansett - and thousands of jobs - in 2002. ''He is charismatic. He can hold the floor anywhere from the docks to the BHP boardroom. He seamlessly makes that transition. Collingwood's the best analogy for him: working-class image but global sponsors and the best facilities.''
A former Labor politician with obvious reasons to bag Shorten takes aim: ''As John Button once said, 'Bill is a future champion - I know that because he's told me'. The ego is extraordinary … he's a star recruit but he's struggling to get a position. He likes to be loved so he makes commitments he can't deliver.''
David Feeney is too wary to air grievances against his old student political ally. If the Victorian senator has been bruised by Shorten's factional machinations, he won't say so. But he states that the big predictions made for Shorten when Labor was in Opposition are now ''plainly silly''.
''Five years ago it was Bill's friends who spoke of him as a future prime minister,'' says Feeney. ''These days the only people injecting that story into the media are his enemies.''
Where some see ''more salesman then substance'' and others scoff at a man who's never done ''real'' blue-collar work, the shearer Sam Beechey sees a steel will.
''He would have made a great shearer,'' he says. ''Shearers and politicians come in all shapes and sizes. It's in the heart. No good shearers want to take second place. Bill would have been a gun.''
Shorten has spent most of his working life being the smartest guy in the room. A room to which he would often turn up late - and get away with it because of his charm.
Now he's in a bigger room. There are plenty of smart people and charm isn't enough. At 42, Bill Shorten is 12 years younger than Bob Hawke was when he went to the Lodge in 1983. Not everyone is on Shorten's side.
But time is.
This article was first published on September 26, 2009