Bill Shorten’s old mate who understands true disaster … and survival

“Bill” is Bill Shorten, who was the national secretary of the Australian Workers Union when Brant Webb and Todd Russell were trapped by a cave-in deep within Beaconsfield’s gold mine. Fellow miner Larry Knight was killed.

The rockfall was on Anzac Day, April 25, 2006.

May 9 is the day when Webb and Russell were rescued, emerging from 925 metres beneath the surface blinking into the light, punching the air with the exhilaration of deliverance.

It was the biggest news story in Australia.

Bill Shorten would be swept up in it, too, giving many Australians their first view of the man who 13 years later would go to an election that supporters predicted would lead to the prime ministership of Australia.

But there would be no light for Shorten at the end of his climb to the top. No joy; no reason to punch the air.

His reward on the election night of Saturday, May 18, 2019, would be ashes in his mouth.

Labor politics is a merciless business and within hours the caravan had moved on, the talk turning to who might be the newly chosen.

Shorten’s old rival for the leadership, Anthony Albanese, called for critics to lay off Shorten, declaring that “attributing blame or fault to any particular individual or policy is not the way ahead».


Still, the Labor Party inevitably will spend dark hours debating its wisdom in choosing Shorten to bring it back from the near oblivion of 2013, when Tony Abbott’s Coalition swept away the Rudd-Gillard Labor period.

Shorten, after all, had played the ‘et tu, Brute’ role in bringing down Kevin Rudd, then in replacing Julia Gillard with Rudd. And when they were gone, it was Shorten who took the leadership, protected by a new rule that would keep him there, unchallenged, for seven years.

He never, however, won unqualified popularity.

To some, he was Machiavellian. To others he lacked authenticity.

And there was the matter of the company he kept.

He had mixed with the roughest of workers as national secretary of the biggest union in the land, the AWU. He was also friends with some of the richest men in the nation, like the late “cardboard king”, Richard Pratt, who famously lent Shorten his private jet so he could race to Beaconsfield when Todd Russell and Brant Webb were found to be alive.

The most consistent criticism of Shorten – that he is an opportunist – goes back to that rush to Beaconsfield in 2006 when Webb, Russell and Larry Knight, all AWU members, went missing in the depths.

Mr Shorten has a beer with Beaconsfield mine disaster survivors Todd Russell and Brant Webb in Tasmania.

Mr Shorten has a beer with Beaconsfield mine disaster survivors Todd Russell and Brant Webb in Tasmania. Credit:Phillip Biggs

Shorten had just been preselected for the federal seat of Maribyrnong in Melbourne’s inner west – a brutal Labor affair reportedly involving ethnic branch stackers to “persuade” the sitting member, Bob Sercombe, to withdraw.

Only months before, my colleague at The Bulletin magazine of the time, the author Paul Daley, had written one of the first sweeping profiles of Shorten.

“The name’s Bill. Bill Shorten,” the kicker line began. “Remember it well. He’s a union supremo at the moment. He’s pals with both foxes and hounds. He’s the face of 21st century Labor. Heading for The Lodge? You better believe it.”

Among the more dangerous accusations in Labor politics is that you are getting above yourself. Critics from afar and Labor figures within, threatened by the idea of a 37-year-old, right-wing smart guy from Melbourne beating them to the prize, took short time to accuse Shorten of using the disaster at Beaconsfield to gain a national profile to fire up his political trajectory.

It set the tone for years of doubts about Shorten’s character.

But was this genesis of a millstone ever fair?

Brant Webb, more intimately involved in the drama than anyone, bluntly rejects it.

“People who reckon Bill was there for the glory are bullshitting themselves. He did heaps of things that nobody knew about,” he says.

“Bill was really compassionate to my wife Rachel when I was trapped.

“He was always around, worried about how she was getting on, trying to keep her going.

“And you know he stayed at the Riviera Hotel down at Beauty Point with Dad, and he was always there for him.

“When we got out [of the mine], he stayed around for days, just to make sure we were getting along. He could have shot through, like everyone else, but he stayed.”

These years later, Webb and his wife remain close with Shorten and his wife Chloe.

Each time the Webbs travel to Melbourne, they stay with the Shortens in their Moonee Ponds home.

And every Anzac Day and May 9, Brant Webb the former hard rock miner gets a call from Bill Shorten, the man who never became prime minister of Australia, at least partly because voters believed they couldn’t trust him.

Tony Wright is the author of Bad Ground: Inside the Beaconsfield Mine Rescue.

Tony Wright is the associate editor and special writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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