Denial – NSW edition

Thursday, 31 March 2011 

There’s an old saying. ‘Where goes NSW, so goes federal Labor’

Paul Keating June 2010

It is now becoming clear what caused the collapse of the NSW Labor government. There was no one running it. That surely is the conclusion after watching a parade of what this blogger had naively thought were key players in NSW Labor. Mark Arbib? In Canberra at the time. Frank Sartor? Merely a minor, er, Cabinet Minister. Nothing to do with it. John Della Bosca? Too busy sorting out the staffing arrangements of Gosford nightclubs to deal with those silly billies in Sussex St.

As for those who were actually called “leaders” of the NSW ALP, give us a break! As Iemma and Rees told us yet again, they were merely the helpless pawns of party power brokers that we now know don’t exist. If all of this is any reflection on the power hierarchy in the NSW Labor, then it appears NSW Labor is already well on the way to the grass-roots democracy that everyone craves.

Actually, so little role did these non-power brokers have, you must wonder why they were so eager to get on the telly after Saturday’s disaster. It certainly wasn’t to give us a history lesson. Frank Sartor thought the unopposed election of Rees was a travesty of caucus democracy, clearly unaware of how pretty well very other NSW Labor leader was elected; which essentially involved being first anointed by the Right behind closed doors then presented to caucus as a fait accompli, with a token left opponent for appearance’s sake. With Rees from the left himself there was little need for the charade. Presumably it was his joy at the reassertion of caucus democracy that Sartor was caught pumping the air in victory at the ousting of Rees, not that Sartor had anything to do with it, of course.

But then there’s nothing that says a party should be a democracy anyway. Indeed, a representative political party by its very nature arguably should not be one. The Labor party was not about being a grass-roots expression of the demos, but the political representation of the union movement. It was why it was not open to workers who refused to join a union. Formally, it was actually less democratic than the Liberals, which anyone could join, with only the threat of being frozen out of the cocktail circuit than being asked for your union card.

Actually the ALP was more the representative of the union bureaucracy than the movement as such, a distinction that came out fully in the 1980s when in return for a seat at the table, the union bureaucracy happily colluded with the Hawke/Keating government and sold its membership down the swanny. Since then it’s been downhill all the way for the union bureaucrats and the ALP (except for a brief anti-union anti-ALP Camelot) and the end result was Labor’s worst ever electoral defeat last Saturday.

It was the ability of that partnership between the ALP and the unions to produce something for other sections of society, especially the middle class and business, that was the secret of the ALP’s electoral success and why, as that partnership lost its meaning, so did the basis for the ALP’s electoral fortunes. That was partly disguised over the last 20 years by the problems it meant for the anti-union party, the Liberals, but also Labor’s ability to transform itself for a while into a technocrat model more closely identified with the state than either unions or business. It took off elsewhere in the country, but is now in decline (wait to see what will happen in its birth-place in SA).

However, that temporary solution was never really in ascendancy in New South Wales where it was never needed, until it was too late. What we see now is the raw guts of the ALP on display, the breakdown and irrelevancy of the partnership with the unions on which the ALP had been built. This is the grim reality of the NSW defeat. It is being disguised as a problem of losing touch with its base, but there is no real electoral justification for it. It is really about Labor losing its historical project, but not in stages as elsewhere, but in one spectacular collapse.

This is also the federal implication of Saturday. As others have noted, on issues, the NSW result is as irrelevant for the Gillard government as the Penrith by-election was for the Rudd government (how clear on that we now all seem to be!). But they are all in the same party – and the difficulties this poses came in the interview of someone at the very centre of this question, Paul Keating.

The interview was an event for which the nation (OK, the twittering crowd) rushed back to their TVs on Tuesday night in anticipation of a bloodbath. And, as far as saying rude things about John Roberston, and even nice old Bruce Hawker, he didn’t disappoint. But he strangely shut down when it turned to Canberra. When asked on federal implications, Keating said that that there weren’t any, other than that Labor wouldn’t have state seats to help the federal campaign.

