Australian politician brought to tears by tabloid stories about his dead mother

News Corporation attacks on Labor leader Bill Shorten widely condemned ahead of election

The Australian election campaign took a dramatic twist when the leader of Australia’s opposition Labor Party, Bill Shorten, broke down in tears after two tabloid newspapers printed front page stories about his dead mother.

Under the all capital letters headline "Mother of invention", Sydney's Daily Telegraph said Mr Shorten had left out some details of his mother's academic record while talking about the sacrifices she made to raise her children, accusing him of dishonesty. The same story was used in Brisbane's Courier Mail newspaper, under the headline, again using all capitals, "Staying mum".

“In a new low, the Daily Telegraph has decided to use my mum’s life as a political attack on me, and on her memory,” Mr Shorten said. “I’m glad she wasn’t here today to read that rubbish.”

Mr Shorten, who was fighting back tears as he spoke, said of the tabloids, both of whom are owned by Rupert Murdoch: “They play ‘gotcha shit’ about your life story – more importantly, my mum’s”.


The Daily Telegraph report said Mr Shorten had ignored a “vital fact” about his mother’s thwarted desire to become a lawyer, pointing out that she went on to have an “illustrious” career as a barrister after a mid-life career change.

The story was roundly condemned in most media not owned by Mr Murdoch's News Corporation. Former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd used Twitter to say "These two Murdoch rags continue to plum new depths. How do the editors justify this attack on Shorten and his dead mother?"

Thousands of others used #MyMum on Twitter to recount difficulties their mothers had gone through to raise them.

Mr Shorten, who has sometimes been criticised for his robotic delivery of talking points, was praised for finally showing emotion. The Sydney Morning Herald referred to his response as "the most compelling moment of this election campaign".

The Liberal-National coalition prime minister, Scott Morrison, also condemned the Daily Telegraph article, describing it as an "upsetting story" and said the campaign debate should be focused on the policies, not the families, of the party leaders.

A few hours later, Mr Morrison and Mr Shorten took part in the third and final leaders’ debate of the campaign. Having been widely judged to have lost the first two debates, the prime minister acquitted himself better this time, particularly on the issue of the respective parties’ childcare policies.

He got unwelcome laughs from an audience largely made up of journalists and fellow politicians, however, when he seemed to predict the future by saying, “We brought the budget back to surplus next year.”

Mr Shorten was again unable to put a figure on how much a government led by him would spend to address climate change, but said the constant questions on action rather the cost of inaction was “a crooked, charlatan’s argument . . . What this government calls a cost, I call an investment.”

The latest News Corporation attack on Mr Shorten and his robust response, as well as the final leaders’ debate, will have no impact on the 1.4 million people who have already voted in what is known as pre-polling.

It is expected that one-third of those eligible to vote will already have done so before the official election day of May 18th.

Pádraig Collins

Pádraig Collins

Pádraig Collins a contributor to The Irish Times based in Sydney