Australia

From union boss to wannabe PM: Bill Shorten's career timeline

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Bill Shorten was long touted as a potential prime minister by many within the Labor Party. But on election night 2019, it wasn't to be. Here, SBS News looks back at his political career.

Bill Shorten's rise to leader of the Labor Party in 2013 fulfilled a long-held ambition for the former union head.

Mr Shorten has managed to last as party leader longer than most in recent history, but despite opinion polling indicating he was on the cusp of an even bigger win at this year's federal election, it didn't happen. 

After a national loss for the Labor party on Saturday night, he conceded defeat and said he would step down as Labor leader. "I know that you're all hurting and I am too," he said. 

Bill Shorten
Bill Shorten concedes defeat alongside wife Chloe.
AAP

Union roots

The 51-year-old began his working life as a lawyer at the firm Maurice Blackburn.

Mr Shorten's involvement with the unions started in 1994, as a trainee organiser with the Australian Workers Union (AWU). 

He managed to climb to the top of the union, serving as AWU national secretary from 2001 to 2007.

Bill Shorten speaks to the media in Beaconsfield in 2006.
Bill Shorten speaks to the media in Beaconsfield in 2006.
AAP

His profile was boosted during the 2006 Beaconsfield mine disaster when two miners were trapped one kilometre underground for two weeks.

As the union secretary, Mr Shorten became the unofficial spokesperson for the families and the community.

On the back of a strong public performance, speculation mounted he was a Labor leader in the making.

Even Sydney's Daily Telegraph, which has recently not been kind to Mr Shorten, ran the headline "Bill For PM".

Bill Shorten delivering his maiden speech at Parliament House, 2008
Bill Shorten delivering his maiden speech at Parliament House, 2008

He was also a board member of lobby group GetUp until early 2006, at a time when the left-wing group was receiving substantial union money.

Rise to leader

After a failed pre-selection bid prior to the 1996 federal election, Mr Shorten entered federal parliament in 2007, winning the safe Labor seat of Maribyrnong in Melbourne's west.

With his national profile, some thought he would immediately make the frontbench. But new prime minister Kevin Rudd pushed back against the idea.

Mr Shorten started his political career as a parliamentary secretary for disabilities and children's services, where he advocated for a National Disability Insurance Scheme.

But politics quickly became complicated, and he was soon a key player in the backroom of the Labor factions.

Julia Gillard and Bill Shorten at a tax forum in Canberra, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011
Julia Gillard and Bill Shorten at a tax forum in Canberra, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011
AAP

Mr Shorten was one of the main players in the ousting of Mr Rudd in 2010, widely seen one of the so-called "faceless men" behind the knifing.

He played a similar role in the removal of Mr Rudd's replacement, Julia Gillard, just before the 2013 election.

Over this time, he served as minister for financial services, minister for workplace relations and minister for education.

After Labor's defeat in 2013, Mr Shorten was elected as party leader, beating Anthony Albanese in a combined vote of caucus and rank-and-file members.

Mr Shorten and Mr Rudd in 2013.
Mr Shorten and Mr Rudd in 2013.

Mr Shorten said his election proved the party was over its infighting.

“Some of the leadership disunity in the past is now just that - in the past - and party members have provided us with unequivocal support," he said.

Mr Shorten led Labor to a 14-seat gain in 2016 on the back of a campaign centred on health care and education.

The Coalition defeated Labor, but the close result saw Mr Shorten stay on at the helm.

He was Labor leader longer than some of the party's biggest contemporary figures, such as Mr Rudd, Ms Gillard and former prime minister Paul Keating.

What happened? 

Before election night, analysts believed he and Labor had a shot at victory. 

Dr Zareh Ghazarian, an author and political scientist at Monash University, said Mr Shorten had somewhat been able to shake his image as backstabber - albeit with a little help from the Coalition.

"It is true Bill Shorten was very much involved in the unseating of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard,” he said.

“But he and Labor have since been able to go back and present themselves as that cohesive political force - and they’ve been able to do that at a time where the Coalition has been falling apart."

Bill Shorten delivers a speech during day three of the Labor Party National Conference, December 18, 2018.
Bill Shorten delivers a speech during day three of the Labor Party National Conference, December 18, 2018.
AAP

A slew of opinion polls over the past 12 months also suggested Labor would win this year's federal election.

That was down to “a few factors”, according to the Australian National University's School of Politics’ Dr Jill Sheppard.

"It probably has a little bit to do with Bill Shorten seeming confident at the moment,” she said as campaigning was kicking off. 

“It probably has a bit to do with the Liberal Party changing prime ministers through their last term in government - but as much as anything, it might just be that the Australian voters feel the country is ready for change.”

But it wasn't to be on the night. 

'Never popular'

Julie Bishop said: "Bill brought stability to the Labor side, but he still had the baggage of being the guy that knifed two PMs - Gillard and Rudd - and that hung around him.

"He was also never popular. We all know that Albo [Anthony Albanese] was the Labor party's choice of leader, but the caucus chose Bill. Now because Kevin Rudd's legacy to the Labor Party changed the rules - that meant you were stuck with Bill.

"He did a good job of running a campaign by showing a team ... [but] the people just don't warm to him. He was never ever the preferred prime minster."

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