politics

"I can’t make it right for my mum." The real story of Bill Shorten's mother, Ann.

When Ann Shorten graduated from Monash University in 1985, her twins sons Bill and Robert had just entered their first year at the same faculty.

Ann, then in her 50s, received first class honours, winning the Supreme Court Prize and the Flos Greig Memorial Prize.

It was the realisation of a lifelong dream, one she’d been forced to push aside for decades.

On Monday night, her son and Labor leader Bill Shorten spoke about his mother on ABC’s Q&A. It was her experience that drove his political career, the 51-year-old said.

bill shorten ann shorten robert shorten
Bill, Ann and Robert Shorten. Image: Twitter.

"My mum came from a working class family," he said. "She was the first in our family, in the early 50s, to ever go to university… She became a teacher, but she wanted to be a lawyer. But she was the eldest in the family and needed to take the teacher scholarship to look after the rest of the kids. My mum was a brilliant woman. She wasn’t bitter. She worked here for 35 years. But I also know if she had other opportunities she could have done anything."

"I can’t make it right for my mum. And she wouldn’t want me to. But my point is this: what motivates me, if you really want to know who Bill Shorten is, I can’t make it right for my mum but I can make it right for everyone else," he added.

It was heralded as a major moment. Sydney Morning Herald columnist Neil McMahon described it as "the most powerful and personal" moment of the federal election campaign.

However, today the Daily Telegraph published a front page story accusing Shorten of deliberately leaving out parts of his mother's story on Q&A because he did not mention that Ann did go on to become a lawyer later in life.

Shorten delivered a scathing response against the newspaper, and his opponent Prime Minister Scott Morrison also condemned the article.

In a Facebook post and again during a press conference on Wednesday, Shorten once again told the story of his mother: Of her willingness to sacrifice to put her family first, the absence of bitterness facing her lot in life, her determination to fulfil her dream in her late 40s and her incredible success in doing so.

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But he also spoke of the challenges she faced - coming from a poor family, being a woman and then being an older woman in the law profession. Her success did not negate these challenges, he said.

In her six years at the bar she got about nine briefs, Shorten said and "it was actually a bit dispiriting".

"She discovered in her mid-50s that sometimes, you’re just too old, and you shouldn’t be too old, but she discovered the discrimination against older women."

In 1991 Ann founded the Australian & New Zealand Education Law Association (ANZELA). According to her Victorian Bar obituary, ANZELA established the annual Ann Shorten Doctoral Award for the best thesis in education law research. In 2012, she was honoured as the first Life Member of the Association.

Dr Ann Shorten died sometime in the night of Saturday, April 5, 2014. She was 79 years old.

At her funeral, Shorten spoke of what his mother had taught him.

"She believed in merit," he said at the funeral. "She taught me that merit is a legitimate human condition. That people should not be deified because of some ill-defined birth right or the wealth of an individual."

At a press conference in the NSW electoral division of Gilmore on Wednesday, Shorten further explained how his mother had shaped his upbringing, and ultimately his politics.

"What I did on Monday night [on Q&A] is I explained who I am. I explained what drives me. My mum is the smartest woman I’ve ever known," he told media.

"It has never occurred to me that women are not the equal of men. It’s never occurred to me that women shouldn’t be able to do everything.

"That is why I work with strong women. That is why I believe in the equal treatment of women."

He said that his mum taught him that what matters in life isn't how rich or poor you are, what church you go to or what news you listen to. That no matter where you came from, you deserved equal opportunity.

"She’s brilliant," he said. "And that’s what drives me."

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