Bill Shorten on #mymum Ann Shorten
In this extract from Bill Shorten’s For the Common Good: Reflections on Australia’s Future (MUP, 2016), he looks back on the emphasis on education and social justice in his childhood, inspired by his mother, Ann Shorten.
1 – Growing Up
Xavier College is arguably Victoria’s top Catholic boys’ school, run by the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits. Xavier’s senior school is set on magnificent grounds in Kew, an old suburb five kilometres east of the Melbourne CBD. The school sits comfortably in the heart of Sir Robert Menzies’ former seat of Kooyong. Xavier’s list of old boys is long and distinguished: judges, writers, academics, entertainers, sportsmen and politicians—most of them conservatives. One of my oldest friends, John Roskam, was a fellow student there. John is a devoted Liberal Party member and for some years now has been executive director of the free-market think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs.
The decision to send my twin brother Rob and me to Xavier was made almost exclusively by our mother, Ann, with the support of our father, Bill, a seafarer who had migrated from Tyneside in England (his full name was William Robert Shorten; I was given his first name and my younger brother was given his second). I remain forever grateful. We lived a fair distance from Kew, in Hughesdale, located in Melbourne’s then growing south-eastern suburbs. My parents found the money to pay for our school fees, though there wasn’t much left over. Throughout our childhood, I can recall our family taking holidays on only a handful of occasions. My parents worked hard to give my brother Rob and me the best start in life.
My mother, Ann, knew the value of a good education. It had transformed her life and she wanted the same for her boys. She was born into a blue-collar household in West Melbourne before moving to Ballarat, a regional city in central Victoria, and then East Malvern, the suburb where Rob and I attended St Mary’s Catholic Primary School. Mum’s father was a printer at the Argus newspaper and a union official; her cousin was Bernard ‘Bert’ Nolan, a long-time leader of the Seamen’s Union. She took a teaching scholarship after school, taught at various state schools and then pursued a career as an academic. She met my father while on a holiday cruise to Guam in 1965. Dad was working as an engineer on the ship. His family also had a long history of union involvement at the Newcastle shipyards. After Rob and I came along in 1967, my father came ashore and set to work at the Duke and Orr Dry Dock in South Melbourne. I attended kindergarten at Monash University in Clayton, one of the earliest workplace childcare centres, where my mother held a part-time academic job.
Years earlier, Mum had been impressed with the Jesuit priests that she had met when she was a member of the Newman Society, a residential college the Jesuits operated at the University of Melbourne. As a cultural Catholic, a teacher and a school principal, she was taken with their approach to education, so the Jesuits’ school was chosen for us. Xavier was good for Rob and me—we were close, as twins usually are. We threw ourselves into debating, drama and sport. My brother had me covered on the sporting field. I was fortunate enough to win a place on the state debating team and took a shine to Australian history—devouring classic works by historians Manning Clark and Charles Bean—having come under the spell of a great teacher, Des King.
I’m sometimes astonished by how much Australia has changed over the course of my lifetime. My family got our first colour television, a Thorn, in 1976. It was a big deal. A few years later, Dad brought home a beta video recorder. Soon afterwards, the rotary dial telephone we had at home was replaced with a keypad model, which might soon itself be regarded as a museum artefact. Mum enrolled my brother and me in basic computer programming courses in the early 1980s, at a time when computers came in giant boxes and their screens were black with simple green text. These computers didn’t do much: the Atari video game Pong was regarded as exciting. These days almost every waking hour of my kids’ lives involves the use of some form of computer technology.
Outside the home, our community was changing dramatically. We were becoming more culturally diverse. White Australia was finally buried by the Whitlam government in 1973. Vietnamese families began moving into suburbs such as Hughesdale in the late 1970s, bringing with them what we at the time considered to be exotic cuisine. In 1978 the content on our TV changed forever when the Fraser government set up the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), a radio and television station that ran programs and news in many different languages. At the same time, more and more women were entering the paid workforce and an increasing number were choosing to marry at a later age. A new wave of globalisation was beginning to make its mark on industries and jobs that Australians had taken for granted.
