Anyone who has ever read anything on here or follows me on Twitter knows I was an ALP apparatchik. I worked as a media adviser to five Ministers and a Premier of NSW. For the better part of the last decade, I had a peanut gallery view of what is now known as, ‘the NSW disease’.
Following the #NSWisconsin disgrace, I was considering becoming a financial member of the ALP again, despite the fact that I can’t abide what I see as policy missteps and the inability to articulate a message – any message – consistently, thoughtfully and while keeping our hands still.
I was very close to giving Sussex Street my money again because at last, here was an enemy without. Premier Barry O’Farrell had given me a reason to say, ‘this is wrong, and I am willing to swallow every bit of bile and help pay, through my membership dues, for a sustained campaign against this law.’ I was so close until I read this. It’s easy to demonise Joe Tripodi. I can’t stand him for two reasons: he’s really smart, but didn’t use his brains to make good public policy. Instead, he dragged behind former Minister and MLC, Eddie Obeid, preferring to cultivate patronage and influence, all for the title of ‘kingmaker’. Secondly, I’ve seen him smile and stab people in the back. Most of them, his close ‘mates’, some, ‘enemies’ he helped ascend to the dizzying heights of Governor Macquarie Tower. So when I read that he would stay on the rules committee, my heart sank and I left my money in the bank, because it reminded me how much I hate the generally unelected, largely unaccountable ‘factional’ players who make it their mission in life to build up and then tear down elected leaders; fill Caucus with people you would not ask to make a bed, let alone Cabinet; a recipe which reads, ‘hey voters, we’re the ALP and we are not fit to govern the state / country’. The list is long. It is filled with names that, unless they are from NSW, I’m largely familiar with. What I am familiar with, is their modus operandi. I’m sure I could swap Joe de Bruyn and Don Farrell for Russ Collison and Mark Arbib and come out with the same answer.
I read the entirety of Senator John Faulkner’s Wran Lecture last night with great interest. The patrician Faulkner looks like the anti-Tripodi. Furiously intelligent (never go to a Faulkner trivia night and challenge an answer); ‘prime ministerial confidante’; ‘respected elder’; statesman. Last night, I read the speech and called him ‘a giant’. I highly recommend his 2005 Henry Parkes Oration, which takes a much broader swipe at the malaise affecting Australian politics. The faintest whiff that the ALP is about to set its hair on fire is enough to make the news. When John Faulkner launches a stinging rebuke / critique / attack, it sets the news agenda for the day. Pretty much everyone loves it because it fits the narrative that the Prime Minister is the Socialist Left’s Lucrezia Borgia and the shoguns (tired of warlords) all look like Paul Howes. Actually, Paul Howes doesn’t look much like Paul Howes these days. I digress: I agree with a great deal of what Senator Faulkner says: the party desperately needs reform; there should be debate at state and national conferences; branch membership requires revitalisation and those who are joining – especially through Young Labor – are doing so because they want to duel with ideas, not numbers; to serve the Party, not some jumped up bag of wind parading as a false liege.
That said I am going to call Senator Faulkner on a few points. By your own admission, you, Senator, are a bloody hypocrite. You have been a NSW Senator for 23 years. What did you do before the Party – not the people – sent you down the Hume Highway for so long? You were Assistant General Secretary of the NSW Branch of the Australian Labor Party and worked for NSW Minister for Sport and Recreation, Ken Booth MP, following two years spent as a special education teacher. Your official bio is a little light on the detail provided in your Wikipedia entry, Senator, you define factional warlord and apparatchik as much as Joe Tripodi does. Tripodi worked as an economist at the Reserve Bank of Australia for as long as you taught. He then went to the Labor Council and into the Bear Pit. You both entered the party as teenagers; you both went through the party machine before entering Parliament. One difference: Joe was elected by the people of Fairfield. Your name was put on a ticket and sent to the printers. As I said, I can’t stand Joe, but don’t hover somewhere above the fray like a bespectacled Moses when you have supped from the same cup and exerted more influence over a longer time.
Lead, don’t follow, public opinion, you say? Yet the longevity of Australian political leaders such as Bob Hawke and John Howard is in large part due to their uncanny ability to read the mood of the electorate. It is a rare talent that radiates, ‘the leader knows what they are doing and it is what I want’, both within the party and outside it. It is not something they dialled-a-mate for. In my opinion, the perception that Howard had outstayed his welcome – that he had lost ‘touch’ – played a big role in his defeat. Hawke? Well, Keating simply had what Costello did not: the internal fortitude to want the leadership so badly he risked wrecking it to obtain it. Listen to members, supporters and MPs, you say? Yet when Kevin Rudd ran government through a kitchen cabinet of four; when he established innumerate committees, endlessly consulted and produced white papers and nothing happened; that was when the polls went to the wall and the faceless men got on the phones. There was plenty of listening, plenty of dithering and nothing happening. You were in that Caucus meeting, where the elected leader of the nation was replaced without a vote of MPs, you miserable, gormless bunch. @KRuddPM knew he didn’t have the numbers, addressed the Caucus one final time as leader, and emerged @KRuddMP.
Let MPs speak their minds in the name of diversity. Fine. I don’t think there are many people in the party who would be terribly pleased with the clusterfuck that is the Government’s … what … it’s not even a policy … the clusterfuck that is the Government’s latest idea about how asylum seekers should be processed, and yet, with the exception of Fremantle MP Melissa Parke, none has stated their dissent. But here’s the thing: brave, dissenting Melissa had not even spoken to the Minister for Immigration when she went public. It beggars belief. Let MPs say what they want? Amen. Get them five minutes with the Minister at the same time so they can have a chat first. On second thought, if you can’t be bothered having the discussion internally, if you have not grabbed Chris Bowen after a division and said, ‘look, I’m not happy about this, I need to speak to you’; if you have not had the gumption to even attempt to piss inside the tent, why should I listen to you piss on it from outside?
Senator Faulkner wants vigorous debate at party conferences and in the branches. He also advocates a say for ‘progressive-minded’ people, who are falling into the arms of third party organisations. Who are they? The ALP is not Get Up. It’s a political party. You can’t just put your name to one online petition, or even draft one, and ignore the other 30 issues of the day because you don’t care about them as much. Well, you can – you’re a citizen and you can do that if you like. But have to give a damn about stuff you’re not interested in when you’re a member of a party. Did I care when I door-knocked suburbs during the 2007 NSW election that the issues raised by voters were almost always council-related? No. Because the candidate needed to know about the cracked pavement, so that when they were elected they could pressure council to get it fixed, and if they didn’t, you could talk to concerned residents, go to the local paper – do something! I am sure people would flock to ALP branches, line-up to get the best seats at conference and participate in full-throated, exciting debates. About the things they’re interested in. Then when it’s time to talk about the not so interesting to them stuff – see you later? Supporters of the ALP? We exist. We’re called voters. Here’s what I want. I want a Caucus where backbenchers get as much time with Ministers and the PM as independents do. If they can’t get a hearing, or are fobbed off by the apparatchiks, then have an almighty spray. After all, the government is only one heart attack away from an election – now is the best time to speak your mind. Senator Faulkner just has – again,
Senator, you are there. You are a powerful figure – so powerful your speech has dominated the news agenda today. You’ve been talking about reforming the party for years. We have review, after review, after review. You co-authored the last one, so act! Stop telling us something we don’t already know.