FOR A PARTY boasting 35 MPs, the brewing free-for-all over the vacant NSW ALP leadership might make sense if Labor was in striking distance of taking office; coming off its worst defeat in 80 years and needing a swing of 16% to win, however, the “who’s who” of would-be leaders is as unedifying as it is ridiculous. Meanwhile, a vicious missive from Paul Keating to outgoing leader John Robertson that has resurfaced has proven uncannily prescient.
Less than a week ago — as revelations emerged that the then-leader of the NSW ALP, John Robertson, had signed a constituent letter on behalf of Martin Place siege perpetrator Man Haron Monis, despite grave questions that already existed over his character — I wrote in this column that Robertson was a dead man walking for a range of reasons, and that the sooner his colleagues put him out of his misery, the better.
Robertson resigned his leadership later the same day.
And in one of those delicious coincidences of timing that can hardly be construed as accidental, a copy of a letter sent by former Prime Minister Paul Keating to Robertson the day the latter was sworn into the upper house seat he initially held in the NSW Parliament quickly resurfaced, and upon reading it I was stunned by how eloquently vicious — and how thoroughly prescient — Keating’s words have proven.
(As an aside, I should like to acknowledge Malcolm Farnsworth’s site at www.australianpolitics.com, from which the copy of this letter republished here was sourced; Malcolm’s site is an excellent resource for political and electoral material, and a veritable treasure trove for political junkies that I thoroughly recommend readers take some time to explore. If your browser is being temperamental about loading the letter, regular reader gregdeane has kindly pasted a text-only version of it into the comments section of this article).
Keating was motivated by Robertson’s positioning and behind-the-scenes handiwork — as a union heavyweight and backroom player in the NSW ALP — in helping to scuttle the Premiership of former Labor leader Morris Iemma, his privatisation program for the state’s electricity sector (a suppurating public policy sore that continues to weep six years later), and in engineering the departure of Iemma’s Treasurer, Michael Costa, from the upper house sinecure into which Robertson had that day been sworn.
Yet beyond that, Keating’s observations were not far wide of the mark about electricity privatisation, an issue that pursued the then ALP state government until it was slaughtered at the polls in 2011 even if, to be sure, it wasn’t the primary catalyst for the defeat that Keating foretold.
The “new…and good leader” Keating alluded to — former Premier Nathan Rees — was indeed destroyed by the ongoing machinations that Keating saw had marked Robertson’s own entry to Parliament via Costa’s seat.
But Keating’s brilliantly eviscerating comments about a putative move by Robertson to a lower house electorate and thence the Labor leadership were deadly in their precision, accuracy and prescience, and to be blunt — for all the reasons we discussed here on Monday, and then some — Keating’s “shame” in sharing common membership of the NSW ALP with Robertson was probably a well-placed sentiment.
I have included the letter today partly on account of its topicality and relevance, but also because (like so many aspects of the tribal beast that is the NSW Labor Party) it highlights issues that trickle down into the present leadership contest and at least one of the candidates vying to succeed Robertson as leader of state Labor.
But before we move onto that, a word about Keating: I always hated the bastard, politically of course, on account of what he did to the Liberal Party during the 1980s and — in a wound that still smarts — destroying its prospects comprehensively ahead of the 1993 federal election to win an undeserved fifth term for Labor (although I am on the record with more than enough explicit and strident criticism of John Hewson as Liberal leader, and his thorough unsuitability as a political front man).
From a purely impartial perspective it is impossible not to marvel at the sheer eloquence of Keating’s turn of phrase, the almost graceful use of invective and abuse, and the sheer hard, cold savagery with which this missive was crafted. Keating hit his target with bullseye precision, as he so often did. But to imagine any major party leader today exhibiting the same mastery of language and using it with such skill is quite literally an undertaking that defies belief.
Anyhow, I digress.
Having said all of that, the leadership ballot now set down for 5 January is beginning to look like an unmitigated farce, with (proverbially) every man and his dog apparently readying to stand to replace Robertson.
One of them — upper house MP Luke Foley — has, subsequent to Keating’s prosaic bullets being fired at Robertson, gone on to secure “a parliamentary seat at the public expense,” although as a replacement for disgraced and allegedly corrupt former Labor minister Ian Macdonald, it’s difficult to split hairs in view of Keating’s appraisal of Robertson.
Even so, for a party almost certain to face another shellacking at the state election to be held in March, the number of Labor MPs apparently fanciful of themselves as leaders and bent on indulging their delusions of grandeur is a surprise, to say the least.
Foley doesn’t even have a seat in the lower house, a prerequisite for leadership of his party: the word today is that the NSW ALP’s notorious Sussex Street headquarters is to see to that by fixing Foley up with preselection in the disputed Labor-held seat of Auburn.