I grew up near the Chadstone shopping centre, known to Melburnians as ‘Chaddie’. It was the brainchild of the retailer Ken Myer and, when it opened in 1960, Chaddie was the biggest of its kind. It was built on what had been paddocks owned by the Convent of the Good Shepherd. Back then it was just a covered walkway between the retailer Myer and other buildings. Hughesdale was reasonably well developed by the late 1960s, but progress came slowly. We lived on the corner of Neerim and Poath roads. It was a dangerous corner and for a long time was without traffic lights. On one occasion a car plowed through the front yard of our house. I vividly remember a fatal car crash and seeing the policeman removing the body of the driver who had been killed—it was the first time I had witnessed death. After that tragedy, the authorities installed traffic lights.
Our family lived in a modest Californian bungalow builtbetween the two world wars. The family car, a Leyland 1500—a quirk of Dad’s British heritage—rested in the driveway. The place had previously served as a small migrant boarding house for Greek migrants and was fairly run down. It wasn’t a big house and, according to my mother, an entire migrant family had lived in each of the bedrooms. The house that had been home to those families and to my own is no longer there. After Mum moved out, it was knocked down and the site redeveloped.
Neighbourhoods felt smaller then. In Poath Road there was a small textile factory providing employment to locals. That’s gone. There was a doctor’s surgery where you had one GP, old Dr Wallace. That’s gone. There was also a supermarket with just two aisles, a little single-fronted place where the second cashier only operated when things got really busy. Gone too. South Melbourne, the football club my father and I originally supported, no longer exists. Collingwood became my team when South Melbourne relocated to Sydney in 1982 and was reborn as the Sydney Swans. The Convent of the Good Shepherd next to Chaddie didn’t last. When the nuns built the convent during the 1930s they hadn’t executed the paperwork properly. When there was a fire there in the mid-1980s, the nuns were unable to keep possession of the convent as the insurance was too expensive, so Chaddie expanded—and it seems to keep expanding.
We went to church every Sunday morning—Mum and Dad insisted—at the Sacred Heart in Oakleigh, where the service was conducted in Polish. Bemused—Mum came from a long line of Irish-Catholic Australians—Rob and I would ask her: ‘Why are we going to the Polish mass?’ to which she’d retort, ‘It’s quick.’ So I can claim to have been raised Polish Catholic in part. We didn’t understand a word of what they were saying, of course. At one stage the non-Polish parish priest asked if Rob and I could assist him as altar boys. Mum refused point blank. She didn’t like him. It was Father Kevin O’Donnell, an evil pedophile who was later arrested and convicted for abusing children. Mum’s instinct was very good. Through her actions, Rob and I avoided a monster. He went to jail, but only after he destroyed countless lives. My parents continued to send us to a religious school and made sure we attended church regularly. Yet they retained a degree of scepticism towards organised religion. They thought we should go, but were themselves Christians who regarded attendance as a duty rather than the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Mum’s two younger sisters had become nuns. Like other working-class girls of their generation they saw this as a path to education, though each subsequently left the convent and returned to secular life. I think Mum had an unresolved view of the Church—not of individual priests or the Jesuits—but of the institution and where it fitted in a modern Australia that was changing before our eyes.
Life was different in 1970s. More than 50 per cent of the Australian workforce belonged to a union, including my parents. There’s been a gradual separation of people from many of the institutions that were around forty years ago when I was a 9-year-old: unions, churches and even political parties. I would catch two trains and a tram to attend school, and this was regarded as unremarkable for a young boy. No-one thought anything of getting the train early in the morning to Richmond, where various lines converged, and heading out again on a second train. The days were often long. I regularly caught late trains to get home. I wouldn’t let my kids do that now, certainly not at the age at which I did, at 11 and 12. Many Australians feel that our suburbs aren’t as safe as they once were, particularly for women. That concerns me. It’s a big change, that personal loss of community confidence.
I got my first part-time job at 14, delivering pamphlets. Later, I held down a number of summer jobs and worked in a butcher’s shop while at university. While some like to demonise young people, I see today’s teenagers doing the same wherever I go—boys and girls on the verge of adulthood trying to earn some independence. It had taken me a while as a kid to work out what I wanted to do. The Jesuits placed an emphasis on community involvement and so I did volunteer work when I was at school. Visiting the kids at St Paul’s School for the Blind and yarning with pensioners on a Friday afternoon was rewarding, so much so that I considered a career as a social worker. I’d also thought about following Dad and going to sea. I toyed with the idea of joining the armed forces and so enlisted with the Army Reserve. I clearly saw appeal in joining an institution that gave meaning and purpose to so many people. In the end, I settled on the law.
