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Understanding Bill Shorten means understanding his mother.

“I feel loss, and I feel I do not know when I will not feel loss,” Bill Shorten said at his mother’s funeral.

His dedication to his mother was profound. All his life he has explained himself by talking about Ann McGrath – never his father, who kept the ships moving in and out of Duke and Orr, but the resolute girl from Ballarat who made her own future.

His father had disappeared from their lives even before he abandoned his marriage when the boys were in their late teens. The son admits despising him. Shorten is one of that interesting pack of politicians born of determined mothers and largely absent fathers. There are so many: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are distinguished alumni. Among recent Labor leaders in Australia are Rudd, Albanese and Shorten. Among the qualities these men share are self-discipline, boundless ambition and an appetite for approval on a national scale.

bill shorten mother
Bill Shorten’s dedication to his mother was profound. Image via Getty.

His mother made all the decisions. Ann McGrath came from a long line of Irish Australians. She had two faiths: Catholicism and education. As a young woman teaching in London, she fell under the spell of the Jesuits of Farm Street and determined that any sons of hers would have a Jesuit education. She was thirty and on a cruise to Japan when she met Bill Shorten, the second engineer on the ship. They were very different people. She was teaching at the Townsville campus of the University of Queensland. He was a chain-smoking Englishman who had gone to sea in his teens rather than finish school in Durham. She brought him ashore. When the boys were due, she moved her husband to Melbourne, where he took a job at the Duke and Orr Dry Dock on the Yarra.

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After the twins were born in May 1967 – Bill was first out, Robert second – she began her doctorate while her husband settled down to run the dock. She was always studying. He was dealing with the men and their union, the Painters and Dockers. He hired them, drank with them, and was remembered as a boss who knew the way things worked: there were always too many men in the gangs at Duke and Orr. But that was the deal. The work got done and strikes were rare. Years later he would tell the Costigan Royal Commission into the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union: “I have suggested to many people in the past to get a better record you would have to go to Russia or China.”

Bill with his late mother, Ann. Image via Instagram @billshortenmp.

They didn’t see much of their father. Bill’s life was the dock and the men. He was around at the weekends, smoking with a beer in his hand. He took his boys to the football and let them play at Duke and Orr on the Yarra. Sometimes he brought the men home. Shorten remembers the union secretary, Jack “Putty Nose” Nicholls, coming round to the house with Pat Shannon, who was shot dead in a South Melbourne pub when the Shorten boys were only six. His father worked with a tough crowd. He never learnt to drive. Shorten says he owes his people skills to his old man.

His mother was the brains and drive. She was a woman of incredible determination: the first of her Ballarat family to win a scholarship, the first to go to university. The McGraths, the Nolans and the O’Sheas had come out to the diggings in the 1850s. They were unionists on all sides.

“There was politics in her family,” Shorten said at his mother’s funeral. “Uncle George was a Communist Party member. Grandpa wanted to be but was too scared of Grandma.”

Ann became a teacher, helped her siblings through university, and then kept studying. She travelled the world and was almost over the hill before she found her husband. There were only the boys. She demanded a lot of them and didn’t approve easily.

“The breadth of her formidable intelligence should not be underestimated,” said Shorten. “Perhaps that was her challenge. She would not suffer fools. She was never rude but she had little time for people who didn’t try or who supported unsupportable views, little time for fatuous, superficial humbug. She would be annoyed with people who kept women down. Gossip bored her.”

Ann McGrath. Image via Instagram @billshortenmp.

The boys were university brats, parked in day care at Monash and roaming the corridors in their holidays. In time, their mother became a lecturer in education at the university. They lived nearby, in the unprosperous streets of Murrumbeena. She and the boys went to mass each week. Their father never did. Her faith was firm but not unquestioning. She believed in thinking things through for herself. She told her boys to do the same. When they came to her with questions, she said: “Look it up.” A new priest came to Sacred Heart when they were nine. Father Kevin O’Donnell would turn out to be one of the most appalling paedophiles ever sheltered by the church. Ann didn’t care for the man. She wouldn’t let her sons be altar boys. They went to the Polish mass each week. Why, they asked. “Because it’s quicker and I like the priest.”

