Shorten 'absolutely stoked' to capture workplace portfolio

"ABSOLUTELY stoked!" That's how a beaming Bill Shorten summed up his reaction to being one of the big winners of the Gillard reshuffle yesterday. And who could blame him?

"ABSOLUTELY stoked!" That's how a beaming Bill Shorten summed up his reaction to being one of the big winners of the Gillard reshuffle yesterday. And who could blame him?

Not only has he been allocated the portfolio he is well-equipped to fill, he has been given it at precisely the time that workplace relations is returning to prime time.

That is good news for one of Canberra's more nakedly ambitious MPs. It is also a sensible allocation of resources by a leader who needs to make the most of every opportunity.

Mr Shorten, 44, has only been in the Parliament for four years and this is his fourth and biggest promotion. It rewards his good work in the areas of disability reform and superannuation and, more recently, in advocating on the government's behalf when Qantas grounded its fleet.

More than that, it recognises that he has a skill that has been in short supply since Labor won power under Kevin Rudd in 2007 and clung on under Gillard last year the ability to communicate in measured terms to the middle ground.

A former debating champion from Xavier College, he came to national attention as a talking head during the Beaconsfield mining collapse and rescue of miners Brant Webb and Todd Russell in 2006.

It was then that the nation's most breathless tabloid, Sydney's Daily Telegraph, screamed "BILL FOR PM" on its front page and reported that senior Labor figures were urging Shorten to "enter politics immediately and lead the Labor Party to the next election".

Mr Shorten did enter Parliament at the next opportunity, vacating his top job at the Australian Workers Union for another young man in a hurry with a penchant for wheeling and dealing, Paul Howes.

If he took the speculation about his leadership prospects seriously, he learnt soon enough and perhaps the hard way that the best way to prosper is to do the job you are given and do it well.

Those outside politics who have watched him closely say the reputation for self-promotion is misplaced.

"Everyone talks about how ambitious he is," says Yooralla's Bruce Bonyhady. "What people should comment on is how he is prepared to tackle difficult issues and invest his political capital to get things done."

With Jenny Macklin, Mr Shorten realised quickly that addressing the shortcomings of how this country treats those with a disability could constitute nation-building reform. It now ranks very high on the Gillard to-do list for the coming year.

Mr Shorten's attention now turns to industrial relations, just when debate is starting in earnest on whether the pendulum has swung back too far from John Howard's WorkChoices and individual contracts in the direction of union power and arbitration.

While the political task will be to convince voters that Mr Abbott would restore the toughest features of WorkChoices, Mr Shorten gave the impression yesterday that he will adopt a much broader perspective.

"I do not have a catastrophic view of Australian industrial relations," he told reporters. "I do not believe it is too difficult to be pro-employee and pro-employer at the same time."

If the poll numbers do not improve, of course, sometime next year his loyalty to Ms Gillard will be put to the test, but quite deliberately he has left himself very little wriggle room on the question of leadership.

"[Ms Gillard] is here for the duration. She has been tried in the fire and come through."

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