The front page of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and Brisbane’s Courier Mail on Wednesday was always going to be controversial.
In a story headlined “Mother Of Invention” it suggested that Shorten had omitted facts when citing the struggles of his late mother as an inspiration for his political life, as he has done for yonks.
— Ben English (@bennyglish) May 7, 2019
Sure, it made clear Ann Shorten did indeed temper her own ambitions until after she’d raised her sons, taking a teaching scholarship after school as it was the only way she could go to uni (becoming the first member of her family to do so) before working as a teacher until finally going back to uni as a mature age student to follow her lifelong dream of becoming a lawyer.
But, the article points out, she got to be a successful lawyer for the last six years of her working life, so… what?
And if the intent was for this to be a gotcha! moment on the Labor leader then oh, how it backfired.
The story of a smart woman being required to make significant career sacrifices until her fifties, when her opportunities were much diminished compared with what she’d have achieved in her youth, resonated heavily with women who still have to make that same calculus in their own lives and careers.
And the hashtag #MyMum immediately started trending, starting a discussion about the wasted potential women have been obliged to accept, especially older women, thanks a lack of support with the pressures of motherhood – and also made Shorten’s story universally personal as people reflected on their own mothers and the lives they might have had.
And then, against this background, Shorten made a statement.
— Justin Stevens (@_JustinStevens_) May 8, 2019
As for the idea that Ann Shorten had “an illustrious career”, Bill wasted no time in laying out the facts: she was discriminated against because of her age, which wouldn’t have happened if she’d studied law straight out of school.
“She did her best,” he said to the press today. “She went down and did some Magistrates Court work, but she discovered in her mid-50s that sometimes you’re just too old – and you shouldn’t be too old – but she discovered the discrimination against older women. And so she eventually… while she kept her name on the bar roll for a number of years, she came back and she did other things. Do you know my mum wrote the book on education and law in Australia? Brilliant. She’s brilliant.”
(Quick note: can you describe your mum’s career with the same level of detail? Maybe give her a call, she’d love to hear from you.)
This might end up being the indelible image of this campaign: the moment when a man who had been a cipher until this point was shown as a man emotionally defending his mother’s memory. It’s easily the most emotionally impactful moment of an otherwise soul-sappingly lacklustre election campaign.
Notably, Melbourne’s the Herald Sun – sister publication of the Telegraph and the Courier Mail – declined to run the original story, and columnist Andrew Bolt even wrote an editorial supporting that decision. And he is, to put it delicately, no fan of Shorten.
Andrew Bolt supports the Herald Sun decision not to run the story on Bill Shorten’s mother pic.twitter.com/W8iWPj2XX6
— Amy Remeikis (@AmyRemeikis) May 8, 2019
The PM also came to his rival’s defence.
“This election is not about our families,” Scott Morrison declared. “It’s not about Bill’s mum. It’s not about my mum… I know that Bill and I would very much want it to keep focussed on that choice, not on our families.”
(And he’s absolutely right: it’s not about their mums. Heck, the Liberals are holding their campaign launch on Mother’s Day – how much more not-about-our-mums could this campaign get?)
In short, an article on Ann Shorten’s career has succeeded where a million Labor frontbench testimonials failed: it finally humanised her son in the eyes of Australia.
This election just got a lot more dramatic.