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What I learnt about Bill Shorten while documenting his rise and fall

A scrum of television cameras on a public street always attracts curious onlookers.

I once asked a cameraman what he says when people ask who he’s waiting for. He’s upfront in telling them it’s Bill Shorten.

Bill Shorten at a campaign rally in Blacktown.

Bill Shorten at a campaign rally in Blacktown.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“Aren’t you afraid they might turn out to be a protester?” I replied. He casually shot back: “Nah, they usually follow up asking who is Bill Shorten?”

It surprises me how often people seem only vaguely aware of who Shorten is, despite serving for a near-record six years as opposition leader.

I have long documented Shorten’s rise in politics and grown familiar with his mannerisms.

He’s always in a hurry to meet as many people as he can, often speaking with the next person in line before even finishing the handshake with the one before.

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He’s warm and friendly when he strikes up conversations yet at the same time, the small talk is often awkward. He’s asked people in supermarkets what their favourite type of lettuce is, and on the first full day of the election campaign extolled the virtues of mornings to almost everyone he spoke to.

Bill Shorten meets workers during a visit to Australian Container Freight Services in Brisbane.

Bill Shorten meets workers during a visit to Australian Container Freight Services in Brisbane.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

He has a freakish ability to memorise people’s names. During a visit to a shopping centre in the marginal Adelaide seat of Boothby, Shorten met dozens of people. But as he was whisked back to his car by minders, he said goodbye by name to the florist he met just 30 minutes before.

His running style defies the laws of physics. He doesn’t have the stride or build of a natural athlete yet he’s an extremely competent endurance runner. You might be his running mate but he’ll sprint off without you on the last 200 metres – a nod to his competitive nature. He’s not trying to beat you, he’s trying beat his own personal best.

Bill Shorten during a morning run in Perth.

Bill Shorten during a morning run in Perth.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Bill Shorten during a morning walk in his Melbourne neighbourhood with bulldog Theo.

Bill Shorten during a morning walk in his Melbourne neighbourhood with bulldog Theo.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Bill Shorten boards the campaign bus in Cairns.

Bill Shorten boards the campaign bus in Cairns.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

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I trailed Shorten for the last two federal election campaigns and they each had a different vibe. In 2016 he had nothing to lose. But 2019 felt like it was impossible for him to lose.

Despite a shaky first week, his confidence grew as the campaign wore on.

Bill Shorten meets puppies with Labor senator Kristina Keneally.

Bill Shorten meets puppies with Labor senator Kristina Keneally.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Bill Shorten during a debate with Scott Morrison.

Bill Shorten during a debate with Scott Morrison.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

He barely skipped a beat when a protester heckled him mid-speech in Adelaide. He appeared to enjoy sparring with combative journalists. Nothing was going to stop him on his path to the prime ministership.

The mood at Shorten’s election-night party in Melbourne’s Essendon Fields started with optimism. Cheers rippled across the room as former prime minister Tony Abbott’s Sydney seat of Warringah fell to independent Zali Steggall.

Labor supporters watch the count.

Labor supporters watch the count.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

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A waiter walks through the bewildered crowd handing out Labor cupcakes.

A waiter walks through the bewildered crowd handing out Labor cupcakes.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

But as the night wore on, the mood shifted to concern. As Labor’s full nightmare dawned on supporters, the mood evolved into raw grief.

Supporters were catatonic. Party cakes with Labor branding were brought out by bewildered waiters around the same time ABC election analyst Antony Green called it for Scott Morrison.

Our media minders had disappeared and it was a free-for-all. The prison guards had left and the cell doors were all open.

It was chaos as Shorten eventually entered the room to give his concession speech – taking the shortest possible route from a side door only metres from the stage.

Bill and Chloe Shorten leave the stage at Essendon Fields.

Bill and Chloe Shorten leave the stage at Essendon Fields. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

As the Shortens walked off the stage, the room emptied into the crisp autumn air of a suburban parking lot. Unconsumed beers and wine were emptied from the fridges by catering staff who had prepared for people to be partying late into the night.

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Staff pack away mountains of alcohol that had been ordered for Labor's planned celebration.

Staff pack away mountains of alcohol that had been ordered for Labor’s planned celebration.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

There will be plenty of debate on whether this election was lost on franking credits, Adani, negative gearing or a combination of it all. Or perhaps it was already lost on October 2013 when Labor elected Shorten as leader. His popularity with the Australian public never really grew.

Shorten would often cite the number of days he was opposition leader and follow it up with “but who’s counting?” He was.

Chloe and Bill Shorten cast their vote on election day.

Chloe and Bill Shorten cast their vote on election day.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Bill Shorten with his family and colleagues at a campaign rally.

Bill Shorten with his family and colleagues at a campaign rally.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

He survived a royal commission into the trade unions. He emerged victorious during the “Super Saturday” byelections that could have threatened his leadership. He saw the demise of Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull as prime ministers.

The prime ministership was within his grasp. In the end, it was like watching a tightrope walker make his way through wild and windy conditions only to falter on the last few steps.

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Alex Ellinghausen is The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age Canberra bureau photographer

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