This seems an odd conclusion from someone who had always made such a deal of the importance of the NSW Right, who had always called the NSW ALP the ballast of the national party. That ballast came from the ability to give the most convincing model for the Labor project in the late 20th century, and which had translated to the most enduring ever federal Labor government of which Keating was a key part. That final removal of that ballast has exposed what was already becoming evident in Canberra; both with the party’s turn to a leader that despised it, and its attempt to recover its authority by dumping him. All we need now is for the Liberals to give the appearance of being normal, and the picture on Labor’s side would start to become very clear – and unavoidable.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 31 March 2011.

Filed under State and federal politics

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7 responses to “Denial – NSW edition”

  1. Fascinated on 31st March 2011 11:04 pm

    Very good post TPS.
    Re Para 4: The party and internal democracy is still a smouldering issue. Expectations have changed a great deal with greater community concern about the rights of participants in public or private organisations.
    Attracting new members especially will require adoption of wider community standards of fair play, legal protection and eg one vote, one value.
    I suspect we live in interesting times.

  2. Riccardo on 1st April 2011 8:04 am

    Keating is still revered as the last ALP leader (besides Latham) prepared to give a bit of lip to the other side. Not popular in the ‘middle’ but among the faithful.

    I would also note that Rudd’s frequent appearances are not a ‘campaign for Leadership’ but rather a campaign against leadership.

    One of the press gallery (Annabel?) made the sly comment that being Foreign Minister was like being PM without the ‘boring bits’ but I suspect that’s exactly Rudd’s point. You can still meet really important people elsewhere in the world, discuss actual issues like whether to start another war in the Arab world (Libya), get your mug on the TV and not have to worry about all that other stuff.

    Reminded me, in a bizarre way, of Israel, where FM is a prelude to PM in a country where external relations are the only rea issue.

  3. On the abysmal state of NSW « Overland literary journal on 1st April 2011 9:52 am

    […] root and branch with only the frailest of buds remaining on the old tree. For a good laugh read Eddie Obeid’s post-mortem of the election result and for a hint of things to come read Keating’s love letter to the leader of the parliamentary […]

  4. Godfrey on 4th April 2011 12:17 am

    Riccardo – that’s because Keating was the last Labor PM with a coherent agenda – a liberal economic and social policy.

  5. Riccardo on 6th April 2011 12:24 pm

    Rudd’s apologising again ie devaluing the idea of leadership. Look guys, I was in the chair for a while, stuffed up, but everyone does, goes with the territory. Anyway the issue is bigger than the job…

    Agree Keating had a coherent agenda – as Treasurer. When he defeated Hewson though as PM, we saw the end of coherence in agenda, just agenda.

    I also don’t understand broad left objections to the media. If they were serious, they would have dealt with it in Keith’s and Frank’s day. What’s the use of whinging about a right leaning media a century after it became a problem??

    The ALP used to own radio stations, but sold them. There used to be broader circulation left rags – where have they gone?

    When the broad left start satirical or opinion web pages or blogs they seem to do well, but fail when it comes to being primary gatherers of information, journals of record or commercial propositions.

    Even Fairfax is misunderstood by most – it actually leans to the right in opinion, but knows its demographic and their lifestyles (hence most of the SMH being rubbish about upmarket restaurants and garden water features, with a bit of politics on the side)

  6. Grant Dewar on 12th May 2011 1:24 pm


    The strange shut down by Keating regarding The effect of NSW defeat on the federal party would surely be that Keating realises that the house of cards would collapse without much effort and that he is exercising (ex leader) Solidarity with the current Leader.

  7. Riccardo on 12th May 2011 5:14 pm

    Doesn’t Keating want NSW to collapse? His prophesy was, IIRC that if John Robertson became leader then it was all over for NSWALP.

    Actually Keating is Moses – will never enter the promised land that his destruction of the Labor Movement made possible, despite the effort he went to to make it happen.

    I suspect the retail super funds are right, in a way. The modern unionist is a board member of an industry super fund, and these funds will generate more lerks and kickbacks than workforce coverage and strikes ever did.

    Take 9% of everything everyone ever earns, or 12% under JG, invest it, knowing you don’t have to give it back till age 70, and skim off the top of the returns, which are mostly the fat of monopolies and oligopolies listed on the ASX.

    Far better than the weekly membership deduction and you probably get into clubs and corporate boxes that the old deal didn’t guarantee.

    Keating gave them that door. Closed the central wage fixing door behind, but opened the compulsory super door in front to give that side of the political class somewhere else to go.

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