Bill Shorten
(Image: AAP/Darren England)

Shorten HQ, the nerve centre of the Labor campaign, is an impressive place. Set up in a disused aircraft hangar, once you enter you see rows of desks stretching away into the distance, each one manned by an ALP volunteer working the phones. “Some of them are canvassing voters,” Shorten’s campaign manager tells me. “Some of them are coordinating schedules with Labor candidates. And obviously some of them are selling merchandise: Bill t-shirts, tea towels, cravats, and so forth.”

But the most impressive thing about Shorten HQ is Shorten himself. He approaches with a broad smile and offers a bone-crushing handshake. He’s taller than he looks on television — around six foot nine — and is glistening with sweat, having come straight from his morning workout. “I make sure to do it every day,” he says, “because I know Australia wants a strong leader, and I take that very seriously and very literally.”

We sit down to chat beneath one of the numerous motivational posters dotting the walls. This one is a photo of Shorten’s political idol, Simon Crean, bearing the traditional Labor slogan, “He Who Hesitates Is Electable”. The opposition leader drinks from a mug of hot chocolate while we talk, pausing only occasionally to add another marshmallow.

I ask him the same question I ask all powerful men, the question that fascinates me more than anything: just why does he want to be in charge? He considers the question carefully, and answers thoughtfully: “Ever since I was a little boy,” he muses, “I have been incensed by injustice. I remember being five years old and seeing a family of 12 who lived across the road thrown out onto the street. I remember thinking, even then, that it was unfair, that you should be able to have a family of at least 18 before you were thrown out onto the street. I guess that’s when my passion for cautious incremental change was really ignited.”

Does Shorten believe his close links to the union movement are a hindrance in the campaign? He throws back his head and laughs, a deep booming laugh like a giant of legend. “I don’t think being connected to unions will colour people’s opinion of me at all,” he chuckles. “I think Australians are fair-minded enough to understand that I have never belonged to a union or met a union leader. I only just heard of the union movement last week, in fact.”

So if not organised labour, what does Bill Shorten stand for? At this, his face takes on an earnest aspect, and his eyes fill with tears of sincerity. “Most of all I care about Australia,” he sobs. “All I want is for Australians to get a fair go. Scott Morrison says to get a go you have to have a go. Well I say we are having a go, but we’re not getting a go, and that’s because every time we have a go, Scott Morrison keeps that go for himself. It’s time the Liberals stop hoarding the goes and release the goes for ordinary mums and dads who have been having lots of goes constantly. That’s what I stand for: more even distribution of goes.”

But isn’t that socialism? He winces. “I don’t like that word.” What word would he prefer? “Hero. I quite like the word hero. You can call me that if you like.”

Speaking of which, what part does he think the Beaconsfield mine disaster has played in his rise to the top? He pauses for a moment. “I don’t think,” he says carefully, “that I’m Labor leader because of Beaconsfield. Certainly I didn’t do it for the publicity. I did it because I love miners, and I love spending time with miners, and I love pulling miners out of mines. The Government can call me a miner-lover if they like: it’s a label I wear with pride.”

How does that fit with his commitment to battle climate change? “The thing about climate change,” says Shorten, as he changes into a fresh singlet for his midday run, “is that I don’t believe ending it requires us to destroy the economy. I don’t think we need sacrifice to make a better planet. I think we can have clean air AND prosperity. I think we can have a stable climate AND a strong economy. I think we can have enormous coal mines AND zero emissions. Hey, you may call me a dreamer.”

What will a Labor government mean for Australia? “A Labor government means change,” Shorten says decisively as he brushes his teeth. “It means fairness. It means equality. A Labor government means that Australians no longer have to fear that their government isn’t holding lengthy reviews into the issues that concern them. If you’re living below the poverty line, a Labor government will feel sorry for you, and that is an absolute promise. But most of all,” he becomes teary again, “a Labor government will restore Australia’s standing in the world.” Does that mean a change in asylum seeker policy? “Absolutely,” he nods vigorously. “Under Labor, no asylum seeker will die in detention without first getting a sympathetic phone call from a junior minister.”

And will he win? He laughs at the question. “It’s in God’s hands now,” he says, pointing to the poster of Crean and blowing a kiss. He turns on his heel and sprints wildly out of the hangar. Running to glory…or disaster? Time will tell, but whatever awaits Bill Shorten, he will meet it with courage, honesty and commitment. He truly is having a go.

Peter Fray

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