I had become attracted to the law in my late teens, having been guided in that direction by my mother. Her encouragement worked for my brother too. He signed up for economics/law while I did an arts/law degree. Mum had always wanted to train as a lawyer but didn’t get the chance when she finished school. She was the eldest of four children and like many working-class women of her day she took up a teacher’s scholarship. Her tertiary education was paid for by the government: the quid-pro-quo entailed teaching in the state system afterwards. The unfairness of missing out on her first option weighed heavily on her, I think. As we were growing up she completed a PhD and then embarked on a law degree. She completed that degree part time while she was working full time and raising a young family.
While I was attracted to the law, I was fascinated by work and workplaces. Attending the university kindergarten where my mother worked, I wondered what all these people were up to day after day in the imposing Robert Menzies Building, known as the ‘Ming Wing’.
Dad was old fashioned and not hands-on domestically. His burst of parenting was on Saturdays. Sometimes he took us to the dock where he worked. This was where he rubbed shoulders with a remarkable range of characters. One fellow we met was known as Spider because he reputedly had eight arms in a fight. Dad was friends with Pat Shannon, the secretary of the Painters and Dockers Union, who was shot dead by criminals in a South Melbourne pub in 1973. I also remember the man who succeeded Shannon as secretary, Jack ‘Putty Nose’ Nicholls, coming to our house. Nicholls was found dead from a gunshot wound in his car in 1981. I wasn’t close to him, although I remember his death being a big deal: front page of all the papers.
My father taught me about ships—he and my mothershared a love of them. When Dad took us to the dock I loved climbing over it. I enjoyed the feel of the place, full of colourful people, lots of intersecting tasks, mateship and, shall we say, boisterous conversation. That was when Australia had a commercial ship-repair industry. Over the years we’ve let that industry die, like too many others.
Dad was a smart bloke but also deeply frustrated. He grew up in the north-east of England during the devastating Great Depression of the 1930s. His story is an example of how an accident of fate and limited choice can change a life forever. Dad was, by his family’s account, a bright kid. His father, Robert Shorten, a cinematographer, was—according to his family’s recollection—rather hot-headed. He died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1939 when my father was only 10, changing the direction of Dad’s life forever. Dad won a scholarship to attend the Durham Cathedral School, yet he refused to go. He was bright but he simply didn’t want to attend school any more. After his father’s death, things got difficult for his mother, and money was tight. The job of raising my father fell to his maternal grandfather, Billy Cameron, a man who was steeped in the ways of unionism.
William ‘Billy’ Cameron was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1880. He served in the Royal Naval Reserve and worked as a stoker in the North Sea during the Great War. Billy told my father that he could hear exploding ships sinking during battles while he was below decks feeding the boilers—death would have come instantly if his ship had been struck. By 1936, he was a Jarrow Marcher, one of the unemployed coal and shipyard workers who marched from the north Tyneside town of Jarrow to London to protest against the devastating unemployment and poverty endured by working-class communities in the Depression’s aftermath. He served as an independent Labour councillor, secretary of the Engineer’s Union and chairman of the dockyard shop stewards. When he died, a long line of men queued up outside his house to pay their respects. He had been good at looking after people.
This was the man who influenced my father’s upbringing. As a partial consequence, Dad didn’t seek a formal education, but wanted to work on the docks with his grandfather. Aged 14, he dreamed of joining the Battle of the Atlantic in the service of the merchant marine during World War II. He was knocked back and two years later took up a trade. Apprenticed as a fitter and turner, Dad subsequently became a seafarer.
