01/07/2013 - 06:55

Labor needs root-and-branch overhaul

01/07/2013 - 06:55


Save articles for future reference.
Labor needs root-and-branch overhaul





Scandals in state Labor parties have compounded the failings of the Rudd-Gillard government(s).

SYDNEY-BASED journalist Aaron Patrick’s just-released book, Downfall: How the Labor Party Ripped Itself Apart, is an obituary for a bitterly divided federal Labor Party during the Rudd-Gillard years.

In many ways this makes it the most unusual book on Australian politics that I’ve read, for it describes the death and funeral before either has occurred.

Not bad for someone who’s just embarked on what’s hopefully a long career as an author.

The key to Downfall’s likely success is Mr Patrick’s clear-mindedness about his subject and all of the subjects within it, which he has incisively described and evaluated.

Central to his book is Bill Shorten, who I believe is the most ambitious and overt careerist to have ever reached Canberra.

That’s saying something, particularly when your main rivals are Bob Hawke, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull.

Mr Patrick begins by reminding us that, in December 2007 when Rudd-led Labor gained power after 11 years, the party was in a unprecedentedly dominant position.

Canberra and all states and territories were in Labor’s bag. Not too long after that, Labor governments were toppled in rapid succession, with the federal Labor government now on the chopping block.

Mr Patrick therefore asks, and answers, why such an implosion occurred.

“How could a party run by some of the most talented Australians of the day, governing over the great period of wealth generation in the nation’s history, lose voters’ trust?” he asks.

“Many events, actions and personalities are responsible.

“Underlying them is a fundamental problem: ethics.”

Yes, rampant unethical behaviour, and a nice way of setting the scene for the next 310 pages.

Mr Patrick tells readers Downfall shouldn’t be viewed as a “comprehensive history of modern Labor or the Rudd and Gillard governments”.

He instead describes it as an account of “the people and events that saw a once great progressive party go so wrong.

“It also takes the first close look at the politician who epitomises modern Labor, Bill Shorten.”

The picture of Mr Shorten that emerges is one of an arch conspirator whose sole aim is to become prime minister.

Back in the 1980s he’d created a shadowy group within Young Labor known as the ‘network’ to help ensure he’d become a political force within Victoria’s ALP hierarchy.

To make things more conspiratorial and bizarre, Mr Shorten created a deeply hidden undercover clique within the ‘network’ that he, naturally, headed so as to guarantee he’d have total control of all activities.

At the same time he’d married Deborah Beale, daughter of one-time federal Liberal MP Julian Beale, and set about rubbing shoulders with wealthy patrons, including the late Melbourne cardboard billionaire, Richard Pratt.

From the network, and armed with close ties to the super-rich, he added the top post in Australia’s biggest union, the AWU, and moved towards slowly undermining long-time and relatively successful Maribyrnong MHR Bob Sercombe, whom he eventually ousted at preselection.

He topped this off by becoming the key powerbroker insider in Ms Gillard’s takeover of Mr Rudd’s job.

Mr Patrick’s book comprehensively canvasses this “bloody” political road, relying on his close association with Mr Shorten during their Young Labor years.

After Ms Gillard, Mr Shorten has become the pivotal figure in Labor’s expected downfall; that cannot be over-emphasised.

Thereafter, Mr Patrick leads readers through Labor’s many other scandals and related disasters.

First comes the unravelling of NSW Labor’s Eddie Obeid machine – called the Terrigals – and acquisition of coal leases to enrich certain Labor figures and their families in ways reminiscent of Russia’s ‘oligarchs’ during the Boris Yeltsin years.

Mr Patrick’s message is loud and clear – to succeed in Labor’s constellation of factions you simply must be obedient; always follow your factional bosses, which means doing as they say and voting how you’re told.

That’s very much Downfall’s core message, something for which Mr Patrick deserves praise.

Subsequent chapters assess: dysfunctional Kevin-07; recently charged NSW ex-Labor MP Craig Thompson; the elevation of ex-Liberal MP Peter Slipper; the Hospital Services Union’s scandals; and Queensland Labor’s electoral collapse, to name the best known.

Significantly, all this is supported by Burdett Loomis, University of Kansas political science professor who spent early this year in Adelaide as Flinders University distinguished chair in American political science, from where he closely observed and assessed Labor’s strange political mores.

“[T]he one thing that has overwhelmed me about Australia and its politics is how cosy everything is,” he said.

“Despite its vast physical expanse, the country’s political life seems remarkably inbred.

“Party cliques determine candidate selection in mysterious ways, highly reminiscent of tightly held 19th-century machine politics in the US.”

Here Professor Loomis is, of course, alluding to America’s Tammany Hall (Society) and robber baron eras.

That’s when power seeking became intricately intertwined with high-level avarice, nearly always at the public’s expense.

Let’s hope Downfall inspires moves for a root-and-branch overhaul of Labor. 


Subscription Options