Friday, July 10, 2015

Aaron Patrick on Bill Shorten's ambitious character on Lateline

It's long been obvious that Bill Shorten is an extremely ambitious, egocentric character. Of course there are many of those in Canberra, on both sides of the political fence. But they're usually complicated, multi-faceted folk as well.

Look at Malcolm Fraser. He was ruthless and domineering, but also compassionate and deeply sensitive to criticism. And take Bob Hawke. Charismatic as all get out, with a real sense of entitlement to the top job. But he also had a genuine concern for working people and that made him an extremely effective PM as well as a popular one.

Basically these guys, along with others, didn't just seek power for its own sake. They wanted to do something good with it.

But I don't think that Shorten is like that. He appears to be driven almost entirely by his own ginormous ego. Seems to me that, not unlike Julia Gillard, he's been dreaming of being PM his whole life. But he hasn't given much thought to what he really wants to do for Australia if and when he snares the gig.

His very unimpressive performance in the witness box at the Trade Union Royal Commission certainly confirms that reading of his character. And this Lateline interview with Aaron Patrick, who wrote the book Downfall: How the Labor Party Ripped Itself Apart, constitutes evidence of this as well.

The interview reveals that Shorten certainly wasn't from Struggle Street. He was born into a world of privilege, actually. That would explain that conspicuous absence of fire in the belly (er, unless his belly contains something to fuel the fire, that is!).

TONY JONES: Now, his career, you're right - this is something you were just touching on there, but you're right it encapsulates many of the contradictions of modern Labor. A young, aspiring politician from the right side of the tracks, not the wrong side of the tracks, with an entire - an entree in fact to the world of mega rich people, business people like Richard Pratt, the billionaire.

AARON PATRICK: One of the things that I don't think people appreciate about Bill Shorten is that, sure, he has his union background and he presents this sort of blue-collar image, but he likes hanging out with rich people. He's always liked it. He'd always enjoyed socialising and mixing with business figures. Now you could argue that that's good. That's a legitimate thing and Bob Hawke used to do it too and Paul Keating as well. So I don't think we should think negatively of him for that. But it's still a bit incongruous. And I remember once in research for my book his relationship with Richard Pratt is very well known, but what isn't known is that him and Debbie Beale, his wife at the time, went and stayed in the apartment in Manhattan, which - you'd go there and you'd say to the doorman, "I want to go up to Mr Pratt's apartment and it's on the ..." - this floor, "Which door is it?" And the doorman'd say, "It's the whole floor." 

TONY JONES: (Laughs)

AARON PATRICK: OK! And then when they - when he went with the Pratts to visit Cuba, Communist Cuba, they did it in Pratt's private jet.

The young Shorten also tried to take over a union. But it was functioning very well. So it seems that personal ambition was the main, if not sole motivation there:

AARON PATRICK: Well, thank you, yes. The Young Labor Network, which Bill ran, tried to take over a union called the Theatricals Union. It employed - or, sorry, it had members of people working in the entertainment industry. Some may have even worked at the ABC. And it was seen as a far-left union. And what Bill Shorten and the other guys wanted to do was seize control of this union and use its votes within the Labor Party as their own power base and flip it from the left faction to the right faction. So, they all went and got jobs. And Bill Shorten got a job at Flemington Racecourse, which now abuts his present electorate, and also Victoria Park, where he became an ardent Collingwood fan. There was one problem with the plan, which was: it was quite a good union.

TONY JONES: Yeah. The leadership was actually well-liked and evidently doing a good job, so the whole thing failed. But it's kind of prophetic, isn't it? I mean, if the idea was simply to use the union as your toehold into Labor politics at a high level, was that also the motive for going into the AWU?

AARON PATRICK: Well, what I think Bill Shorten learnt through that experience was: you weren't going to obtain political power by going and taking over at the enemy's trade union. You were going to do it by going into a union that was already on your side which was weak, taking it over from the inside. And that's what he did at the AWU. And the AWU made Bill politically because he managed to grow the membership of it, increased his power base within the Victorian Labor Party and developed a national profile, partly through assiduous networking with journalists.

The guy clearly has big time tickets on himself. And that can lead him into situations in which he looks very foolish indeed, like recently in the RC witness box:

AARON PATRICK: I thought - in all honesty, I thought it was one of the more, if not most damaging moments in his career. The thing about Bill Shorten's psychology is that one of the reasons he's gone so far is that he has this unshakeable belief in himself. And he walks into a room and he's convinced that he's the smartest person in the room. And that's served him well throughout his career and his life. He was in that court - in that Royal commission today in the box and he was at the mercy of those - of that ex-High Court judge and that barrister. And he couldn't talk his way out of it. And he was held to account for what he was saying in a way that he can't be held to account in any other part of his career.


  1. Shorten was educated at Xavier College in Melbourne. His bio page on the ALP website says that he 'completed high school at Xavier', which seems a deliberate attempt to play down the upper-crust flavour of the place.
    Exclusive, and expensive, Xavier is a 'high school' the same way that Hitler had a 'mild dislike' of the Jews.

    1. I think his boganesque pronunciation is also a bit fake, and an attempt to seem less privileged than he is. (I think same could be said of the way Julia Gillard talks.)