Another contender, Steve Whan — beaten in his lower house seat of Monaro in 2011, kicked upstairs to fill a casual vacancy ten weeks later, and now preselected to recontest Monaro in March — presents as such a convoluted option as to best be given a wide berth.
Whan at least offers the prospect, somewhat refreshing as it is for Labor, of a potential leader from regional NSW: a consideration not to be trifled with, so poor is Labor’s performance in the regions compared to its Sydney heartland.
Yet there is no guarantee he will even win Monaro, and even if he does, a leader insecurely seated in a marginal seat is hardly a guarantee of stability or continuity if any kind of serious advance were to be achieved under his leadership.
Further, the fact he seems prepared to go up and down between the two houses of Parliament at will is a poor look, to say the least.
Maroubra MP and former minister Michael Daley is free of these drawbacks, and probably deserves to be the frontrunner in what is at best a mediocre and lacklustre field of candidates.
Yet just as Sussex Street appears set to fix up Foley in a lower house seat, it also appears determined to fix him up in the leadership, too; and if this comes to pass, Daley’s initiative in setting the ball rolling to get rid of Robertson in the first place will, in terms of his own interests, have been for naught.
Robertson’s deputy, Linda Burney — who is acting as leader until the ballot is held — has also indicated her intention to contest the leadership.
It must be remembered that disgraced former Premier and outgoing Toongabbie MP Nathan Rees had been slated to retake the leadership from Robertson, and probably would have done so had details of an illicit affair that also intersected with his portfolio responsibilities as a shadow minister not emerged last year.
And just to further heighten confusion, Labor has preselected a fellow called Chris Minns to its marginal (but usually safely held) seat of Kogarah; it is an article of faith both in Labor circles and among political commentators generally that Minns is the “chosen child:” selected now, well in advance, as the “star signing” who will enter Parliament and lead NSW Labor back into government, possibly as soon as 2019.
Of course, this kind of succession plan can easily come unstuck: especially in a political environment, and especially in a bearpit like the NSW ALP.
But for a party that boasted 20 lower house MPs and a further 15 in the upper house after the last state election — and whilst Labor has won three by-elections in Liberal-held seats since then, at least one of those has been abolished, as has Rees’ seat of Toongabbie — it is ridiculous that no fewer than six potential leaders are coming out of the woodwork at a time the party is virtually assured of a second successive drubbing at the hands of voters.
There is no guarantee more of their colleagues won’t also succumb to excessively well-developed self-importance complexes and nominate, either.
The truth is that whilst the Coalition government has not been invulnerable, its replacement of do-nothing Premier Barry O’Farrell with an outstanding substitute in Mike Baird has shut off a potent line of attack for Labor in the coming election campaign.
Whilst the Coalition has not been untouched by ICAC and misconduct findings, either — with no fewer than 10 of its MPs sidelined, some having already departed Parliament, and the remainder mostly set to do so in March — the Liberal Party has acted swiftly to excise this cancer wherever it has appeared; the fact Labor continues to be saddled with bad press from the likes of Macdonald and the ubiquitous Eddie Obeid vigorously proclaiming their innocence (and in Obeid’s case, waving the threat of defamation proceedings around as a bullying tactic against anyone who suggests otherwise) simply underlines just how entrenched the culture of dirty politics really is in the ALP’s DNA, and how even the fast action taken by the Liberals, if copied, could not have removed the stench of corruption from the NSW ALP’s entrails.
This, in effect, closes down another potential avenue for Labor to attack.
And — in an exquisite irony — Baird seems set to be handsomely re-elected, in part, on a solution to the electricity privatisation question that has variously bedevilled and skewered individuals and parties on both sides of the political divide in NSW since at least 1999, when the issue was largely responsible for the slaughter of the Coalition parties under then-leader Kerry Chikarovski.
In the years since, however, it has been Labor — and not the Coalition — that has been forced to endure the most agonising contortions over what, in public policy terms, should have been a fairly straightforward issue from the outset.
It is against this backdrop that Labor finds itself burdened by a glut of contenders to lead it into the abyss in March; one potential leader for every six of its MPs.
If that sounds like an expression of a seriously divided party racked by factional interests, manipulated at the whims of its union slave masters, and marked out by the pursuit of petty personal fiefdoms, there’s probably a good reason for that.
In the end, the race to lead Labor in NSW that will culminate on 5 January is in essence merely a pageant to determine who will be king — or queen — of their own dung hill.
A smart party would have quietly lined up behind Daley, who put his hand up to blast the liability Robertson out in the first place, and waited for the dust to settle after its defeat in March before turning to Minns as planned in due course.
But there are few people who would accuse NSW Labor of being “smart.”
There is good reason for that, too.