By Jonathan Barrett
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Bill Shorten, leader of Australia’s opposition Labor party, is known as a deft negotiator who can work a room to his advantage.
His ability to organise – honed while hammering out union pay deals in industries as disparate as horse racing, skiing and ports – may prove decisive at the May 18 general election.
Opinion polls suggest the former trade union leader will guide a rejuvenated Labor to victory, ending nearly six years of conservative and centre-right rule.
“When he came onto the scene it struck me immediately that this guy was going places,” said race horse industry executive John Alducci who faced Shorten in contract talks in the 1990s.
“He was aggressive, they all are. But he was intelligent and knew how to put forward a case when negotiating for stable hands.”
Shorten, 52, has never been the preferred choice of voters, consistently trailing leaders of the Liberal-led coalition, including current Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in personal popularity polls.
But Labor’s brand has strengthened since Shorten took over in 2013 after a period of leadership instability; a crucial detail in an electoral system whereby voters cast ballots for party members and do not directly elect the prime minister.
Labor’s 2019 campaign has focussed on higher spending for health and education, and more ambitious curbs to greenhouse gas pollution than his opponents.
Shorten said late last month in a leadership debate that the economy was stoking inequality.
The centre-left Labor wants to restrict the use of negative gearing – whereby some property investors can offset their costs – and end certain tax credits attached to share portfolios.
In turn, Labor plans to use the public purse to increase wages for childcare workers.
John Hewson, a former Liberal leader who has been critical of both parties, said Shorten was more pragmatist than reformer.
“He doesn’t come with a personal policy agenda,” Hewson said. “It’s all about redistribution, not about creating wealth.”
AMP chief economist Shane Oliver said Shorten’s platform was the most “interventionist” for some time in Australian politics, although it fit with a widely-held perception that inequality is rising in the country.
Shorten, a fraternal twin who was raised in the suburbs of Melbourne, graduated from Monash University with a law degree and later became a union organiser.
By the time he entered federal politics in 2007, Shorten had built a formidable reputation based on his public role in the Beaconsfield gold mine rescue operation a year earlier.
On April 25, 2006, a small earthquake triggered an underground rock fall at the mine on the southern island state of Tasmania.
Fourteen workers escaped, but one was killed and two others were trapped a kilometre (0.62 miles) underground, sparking a rescue effort that captured global attention.
Shorten, by then national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, cut short an overseas trip, according to newspaper reports at the time, and went to the mine site.
For two weeks, as rescuers worked to free the trapped miners Brant Webb and Todd Russell, Shorten became the voice of their families and the community, giving articulate briefings to the media on the rescue effort.
Barry Easther, mayor of the Beaconsfield area at the time, said Shorten provided calm leadership and kept the focus on the trapped miners amid workers’ anger at the mining company.
“He came into town with authority and took charge,” Easther said. “It was a good thing he was there. He was also not shy in making the most of the opportunity.”
When the trapped miners emerged on May 9, Shorten was a national figure.
John Uhr, professor of political science at the Australian National University, said Shorten’s low approval ratings could be due to a public perception that he is pushing a class agenda, pitting the poor against the rich.
“There can be this feeling that he’s going for someone and not the other,” said Uhr. “That doesn’t help his popularity, nor does being involved in getting rid of two prime ministers.”
Shorten’s political credentials were severely tested during a three-year period of intense party instability, when two sitting Labor prime ministers were removed by their own party.
Shorten backed the removal of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2010, who was replaced by his deputy Julia Gillard. Three years later, Shorten switched sides and backed Rudd against Gillard.
Labor did not respond to requests for comment.
After Labor’s defeat in the 2013 election, Shorten became leader of a party crippled by infighting.
Despite losing the 2016 poll, Shorten’s credentials within Labor were bolstered by the fact he had helped take a party reeling from disunity to almost clinching an unexpected victory.
This set the stage for a run in 2019 against Morrison, who only took over as prime minister last year amid discord within the government.
“It can be more of the same, or a change for the better,” Shorten said at the launch of Labor’s campaign.
“Division and drift, or unity and purpose.”
(Reporting by Jonathan Barrett in SYDNEY; additional reporting by Lidia Kelly; editing by Darren Schuettler)