Mum always said Dad was an intelligent man. When he came ashore and married Mum, she made him get his chief engineer’s certificate. He was street smart and possessed good people skills, but ended up taking refuge in the drink like many men of his generation. Looking back, Dad was probably depressed, but they didn’t have counselling then. When I was 10, the same age he was when his father died, Dad suffered a heart attack. It hurt seeing that. No child should ever have to see their father so vulnerable at that age. Yet it changed him. He stopped drinking as much, which was welcome, although he developed a shorter fuse. Why? I suppose it shocked him—he was only 47—but maybe he was experiencing pain, too. He’d smoked a lot and drunk a lot, to the point that his health was less than wonderful. If you watch old cop shows from the 1970s and see the blokes with big fat ties and the cigarette ash spilling down their jackets, that’s the world my Dad inhabited. This time left an indelible mark upon me. Dad would take my brother and me to the football to see the Swans on Saturdays. He’d be dressed in his big woollen overcoat, park us in the grandstand, and go off to meet his mates and drink beer. I guess for him it was an escape of sorts. It was this lifestyle that contributed to his premature death.
My mother was always motivated to do well. She was the first member of her family to attend university. She went down the path of taking a teacher’s scholarship because there was not enough money in the family or sufficient support and encouragement for her to attend university to study law as a young woman. If you look at the stories of my parents, in each case I can’t help but reflect on how chance and timing, social class and lack of money changed the direction of their lives. Mum’s first missed opportunity drove her for the rest of her life. In Dad’s case, his missed opportunity led to choices that made him a more frustrated person than he might otherwise have been. I’m convinced that the experiences of my parents—the opportunities they were unfairly denied or in Dad’s case didn’t fully grasp—have pushed me to ensure that people get the chance to achieve their full potential.
What we say to each other in families can have such a damaging impact. Mum told me that her self-confidence took quite a hit when she was a teenager. She was on her way to her school formal, all dressed up and probably a bit nervous and excited, when she came upon her father at the railway station. He was drunk and said some awful things to her. I know less about my father because his extended family lived on the other side of the world, and his story was more difficult to delve into. It seems that while he had some positive early role models, he probably had to bring himself up at various times. I think that Dad’s personal disappointments pushed him away from us as a family. Dad was an old-fashioned father—he grew up during the Depression after all. I can’t pretend there wasn’t conflict at home. Dad was never physically violent towards Mum, but there were plenty of arguments and, looking back, I can see that a permanent undercurrent of tension persisted in our home life. I don’t want other children to experience that in their formative years.
Dad and Mum divorced when I went to university; he later remarried. My brother and I maintained a relationship with our father for a few years, but that eventually fell away. Thankfully Dad and I reconciled. I went to see him and invited him to my wedding to my first wife, Debbie. He accepted, which was a big deal. Dad never did make it to the wedding: a week later, aged 70, he died of another heart attack. I regret not asking Dad more about his life. As with most family histories, you only start to think about it when the eyewitnesses are all gone. I’m sad Dad wasn’t in my life for such a long time and I’m sure he felt the same way about me too. You should never ever leave conversations unsaid if you can avoid it.
It couldn’t have been easy for my parents, raising twins. I didn’t appreciate it enough at the time. I’d come home from Xavier and say to my parents, ‘Mum, why can’t you just be in the tuckshop like other mums?’ or ‘Why does everyone else have a new car and our car’s old and battered?’ You don’t always cover yourself in glory as a kid. Mum and Dad always made sure that I understood that you don’t forget where you come from—it’s not someone’s material wealth that’s the indicator of who they are. My parents’ values live with me. They did the best they could for us as parents. That’s all you can ask. It’s a tough job, balancing the demands of work and family.
Being a dad has changed me for the better. Chloe and our three kids—our younger daughter Clementine and Chloe’s two children from her previous marriage, Rupert and Georgette—have taught me so much. They keep me grounded. Like all parents we are protective of our kids. A child’s innocence is precious, but the nature of my job and our modern, digital world throws up unique challenges. I wish it wasn’t so.
There is dignity in work. My parents encouraged my brother and me to take up a trade if we wanted or pursue a whitecollar job—it did not matter. They were simply committed to us getting a good education, wherever it took us. They also imparted to Rob and me a healthy scepticism—that you should always think for yourself. Each Sunday morning, we heard the thud of the National Times hitting the front porch—this was a newspaper that investigated corruption with its pithy, cheeky take on politics. Out on the kitchen table, Rob and I would pore through the pages and laugh at the Patrick Cook cartoons. We were encouraged to watch the news on television from a young age. The world looked like an interesting place to me. I was curious and optimistic.
