Not many people see Laurie Ferguson, the Labor member for my old seat of Werriwa, as a raconteur. With his huge pudding-shaped head and slept-in suits, he looks more like a political abnormality, a misplaced chromosome in the DNA of democracy. Behind his gruff image, however, lies an effervescent wit.
This is clear from his long-standing critique of the NSW Right. About a decade ago Ferguson observed a remarkable trend among the faction’s so-called hard men. A large number had gone gay, kicking with the wrong foot. The closet doors had burst open, in Sydney and Canberra alike, to reveal a new generation of political dandies. It marked, if you will, the emergence of a Right-Wing-Left-Foot sub-faction.
For a Socialist Left numbers man like Laurie, this was gold. The fearsome characters of the NSW Right, renowned for their hardball tactics and intimidation of political opponents, were actually a bunch of pansies. To rub things in, Ferguson constantly reminded red-blooded MPs like Joel Fitzgibbon and me that our hetero (Right-Wing-Right-Foot) sub-faction had become a minority in Sussex Street. We had no way of rebutting this analysis and the blokey jokes that came with it. The facts were clear.
Faction meetings had moved from Parramatta to Paddington. A surprisingly high proportion of new recruits had their membership papers stamped ‘Ken’s at Kensington’, so much so that an ALP branch was formed in its upstairs steam room. There was even talk of entering a NSW Right float in the Gay Mardi Gras. All Fitzgibbon and I could do was laugh and buy Ferguson another beer. Old pudding head had us on the back foot.
Now, at last, the Right-Wing-Right-Footers are fighting back. A small but determined cadre of activists have emerged on the Central Coast of NSW, in the Federal electorates of Robertson and Dobell. Our first hetero-hero is John Della Bosca, the former NSW Labor Minister who found himself on the front page of the Daily Telegraph because of his relationship with an exotic showgirl.
No one can question Della’s hard man credentials. Apres-affair, he marched back to the matrimonial home to face no less a figure than Belinda Neal, a monstrous sight at the best of times. In Della’s case, she was waiting on the porch with a rolling pin in hand. Surely a man can have no greater love for his faction than to meet such an adversary head-on.
If any doubts remained about the Right-Footers’ virility, Craig Thomson has put them to bed in every second bordello in the country. He has made the ultimate sacrifice, destroying his parliamentary career for the sake of the NSW Right. Now when anyone mentions the party machine, they think of our mighty sex machine in Dobell.
Earlier this year Kevin Rudd described the NSW Right as ‘factional thugs’. With Della and Thommo on the loose, he should have said ‘factional studs’. The Ferguson critique has been put to the sword, literally.
As Bob Carr has pointed out, any public figure embedded in a crisis needs to read Richard Nixon’s Six Crises (1962) – the classic political manual on how to draw strength from adversity. If he hasn’t already done so, Craig Thomson should borrow a copy from the parliamentary library.
Nixon spent much of his life contemplating the personal dimension of crises. The more he considered the subject, the more fatalistic he became. In 1992, for instance, he told his confidant Monica Crowley:
We all have our weaknesses. Human nature being what it is, we all succumb to something: maybe power, maybe money, maybe booze or drugs, maybe cheating around … As long as governments are run by people – well, we’re always going to have some kind of scandal cropping up.
With the blurring of public and private lives – the product of media intrusion and the culture of celebrity in Western society – the political system has entered a permanent state of scandal. Thomson is part of a passing parade. When the shock jocks and other deep-sea feeders lose interest in his political carcass, they will move onto the next hapless soul drowning in his own stupidity.
Nixon worried that the electorate had become desensitised to questions of personal character. They had seen so many sex scandals that they discounted their significance. Five days after Bill Clinton’s election as President in November 1992, he lamented how:
The country’s willingness to elect someone like Clinton, who is so bad on the personal side, shows we are on our way down. Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson had their affairs but no one knew it and so the country was spared then. Now everyone just lets it all hang out. The president is a womanizer? So what [they say].
That’s certainly what they said in Dobell at the last election. Even though Thomson’s credit card frolics had been widely publicised, his vote went up. He was one of Labor’s saviours, a marginal seat victor in a hung parliament.
The longer-term significance of the Thomson affair lies in the relationship between the Labor Party and the trade union movement. A group of arrogant, authoritarian union officials have convinced themselves that union money is their money. Funds are regularly siphoned off for fighting factional battles and covering extravagant lifestyle costs.
For this and other reasons, Labor needs to sever its formal ties with organised labour. Its electoral survival depends on an organisational overhaul, becoming a modern social democratic party, free from the corrupting influence of union politics.