Some funny things happen in the world of political reporting, but none more absurd than the profile of John Howard’s former chief-of-staff, Arthur Sinodinos, in the Sydney Morning Herald a fortnight ago.
Some funny things happen in the world of political reporting, but none more absurd than the profile of John Howard’s former chief-of-staff, Arthur Sinodinos, in the Sydney Morning Herald a fortnight ago. Deborah Snow wrote of Sinodinos’ elevation to the presidency of the NSW Liberal party, recording that:
Now ‘Arthur’ — as he is universally known in political circles — is poised to step from the shadows and take to the stage in his own right.
Woodward and Bernstein stand aside, Snow has cracked the story wide open. A man named Arthur is known as ‘Arthur’. At least his mother will be pleased.
Actually, the Abominable Snow Woman is mistaken. In 2004 the veteran raconteur Mungo MacCallum playfully identified the rhyming slang version of Sinodinos — a political appendage, one might say. Understandably, his mother was horrified.
Another Howard chief-of-staff, Grahame Morris — or ‘Grahame’ as he is universally known in political circles — has been left looking like a Sinodinos with his forecasting of the NSW election result. Throughout the campaign he maintained it was too close to call. Five days from polling day he predicted that:
This election is going to be closer than pollsters, journalists and Labor have been telling the community … There is still a chance that O’Farrell might not quite get there in his own right and NSW will then have that mongrelised form of democracy — a hung parliament.
This was either incompetence or brazen Liberal party spin. Either way, the media houses which commission Morris to appear as an ‘expert’ political commentator have been short-changed. It is inconceivable that anyone with a double-digit IQ could have foreseen anything but a Coalition landslide. Hapless Labor acolyte Bob Ellis has been bucketed for predicting an ALP win. Just as nobody takes his views seriously, the same standard must now apply to Morris.
The electoral devastation of the NSW Labor party requires extensive analysis. Hungry for more information, I decided to read Power Crisis, The Self-Destruction of a State Labor Party (2010) by Rodney Cavalier — or ‘Rodney’ as he is universally known in political circles. The book was morbidly disappointing.
Cavalier never asks the most fundamental of questions: why did the dominant NSW Right faction change so unrecognisably that by 2008 it was willing to destroy a popularly-elected Labor Premier on the issue of electricity privatisation? This was the core of the power crisis, yet Cavalier remained mute.
The reason for this oversight is clear: Cavalier is from the ‘soft’ Left faction of the party. He has never been a member of the NSW Right and knows little about its metamorphosis. Rodney should have been upfront about his factional allegiances. At least then readers could have better understood the text’s prejudices.
His hagiography of Nathan Rees, son of Cavalier’s soft Left soulmate, Frances Rees, was appalling. During his 15 months as Premier, Rees failed to realise any of the expectations of his supporters. Mark Arbib described him as the NSW party’s best policy brain, highlighting the paucity of intellectual drive and creativity in the Labor movement.
Rees lacked the confidence and decisiveness of leadership. When asked by a reporter in New York, ‘Are you Nathan Rees?’ he replied, ‘No I’m not.’ This was a foretaste of the ALP’s 2011 election campaign, when its candidates set out to hide their political identity. They tried to run as independents, confirmation of the party’s ongoing identity crisis.
While Cavalier interviews the key players and debunks Press Gallery mythology — a useful contribution — the book is a missed opportunity. If he had bothered to analyse the NSW Right and appreciated the structural changes therein, he could have produced an insightful tome, perhaps even a classic.
One of the big changes in the NSW Right has been the dwindling membership base of its trade union affiliates. Active unionism in Australia is now a political memory. Officials such as Paul Howes of the AWU are susceptible to being voted out by a relatively small group of dissident members. This is why he has adopted hysterical rhetoric against soft targets such as Rio Tinto. In their style and dogma, these campaigns echo the opposition to electricity privatisation in NSW — that is, populism designed to protect the sinecures of right-wing union bosses.
The worrying sign for micro-economic reform in Australia is that the faction’s Federal MPs are supporting this nonsense. In the aftermath of the NSW election, Eddie Husic and Joel Fitzgibbon gave troglodyte support to anti-privatisation, a betrayal of Paul Keating’s economic agenda.
Keating is fond of repeating Tony Benn’s categorisation of politicians as either straightmen, fixers or maddies — with significant reform relying on the efforts of the latter group. In NSW, the ALP won elections with maddies in the senior ranks of government, most notably the two Michaels: Treasurers Egan and Costa. Federally, Labor’s greatest victories and reforms in the past 25 years were inspired by Keating, the greatest of all maddies.
Regrettably, the NSW Right has become a maddie-free zone. Among its senior MPs in Canberra, Chris Bowen, Jason Clare and Robert McClelland are straightmen, while Tony Burke, Arbib and Fitzgibbon are fixers. If Jack Lang was right in saying ‘Where goes NSW Labor, so goes the rest of the country,’ then the fight for reform is being lost.