Federal Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten even has to keep the smiles plastered on when he’s in a lift. Picture: Joel Carrett/AAP
Federal Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten even has to keep the smiles plastered on when he’s in a lift. Picture: Joel Carrett/AAP

Bill Shorten has lost part of himself

BILL Shorten lives in a straitjacket.

No swearing. No boozing. No laughing at off jokes.

You burnt my coffee? Well thank you for trying your best.

You want a photo? Why of course... I would much rather hear your anecdote than spend time with my daughter.

Most of us like to think that we are on our best behaviour all of the time. But in truth, we all have our off days.

Since becoming Labor leader five years ago, Bill has not been allowed to have a single one.

As he inches ever closer to the prime minister's suite, Shorten's straitjacket becomes ever tighter.

'Do we really have to stop at every set of lights?' I ask Bill as we pause during an early dawn run through a deserted Sydney CBD.

Bill doesn't answer - he just nods towards the council workers 50 metres away who are waving and taking photos on their iPhone.

The constant glare. The pressure. The demands.

"Mr Shorten.. what do you think about comments from so-and-so today?" He will be asked. Everyday.

The names change. The journalists rotate.

Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek listen as a student performs a song at a local Brunswick primary school in Melbourne this week. Picture: Daniel Pockett/AAP
Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek listen as a student performs a song at a local Brunswick primary school in Melbourne this week. Picture: Daniel Pockett/AAP

But never... not once... after almost 2000 days as Labor leader...has he ever said, "Well frankly, I couldn't give less of a shit." Never once is he allowed to scream.

When you are leader the individual days all become a blur.

Moving from a car to a function. Lights. Cameras. A photo. Quick speech. Stay for the applause. Back into the car.

Three missed calls from home you won't return.

All the while surrounded by advisors waiting to brief in information that has to be absorbed and remembered.

It's exhausting. But Bill is never allowed to be tired.

He has to have the most radiant smile. He has to be happy.

Malcolm Turnbull couldn't do it. You could see he wanted to scream. You could tell when he was tired. When he was angry. When he had had enough.

Sure, Malcolm might occasionally get on a bus and post a picture of himself smiling. But you knew it was fake. You knew he hated it.

Scott Morrison now faces the glare.

He was a senior minister and even Treasurer.

But being leader is different. Being leader is relentless.

Another day, another endless round of appearances. Not everyone would have the mental stamina to be a political leader. Picture: Joel Carrett/AAP
Another day, another endless round of appearances. Not everyone would have the mental stamina to be a political leader. Picture: Joel Carrett/AAP

The Treasurer can always blame the Prime Minister: "It was THEIR call", they will say to their colleagues when no one is around.

"Well what was I meant to do, undermine the Prime Minister?", a senior minister will say to journalists, while doing exactly that. To be leader is to be alone, standing under the spotlight.

So how do you survive? How do you not become like Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Kim Beasley, Tony Abbott, Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull?

How do you not just become another leader of a political party that was dumped by their own side?

One answer is to keep tightening the jacket.

People claim they want it to change. That they want our leaders to be able to be free. To be able to mess up. To laugh at the wrong joke. To occasionally be rude. Less scripted.

People say they want their leaders to be more like them. But that's a lie. One wrong foot, one wrong comment, one wrong step and the public viciousness kicks in.

We hold our leaders to an unrealistic standard of perfection and punish them the second they don't meet it. We want our leaders to be human but demand superhuman control and disciple.

Ask yourself: could you ever do it? Could you control every word that comes out of your mouth, to always be 'on'?

Performing. All day. And could you do it for year after year after year.

And then ask yourself this: Why do we want that from our leaders? Why do we demand our leaders be in straitjackets?

"Do you think we will see the old Bill again?" A few of his friends ask me over a drink at a Sydney bar. I know what they mean.

The Bill from a decade ago. Carefree. Holding court at the pub. Cheeky. Mischievous. Loud.

Bill's friends don't understand what the straitjacket does to people.

They don't realise that that was the old Bill. That he doesn't exist anymore.

That if you stop swearing. Stop going out. Stop losing your cool. Smile... always smile. That it changes you.

After a while you aren't forcing yourself to be pleasant and measured. You just do it.

And it makes you a better politician but you lose a little of yourself in the process. That there is a price that you have to pay to succeed. A price we demand from our leaders.

A price Bill is paying.



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