Chloe Shorten has spent five years interviewing for a job that’s almost entirely undefined. The wife of Australia’s likely next Prime Minister acknowledges her curious situation with a laugh, and quickly checks her phone for messages. While a believer in some occasional unplugging, she thanks technology for making her family’s virtual togetherness possible, even when it’s physically not.
“With Bill’s constant travel we have to do every possible app, every piece of technology,” says Chloe Shorten. “It can get a bit embarrassing because he might FaceTime me in my trackies, putting a child to sleep and ‘Bing! Hello?’ – Bill is there with his colleagues, all dressed in their suits”.
“I’ve been introduced to a few people when I am seriously not quite ready, thank you very much”. I raise my eyebrows, wondering who Shorten might be referring to. “Jacinda Ardern,” she admits with a part-grin, part-grimace, recalling her initial introduction to the Prime Minister of New Zealand.
When we meet at a coffee shop near her Moonee Ponds home, Chloe Shorten is readying herself for an election campaign. Rather shy and understandably wary of the media, this will be her only interview ahead of the May 18 poll.
Chaotic schedules that change by the hour, plans dictated by marginal seat polling, anticipated attacks from the other side and magnifying glass-like media scrutiny await her. Political fortune-tellers predict that Bill Shorten will be Australia’s 31st Prime Minister, representing a world changing shift for their family.
One of the suburb’s young mums rushes in for a much-needed second caffeine hit of the day. She waves cheerily to her friend Chloe and asks how the wife to the possible next-leader of the nation is doing. “We’re vertical!” is the wry reply.
Community matters to Chloe Shorten, who, like her husband, doesn’t underestimate the power of local. She seems to know everyone who wanders in and out the jangling doors. “This coffee shop has been great for the area,” Shorten tells me wistfully. “It’s given everyone somewhere to come together. I love it here”.
Silence settles around what’s left unsaid in that statement. Chloe Shorten believes in her husband’s vision for the country but government would also enormously disrupt her young family and the community of support she and Bill have built around them. Tradition dictates that the couple would relocate to The Lodge in Canberra before the end of financial year.
When I press her about the future, Chloe Shorten is polite and charmingly tight lipped. “I keep myself as firmly planted in the now and in the day and in the moment as I can,” she explains. “It means not looking back too much and worrying about what’s gone before and not extrapolating myself into the future. Not buying into the inevitability of where my life is going and not explaining to people what my life might look like in the future when I do not even know myself”.
Refusing to get ahead of herself is how Shorten keeps herself grounded through the uncertainty of political life. A victim of the brutality of politics in the early days, it took a toll on Chloe Shorten, who was baffled by the unkindness of the so-called Canberra bubble.
Insulating her children from the muck and fiercely defending their right to privacy has been a priority for the family. During the election campaign Chloe Shorten is determined her kids keep doing all their normal stuff, focusing on school and friends and sport, not caught up in speculation or spotlight.
“There is no case study for living in the huge era of technological change, social media, public life and politics… Part of the strategy is telling the kids ‘this is what happened today, and this is how we’re going to handle what happened today’,” Shorten says. “I keep routines and rituals going. The resilience you can build into so many parts of life, particularly when there are periods of stress, is to lean back on the mattress of ritual. I do that for myself too. There is some self-parenting that goes on,” she muses.
Those family rituals centre around food. Or at least, around a table on which food is served. Last year Chloe Shorten released her second book, The Secret Ingredient, a collection of recipes designed to show how eating together as a family offers more than a meal.
“Sitting at the table together, even if there is squabbling or someone is late or whatever, is important,” she declares. “Even if it means unpacking the Uber Eats… and we’re talking. Doesn’t matter if it’s fried rice on a plate with some broccoli. Dinner together is a predictable factor in an unpredictable world”.
Despite the churn of political life, Chloe Shorten doesn’t betray a shred of feeling sorry for herself. She draws parallels with her own experience and the daily challenges of other Australian women with families.
“I am in exactly the same space as some of my friends who are defence wives or are in shift work and in a nurse/doctor partnership. It’s the same thing. We’re all bound together by this unpredictability and being unable to have your year planned out, or your term, or even a week at school,” Shorten says. “There are so many things in my head that come from – not just mum – but both my parents”. Her mother, Dame Quentin Bryce, is a former lawyer and famously served as Australia’s first and only woman Governor-General. Her father Michael Bryce is an architect and designer. Together they raised five children in what sounds like a thoroughly modern and equal parenting partnership, particularly for the times.
