Marr’s essay on Shorten is very fine and very fair. Unlike his parallel work on Rudd, whose treacherous first sentence was a hand grenade that changed our history, he gives in this a full, deep, nuanced picture of a man he is neither enthused by, nor unsettled by.
As with Hawke, Rudd, Albo, there was a strong mother. As with Hawke, Rudd, Albo, Latham, an almost absent father. A need for approval, for love. As with Abbott, a Jesuit sensibility. And, as Herndon said of Lincoln, ‘his ambition was a little motor that had no rest’.
Much is explained of the months when that motor seemed to be chugging at half speed. A thirty-year-old rape allegation, the death of his mother, internet rumours, efficiently denied, of infidelity. Marr charts well the moment when he regained both control and charisma, at the Labor Party Conference in June, and the moment he might have lost it, last week, and how he survived.
Things that in my nine year acquaintance with him I only partly knew — that he is a superb up-close negotiator, an agile welder of consensus, a factional generalissimo, a backroom inspirer of the troops — are detailed here. His rivalry with his non-identical twin brother Robert, now a London banker, is detailed also, as is his impactful cleverness, outstripping Swanny we are told, as an architect and advocate of economic policy.
I myself can vouch for his passionate empathy for the disabled, about whom we wrote many speeches together. ‘It’s the last civil right,’ he told me with ferocious conviction. ‘Like Martin Luther King, I want them up the front of the bus.’ I did not know he could play the piano — better, in some judgments, than his brother; that he and his brother performed in Gilbert and Sullivan; that Richard Marles was his Best Man; that Gillard offered him a place in her law firm, which he refused; and so on. Nor that he recorded a Logies acceptance speech, as the author of the ‘zingers’ that occupied ‘at least half Mad As Hell’s broadcast time’, in a year when Micalleff did not win that award, which meant his genial self-send-up was never seen.
The sinuous detail of his manoeuvres in Young Labor, his alliances with Robert Ray, Kim Carr and Kim Beazley, and for long years with Conroy, which earned their faction the nickname ‘the ShortCons’ was absorbing but, for me, a little unsettling. In Melbourne, well…they do things differently there; and the macchiavellian shifts and betrayals and reconfigurations of discarded friendships which Marr notes here in their…well..particularity, their moveable, embittering, fratricidal pragmatism, their High Noon confrontations from which there is no turning back, may daunt some of us more mild-mannered New South Welshpersons with their fired up, take-no-prisoners finality. Victoria is different. They do things differently there.
Does Marr like Shorten? I think he does. The essay at any rate deep-etches with sympathetic understanding the recent star of Q&A who on Monday night surprised many grumblers with his ease and guile, and tipped the advantage back to Labor and did so on the Turnbull government’s very first day.
Can he win from here? I think so. Can he win a March election? Absolutely. That is enough time. There will be dirty tricks though before then, some from Dyson Heydon, and it may seem uncertain whilever Newspoll and ReachTEL cheat their sampling and the Murdoch front page computer libels remain as vile, mendacious and unjust as they are.
But Marr has left one crucial factor out of his portrait, and this is that Shorten is lucky.
An absorbed student of Napoleon, that famed admirer of lucky generals, he lucked into Beaconsfield, and with it national visibility, and Beaconsfield’s handy suspenseful thirteen-day narrative and happy ending; and into NDIS, our noblest act of legislated mercy; and into the selling of Gonski, which had no enemies, to especially the doomed, anti-Abbott O’Farrell and Napthine, which showed how good a negotiator he is; and into, yes, the new Rudd rules that let him into the leadership with many, many less votes than Albo, in a month when Greg Combet believed he was too sick to nominate, and wasn’t. And he lucked into Abbott also, the punch-drunk Creationist homophobe kook, and the stupidest Ministry since Federation. How lucky was that.
For this and other reasons he’ll get there.
In fact, he is there already.