Both sides of my family were Labor people. However, the experience of the Whitlam government shook my parents. I think they were disillusioned with Labor for a while. There was a period in the mid-1970s where, like all working people, they were concerned about where the Australian economy was heading, what it meant for them and their family, and wondered if Labor had always made the right calls. Their moment of doubt passed quickly. Mum came from a family of tribal Labor supporters, even if, as proud Australian Catholics, the Great Labor Split of the 1950s had frayed that relationship somewhat. A lot of the union men in Mum’s family clung to old-fashioned attitudes towards women and I know that annoyed her. Yet my parents were always union people—always for workers.
Mum used to tell me that her father was a smart fellow. Richard ‘Dick’ McGrath was a printer by trade, shifting from lithographic to gravure printing over time. He’d seen technological change and, after returning from military service in World War II, Dick retrained himself so he could take advantage of the economic opportunities of the postwar years. That’s a lesson about change I’ve always carried with me. I would see factories close, shops close. Yet new opportunities also arise. During the 2015 ALP National Conference, I took a few moments to walk out of the venue, the Melbourne Convention Centre, and walk along the adjacent Yarra bank. I strolled over to the National Trust’s Polly Woodside, a 130-year-old tall ship that’s permanently moored next to the Convention Centre as a tourist attraction. The Polly Woodside sits right where the Duke and Orr Dry Dock used to be. Forty years earlier, I’d been running around this place, awed by the size of the ships and the hard work being done there by the men on the job. Now I was here in this thriving hub of restaurants and retail, doing my work as Labor leader.
In April 2014, Mum passed away suddenly, aged 79. She continues to be my inspiration. She grew up in a working-class household that was political—her Uncle George McGrath was a railway worker at Spotswood and an active delegate of the left-wing Australian Railways Union—and saw education as the path towards self-improvement. When Mum was awarded a scholarship to undertake a Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne University, she paid her own way and gave the proceeds to her parents, who used them to pay for the schooling of her younger siblings. This was in the early 1950s, when it was uncommon for working-class people, let alone women, to study at university. She was undaunted. The social barriers that she must have encountered during this time only served to reinforce the no-nonsense style that she carried throughout her life. She expected people to make an effort and to work hard. She was always trying to learn something new. Mum collected a BA, a Diploma of Education, a Master of Education, a PhD, an honours degree in law and the Supreme Court prize in law. That last one stirred a mixture of great pride and minor embarrassment on the part of Rob and me, because she was awarded the prize in 1985, our first year as law students at Monash. It was an incredible achievement for someone with a full-time job, twin teenage boys and no family connection to the legal profession.
My mother taught me that it was possible to be proudly Australian—to be patriotic in the sense of loving one’s country and wanting it to be better—yet also embrace an internationalist view. Before Mum was married, she was an inveterate traveller. She wanted to see the world and she did throughout her life—Spain, the Rocky Mountains, Newfoundland, Korea, the pyramids in Egypt, Paris and the Panama Canal. It became a regular activity for her family to travel to Station Pier in Port Melbourne to see her off on another journey in a blizzard of streamers thrown from the wharf. Here was a woman of working-class stock expanding her horizons. She used these journeys to gather knowledge. You and I might know that the Eiffel Tower was built by a man named Eiffel. My mother would know its cost in francs, how much it weighed, why it was built and what the government that commissioned it thought of it. Mum wanted to understand things as completely as she could. Her job as a schoolteacher and as a school principal took her places too. She taught at Orbost and Queenscliff in country and coastal Victoria, and in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Collingwood, as well as further afield in Townsville and London.
This was the woman who raised me. These were the stories that I grew up with. Her example had the greatest impact on me as I navigated my little world of Hughesdale and then Xavier and Monash. Mum taught me that merit is the measure by which we should all be judged—not birth or gender, or the accumulation of wealth. Merit is defined by hard work, attainment, taking responsibility and doing the right thing. She taught me that personal ambition goes hand-in-hand with looking out for and making sacrifices on behalf of others. Through her experience I learned that change should be embraced, but it was important to remain questioning—to retain a healthy scepticism of the reasons advocated for change. I will be forever grateful to my mother for these gifts and the many ideas and the example she passed on to me. I miss her every day. I wish I could tell her that.