Bill Shorten gave the best speech of the 2010 election, a campaign commonly agreed to be the Australian nadir for intelligent policy debate.

It wasn’t strictly an election speech: he was giving it in his role as Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities, in Perth. But he called Australians with disabilities “eternal exiles in our own country” who fell “beneath the radar of Australian public opinion” in a way “so accepted and entrenched in our society that we fail to see that at its most fundamental it is an infringement of human rights and dignity”.

After months of criticism as the “faceless man” and cynical powerbroker who had organised the knifing of Kevin Rudd, it was a very different side to a man primarily known for his intense ambition; who’d been mooted as a future prime minister even before he entered parliament.

In 2006, the Beaconsfield mine collapse had elevated the then-AWU national secretary to national prominence and there were some in Labor, having just endured watching John Howard celebrate a decade in power, who wondered if he might be the one to lead them out of the wilderness. Shorten had secured preselection for the Victorian seat of Maribyrnong just weeks before as part of the bloody Victorian factional battles that included a failed effort to dislodge Simon Crean.

As it turned out, the role of party messiah fell to Kevin Rudd, who gave Shorten a parliamentary secretaryship when Labor won and, apart from giving him responsibility for bushfire reconstruction, left him there while Greg Combet was promoted first into the outer ministry and then into cabinet. It was the first substantial check in Shorten’s glittering career.

In the 1990s, the young lawyer with an MBA had gone from Victorian AWU organiser to national secretary in just seven years, later joining the ALP national executive and becoming Victorian party president.

When Shorten finally made it into the ministry, under Julia Gillard, he had a lot of catching up to do. In parliament, he was plainly ill at ease at the dispatch box (just as Combet had been when initially promoted); he still sounds a little stilted and has a penchant for eccentric phrases (he likes to invoke an “airport test” that few others seem to have heard of).

But this year he has come into his own. He inherited superannuation from Chris Bowen on appointment to the ministry, and therefore inherited the Future of Financial Advice reforms that Bowen (and before him Nick Sherry) had commenced developing in response to financial collapses. The package faced a fierce grassroots campaign from financial planners aimed at the independents but Shorten managed to secure passage while keeping the guts of the reforms, which will have long-term benefits for both Australian workers and future budgets.

Shorten had kept superannuation despite the elevation to Workplace Relations, a crucial portfolio given this year’s review of the Fair Work Act and mounting business pressure for deregulation of workplace laws, based around a spurious claim that Australia’s productivity slump is because of the abandonment of WorkChoices.

It’s a rare issue on which the opposition continues to feel vulnerable and on which the government continues to have credibility with the electorate, leaving Shorten with a key responsibility in the lead-up to the next election.

Shorten brings to the role something in limited supply within Labor: a capacity to effectively prosecute a case. For all the criticism of Labor’s union links and the structural limitations it places on party reform, the more effective unions continue to produce men and women trained to effectively argue a case publicly.

That, combined with the executive experience of leading a union, or in Combet’s case the ACTU, means the unions remain a key source for the government’s most effective ministers, like Shorten or Combet, or its most passionate advocates, like Doug Cameron — although the union movement is responsible for the Don Farrells of the party as well.

At the very least it means that, should Labor go into opposition next year, its next generation of leaders may have the basic skills that have been missed so often while the party was in government.

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