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Though De La Salle College offered the twins scholarships, Ann held firm to her resolution and delivered them to Kostka Hall, the junior school of Xavier College, in 1977. Xavier was a school for rich Catholics, but the Shorten boys were not the only ones whose parents both worked to pay the fees. That did not make them intruders. Among the well-heeled clientele of the Jesuits, there survived respect for parents doing what the Shortens were doing: vaulting their kids straight into the professions.

“This, from the beginning, was one aim of Jesuit Education,” wrote the order’s revered superior general, Pedro Arrupe, on the occasion of the school’s centenary in 1978. But he directed Xavier to do much more: to turn out “men-for-others.” Arrupe’s mantra played out in rather different ways across Jesuit Australia. As the Shorten boys arrived at Xavier, Tony Abbott was leaving Riverview, its sister school in Sydney, as a committed warrior in Bob Santamaria’s fight against the Red Menace and the collapse of Western civilisation. But Xavier was a different place. The school wasn’t fighting the modern world tooth and nail. Vatican II was accepted.

“Don’t let your heads be turned,” Ann told her boys. She meant that. “She believed in merit,” Shorten 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.”

But she also taught her sons to be polite and careful, to be good boys. They did the things small boys do in schools like this: athletics, debating and theatre. In the 1979 Gilbert and Sullivan revue, Robert was a pirate and Bill a fairy. Robert’s star shone a little brighter than Bill’s. They weren’t much alike: Robert was taller, better-looking and darker. His achievements on the track were applauded, while Bill earned praise for his “outstanding contribution” to St Paul’s School for the Blind in Kew. By this time, the Shorten boys were at the school’s main campus, with its chapel as big as the cathedral of an Italian hill town.

Shorten with his wife Chloe and their three children. Image via Instagram @billshortenmp.

Kew was a long haul – a tram and two trains – from Neerim Road, Murrumbeena, but they didn’t scurry home. Bill ran the box office for the 1983 Romeo and Juliet, played the piano, endured elocution lessons, fenced and played cards: bridge at Xavier but later five hundred. Shorten’s love of cards – of bluff and bidding – is a key to the boy and the man. Only in his final year did he outshine his brother as a debater; he was chosen for the state team in the national championships of 1984. Though they finished third, his friend John Roskam was generous in the Xaverian: “William proved a credit to the College.”

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None of this made him a memorable figure. His headmaster, Father Chris Gleeson, remembers him as neat and polite. “He was always in a suit, always with his tie done up. He kicked around with very quiet, well-behaved young men. He did nothing of moment at the school. But he was a fine debater and a capable student.”

Shorten and his friends gathered round the Roskams’ television to watch Bob Hawke defeat a stricken Malcolm Fraser. “We were all very excited by the Labor victory,” recalls Roskam. “Hawke was new, fresh and bringing us together. Hawke in ’83 was like Rudd in ’07 for the young: a fresh start.”

At sixteen it was already clear Shorten was heading for politics. This was an unusual goal for a Xavier boy at this time. The school turned out surgeons and judges, not politicians. He says his first ambition was simply to be in parliament. He knew he could debate. Though not a natural leader in the Xavier mould – he was never a prefect or house cap­tain – he would not accept defeat in an argument. “The house meetings for this year will long be remembered as Bill Shorten’s battle-ground,” reported the Xaverian in 1984. “His speeches were truly a marvel.” The school voted Liberal, but Labor was the only possible party for the boy. Labor was the default setting of his family. He was the grandson of union men on both sides. His mother never turned her back on the Labor world of her Ballarat childhood.

Ann McGrath had raised her twins to be liked and to win. When he has to choose, Bill opts for winning but the tension between the two is old and deep. It leaves him hungry for reassurance. So many stories are told about Shorten the union official, the cabinet minister and the leader of the party asking: “How did I go?” He still wears the face his mother gave him, the face of a boy who wants to be liked. It’s a charming mask that hides too much for his own good. This man would be more respected if, like Hawke, Keating and Howard, he let us see the bastard that’s in there. Instead, the rough edges are politely hidden. Perhaps this is the instinct of a kid from not quite the right side of the tracks who lands in a place like Xavier. There is about Shorten still a faint sense that he is a suitor in the world he wants to lead.

This is an edited extract of David Marr’s Quarterly Essay 59, Faction Man: Bill Shorten’s Path to Power, available now at quarterlyessay.com.

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