Bill Shorten (photo credit: 

When Napoleon wanted to understand someone he’d ask, “what drives this person? What makes them move?”

Years ago, when he first came to Parliament and long before he became Opposition Leader, I thought I’d discovered the answer for Bill Shorten. Every careful step in his career seemed directed towards one overriding objective: becoming Prime Minister.

He became involved with politics while studying Arts/Law at Monash University and, if you glance over his c.v., it’s easy to read every career move as just another step towards that ultimate goal.

He worked as a lawyer for a Labor-aligned firm specialising in workers compensation; after spending time in the ranks he was elected National Secretary of the Australian Workers Union; and as union leader generated enormous sympathy for the plight of trapped miners in the Tasmanian town of Beaconsfield as he assisted with their rescue. So when he was elected in 2007 many assumed the ambitious backbencher would shoot onto the front bench, but then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd held Shorten back. Rudd insisted he needed more time and “parliamentary experience” before promotion. He would have been better off attempting to harness Shorten’s drive to accomplish change and tried to keep the young ambitious politician inside the tent instead of locking him outside.

Shorten watched the slow-motion disintegration of Rudd’s government with horror. He became a key player in engineering Julia Gillard’s takeover before Rudd faced his first election. This, however, was where things began to go off-the-rails for Labor. Gillard just scraped over the line into government and her administration shuddered from crisis to crisis.

Gillard introduces the NDIS bill into Parliament. Photo Credit: Alex Ellinghausen/SMH

Shorten put his head down and attempted to accomplish something lasting lasting.

It was during this period that Shorten became the driving force behind the development of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. 

Gillard took the credit for introducing the NDIS but everyone knew it was Shorten’s baby.

Journalists in the Canberra Press Gallery don’t normally look very far to find somebody’s motivation. It was obvious to anybody that investigated the state-based system of disability care that it urgently needed to be reformed, so when Shorten came up with a means of doing exactly this it was easy to dismiss as nothing more than the product of his personal ambition to get ahead.

It certainly marked Shorten as someone who could shift the system and create new ways of doing things, but it also marked him out as very much a political player. Journalists had difficulty separating one from the other. What was driving Shorten – personal ambition or his desire to make the lives of disabled people better?

  • to be continued tomorrow . . .


Nic Stuart

Nicholas Stuart is an author (Kevin Rudd, an unauthorised political biography; What Goes Up, behind the 2007 election; Kevin Rudd, 2007 - 2011) and columnist with the Canberra Times. He was the ABC's Indochina Correspondent when he suffered a significant head injury in a car crash in Bangkok.

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