“I think that I will always bang on about the things that are very unjust for women because they are still there.”
“A lot of people don’t realise the enormous fuel that my dad was for my mum in her career,” Shorten says. “Women live their lives doing all this extra stuff, this constant seam of activity and emotional labour that my parents told me you had to take turns at… While we’ve made strides with the women’s movement, we haven’t really evolved that taking turns bit; the low-level hum of emotional activity that goes through every day. Mum and dad taught me to try and do that well and do it together”.
Despite being a self-described reluctant player in the political process, Chloe Shorten is an accomplished former media consultant and journalist with an enormous amount to contribute. She’s poised to inherit a potentially significant national platform. One that could be used to achieve charitable and policy outcomes she’s passionate about, if she chooses to harness it in that way.
There’s been no real consistency in the attention and influences wielded by the ‘first spouse’ of Australian politics. Historically, Andrew Fisher’s wife Margaret was the first to take a politically active role, participating in suffrage rallies and the like. Enid Lyons went a step further in 1939, running for parliament herself after her husband died. Margaret Whitlam was a university educated thinker like her husband, and actively contributed to the national conversation.
More recently, businesswoman Therese Rein had to pull back considerably from her commercial work when Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister. Lucy Turnbull appeared regularly at her husband’s side and Malcolm Turnbull says her personal influence on his work was vast. Jenny Morrison and Margie Abbott have seemed more hesitant to engage publicly and remained focused on their families while giving the occasional interview for a magazine profile piece.
The whole ‘first lady’ concept doesn’t sit well with Chloe Shorten. She dismisses it as American. “I don’t, in Australia, think of the spouse of the Prime Minister as something formal. It’s not something that ever crosses my mind,” she says. “I don’t want to be the centre of attention. I am quite shy, and the public realm doesn’t come naturally to me. Public speaking doesn’t come naturally to me”.
Shorten may be more comfortable behind the scenes but the unabashed feminist speaks with contagious enthusiasm about issues facing Australian women and the urgent need for change. She’s an effective and engaging advocate.
Shorten is an Ambassador for Our Watch, a member of the Burnet Institute’s Engagement Committee and advises on their Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Program. When travelling the country’s marginal seats with her husband and his team, she makes time to visit local women’s shelters.
Her commitment to the women’s movement is what motivates Chloe Shorten to move outside the quiet spaces she’s happiest in. She’s acutely aware of being handed a metaphorical megaphone and in her own humble way, she intends to use it for the betterment of Australian women. Our conversation weaves in and out of women’s mental health, access to education and training, the care and protection of newborns and the devastating impact of post-natal depression.
Chloe Shorten cites the fundamental right of women to live free from violence as her number one policy priority. “I think that I will always bang on about the things that are very unjust for women because they are still there,” she says without apology. “I have two daughters and I want my son to become a man for others. That means seeing things through a different lens to a generation ago. When Bill says this country will transform itself and its economy when women are equal participants, I have to stop myself from going, ‘that’s my boy’!”
This is a woman who is genuinely baffled that so many on the conservative side of politics shun the ‘feminist’ label. “It beggars belief,” Chloe Shorten exclaims. “My dad is a feminist, my brothers are all feminists, my husband is a feminist. You know the pub test? I have the teen test… And the idea that there is this false binary that if women get equality, men will lose out? That just doesn’t pass the teen test”. Feminist politics and a commitment to gender equality runs deep in Shorten’s veins, seeded there by her famous mother during childhood.
The number 207 is scrawled in tiny writing above one of the kid’s bedrooms in the Shorten family home. (She won’t tell me which one). That figure represents how long it will take for women and men to achieve pay equality internationally. Chloe Shorten is raising her kids to view the world through a lens of gender equality, and she’ll be insisting her husband governs in the same way. How her influence shapes a possible Shorten prime ministership will be fascinating to see. With any luck, it might entail a fairer future for Australian women too.
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Jamila Rizvi is Future Women’s editor at large and a former adviser to the Rudd and Gillard Governments.
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