Keeping the Faith with… Bill Shorten
This year’s Faith at Work series has got off to a great start. The auditorium at the Museum of Sydney was packed with people waiting to hear federal opposition leader, Bill Shorten, talk about how his public policies have been influenced by his private beliefs.
Bill said his political roots can be found in his family’s convict past and in successive generations of thinkers who were, “always focused on politics, I think they were institutional sceptics”.
But, more recently, it was his work as a lawyer that prompted his move into politics and the union movement. He told host, CCER director Tony Farley, “I would meet people who already had the problem, they’d been injured at work or had an unfair dismissal. I was attracted to being a union rep (as it’s) where you can stop people from falling off in the first place.”
Bill said unions are “a moderating force in society” and that “dignity at work is fundamental.” And yet he acknowledged that he works in a profession that isn’t always as dignified as people would like it to be. Bill had recently been the target of some character attacks by Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. When quizzed about them by Tony, Bill said they served as “a reminder to me to lift the game,” adding that “people are over us, in the major parties, acting like it’s a giant school yard.” Tony asked how he coped with it on a personal level. Bill said his commitment to his causes spurs him on, “if you know why you’re there it helps get you through the good days and the bad days”.
In his political career, Bill has held some very senior roles – including his current one as opposition leader, and minister for employment and workplace relations in previous Labor governments. But his biggest legacy to date comes from a junior portfolio handed to him early in his political career. The National Disability Insurance Scheme was created by Bill while he was parliamentary secretary for people with disabilities. Despite his previous work championing the causes of the working class, Bill was shocked by what he found. “Nothing prepared me for the treatment of disability in this country” he said, describing a virtual, impenetrable wall between the disabled community and the wider world. He spoke of the isolation and struggle special needs families face every day, “the reality is there are parents in their 80s who feel they can’t die because they don’t know who is going to love their child”. Bill discovered “a lot of people had this view that maybe we could support people with a disability differently.” And so the NDIS was born to unanimous support from the Australian public and parliament.
But there are other policies the Labor leader feels just as strongly about that don’t enjoy such universal backing. Penalty rates is one of them, and they came up in the discussion as the Fair Work Commission had just ruled in favour of cutting Sunday rates for some professions. Reducing pay for weekend workers is something the CCER has campaigned against, arguing – among other things – that traditional days of rest should be preserved, even in a secular society. Bill agreed. “I don’t accept that every day is the same as every other day,” he said, “Most people, if they have the choice, don’t choose to work on weekends.” He argues that taking money from low-paid workers won’t create jobs…a clear nod to his union past.
It was during his time with the Australian Workers Union that Bill first came to the public’s attention. During the Beaconsfield mine crisis in 2006 he became an intermediary for the mining community and the media, with the ABC describing him as “the voice” of the rescue effort. The small Tasmanian town entered the global spotlight when a local mine collapsed, trapping three men inside. Bill said he went to Beaconsfield immediately upon hearing of the disaster to “make sure they’re not blaming the workers.” He told the audience, “when you have these kinds of disasters, quite often blame can go to its lowest point”. Bill reflected on the community’s determination to reach the trapped men – two of whom were eventually rescued after two weeks underground. A third miner, sadly, did not survive the initial collapse. In the aftermath of the crisis, Bill, as national secretary of the AWU, said talks with the miners had identified pre-existing safety concerns, and called for more scrutiny of Tasmania’s Workplace Standards regulator. The following year, Bill moved from the union into federal parliament. But he told the Faith at Work audience, “the lessons I learned in 14 years as a union rep are still with me today”.
The federal Labor leader credits his career to date to some very personal influences; “there’s family, there’s my love of history, there’s my work with unions and the law, then of course there’s education.” Asked by Tony if he’d given any thought as to what he’ll do next, Bill replied “I would like to have a job which is helping people…to be honest, I haven’t given my next job a lot of thought because the next job I want is Malcolm’s.”