Shorten calmed the madding crowd once, can he do it again?

It was just another night in a pub in the tough little town of Beaconsfield when things turned ugly. It was to become a peculiar test for a union chief named Bill Shorten. Few know anything of the matter. It had to be settled quietly before things got out of hand.
By · 19 Oct 2013
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19 Oct 2013
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It was just another night in a pub in the tough little town of Beaconsfield when things turned ugly. It was to become a peculiar test for a union chief named Bill Shorten. Few know anything of the matter. It had to be settled quietly before things got out of hand.

He could do worse than to recall the details as he tries now, seven years later, to quell an ugliness in the political party he has led for just six days. A former attorney-general calls Kevin Rudd a bastard; a former Speaker spills the beans about how old-time factional deals still control Labor's inner sanctum; a disappointed former senator confides she has a "shocking story" about Julia Gillard's behaviour, but says she's keeping the details secret for now ...

Beaconsfield is not a particularly pretty town. It was built for one purpose, which never had much to do with the knock-down beauty of its surroundings.

It sits on a slope in Tasmania's Tamar Valley, the whispering bush all around. The town doesn't even bother with a view of the wide lovely waters of the Tamar River.

Beaconsfield's reason for being, as Australians everywhere and TV viewers across the world would learn in 2006, is in the underworld.

Beneath Beaconsfield's streets are uncounted miles of tunnels, shafts, drives and forgotten passages. Down there in the dark is gold.

Men and companies have been driven mad with the desire to mine it for 150 years, regularly broken by the frustration that the treasure is held within a never-ending underground flood. By 2006, a giant pumping system sucked 6 million litres of water out of the netherworld every 24 hours just so men could get at the gold.

It was hard and dangerous work, which is why the little town of Beaconsfield found itself at the centre of international attention. On Anzac Day, 2006, part of the mine, 925 metres below ground, collapsed.

Just about everyone remembers at least part of the story. Larry Knight was to be found dead, crushed by the cave-in. Todd Russell and Brant Webb would lie for a week in a cage hardly bigger than a dog's kennel for a week, thought to be dead, before they were detected alive. It would take another week for them to be released, in one of the world's most hazardous and astonishing rescue efforts.

As the days and nights of the search and rescue dragged on, Beaconsfield became a pressure cooker. Journalists and camera crews flew in from everywhere, establishing an encampment of tents and vans right outside the mine's fence and spilling across a park.

Information - their lifeblood - was scarce. It was locked away a kilometre beneath their feet, and the mine workers, exhausted and emotional after long hours confronted by what seemed an impossible search and rescue in the deep dark, weren't sharing secrets. Some of those journalists flashed cheque books and jumped residential fences to try to please hungry editors.

Beaconsfield's people, tight knit and unaccustomed to invasions by strangers, were initially intrigued and friendly. But many of them became increasingly offended by some of the brasher behaviour of the crowd of media people, and the mood turned sour and as cold as the storms sweeping in from the sea as it became clear that there was going to be no swift resolution to the plight of the trapped men.

Into this brooding atmosphere arrived Bill Shorten. He was national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, and he'd flown from Canada when his lieutenant, Paul Howes, had called from Beaconsfield informing him of the mine disaster.

Fewer than half of the 135 miners of Beaconsfield were members of the AWU, and a lot of them weren't financial. But Shorten was keen to be seen standing beside those he described as his members, declaring that it was simply what the union did. It was a bit more charged than that, of course. John Howard's government had introduced its WorkChoices legislation just the month before, and any canny union leader could hardly ignore the advantage that was to be had by the mere portrayal of worker-union solidarity at a time when workers' very lives were under threat.

The televised pictures of Shorten giving press conferences, providing detail that no one else had the time or energy to give, prompted both admiration and cynicism. To critics, he was an opportunist; to others, a natural leader. Either way, people started talking about him as a future political big shot - maybe a prime minister some day.

Behind the scenes, tensions in Beaconsfield were reaching breaking point.

Beaconsfield is a drinking town. One evening I made the mistake of leaving my regular bar stool at the Club Hotel, where I'd got to know quite a few older hard-rock miners, and wandered up the street a bit to the Exchange, where music blared. The place was filled with young bucks.

Somehow, as the night wore on, I failed to pick up on a fundamental mood change.

By midnight a photographer and I were the only out-of-town media representatives in the bar. I was chatting away to a young fellow when he whispered that the photographer and I had better clear out straight away. There had been a conference out the back and a mob of overexcited drunk lads had decided it was time to give us a flogging - for no better reason, apparently, than we represented those nosey, noisy aliens from beyond.

I grabbed the photographer and we edged for the door. The crowd of hotheads realised what we were doing and stampeded after us. We ran, leapt in our car right outside, boots and cans assailing us, and made a getaway.

The mob was just getting started. It rampaged up the hill to the media camp, tents were flattened and ripped, a journalist's hire car was smashed up, and a young female reporter working late was manhandled, several of the yobbos physically carrying her from her desk towards the park before their mates decided this was a step too far.

Nerves were on edge the following day. What might happen next?

Nothing, it turned out. The dreary sameness, the waiting. In the evening I dropped into the Club. A couple of the older, grizzlier miners pulled up bar stools.

"Heard what happened," one of them said. "Won't happen again. A few of us had a bit of a talk to the young idiots."

Why would you do that, I inquired?

"Yeah, well that Shorten bloke came around," said the tough old miner. "Said this sort of stuff didn't do any good for anyone. Made sense. So it's over, all right?" And it was.

Seven years later, Bill Shorten's ability to suppress strife faces a bigger test.
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