The rusted-on supporters of the ALP must wonder how it came to this. Six years ago, the ALP was on top of the world, looking as if it was entrenched in power for a generation, if not forever. Since then, it has been a long slide towards oblivion, with the only possible path to survival being the dumping of a leader in favour of one who, according to many of his colleagues, is a half-nuts incompetent.
Aaron Patrick, a senior editor with the Australian Financial Review and a former member of Young Labor — that is, someone who is fairly sympathetic to the ALP — is interested in how the party got itself to this ‘ruinous state’. As he sees it, the key problem is one of ethics. At some point, the light on the hill was replaced by a pervasive sense of entitlement, and the party of the battlers was taken over by factional wheeler-dealers and union main-chancers. The NSW branch, according to Patrick, was the core of the problem, with a long history of connections with shady characters. But all that had gone before paled into trivia when compared with the machinations of factional boss Eddie Obeid, currently under investigation (with his family) by the ICAC over land deals potentially involving staggering amounts of money. A lot of other rocks have been turned over, exposing shonky property deals arranged by ministers and some highly unusual favours for various union mates.
Indeed, the union relationship pops up again and again. There is a revolving door between union operators, parliamentarians and party officials, and the grease for the door is always money. This seems to be a world of its own, with everyone having a deal or a grudge with everyone else, overlaid with social connections and family ties. Patronage, factions, dynasties: it’s a quagmire, and even Patrick gets lost sometimes. The broader community is seen as something to be manipulated, effectively outside the real game. There are the ‘punters’, and then there are those who are born to rule them.
Craig Thomson has all the hallmarks of a union princeling but as Patrick unravels his story he seems almost comical in his willingness to put everything on his HSU credit card, even candy bars. At the same time, huge amounts of members’ money were being spent on campaign expenses, and funds were squandered on overpriced services provided by companies which — surprise, surprise — were controlled by a mate or a relative.
Perhaps the most frightening part of all this is that no one seemed concerned, until it reached the public spotlight. Even those who were not benefiting from the corruption seemed willing to turn a blind eye, on the basis that that is how things are done around here. In this connection, Patrick is unsure what to make of Julia Gillard’s shadier moments when working as a lawyer for union-connected firm Slater & Gordon. She certainly seems to have done some questionable things, especially relating to the famous AWU slush fund, but by the standards of Obeid and Thomson it actually seems a pretty small affair. Like many of the cases Patrick describes, that story is not yet over, and how it will end is not clear. Perhaps one of the strangest aspects of the slush fund issue was Gillard’s defence that there was no problem because ‘everybody does it’. She does not seem to understand that that makes it worse, not acceptable.
Serious reform is needed, but there seems little desire for it. Although Downfall was written before the leadership change, Patrick does not see much hope for change with Kevin Rudd, who has always been more inclined to ask what the ALP can do for him rather than the other way around. Patrick paints Bill Shorten as a more likely saviour, although Shorten has his own problems, his obvious ambition and AWU roots among them. Not a good look, if the party is seen as obsessed with itself and connected to union crooks and thugs.
Patrick also recounts an anecdote about Shorten that might be revealing (a matter he covered for the AFR). According to an affidavit from Kathy Jackson (who took up a senior role in the HSU after Craig Thomson entered parliament, and who has her own colourful background in the ALP labyrinth), Shorten was physically intimidating to her in 2007, in a preselection dispute over the seat of Corangamite. It sounds, to put it kindly, extremely unpleasant, with pushing and spitting. This is not necessarily to accept the story as true but it certainly has no less credibility than allegations made about Tony Abbott in his university days, and is obviously not so long ago.
That the Canberra Press Gallery has not made more of the allegations says much about the leanings of many journalists, but it nevertheless indicates how many of those in and around the upper levels of the ALP think and behave. It adds up to a culture of venom and feuds, ever-growing lists of enemies and endless plans for retribution.
There are simply too many cases of corruption, malfeasance and naked self-interest to say that it is just a few bad apples. And it is very likely that only a small part of it has been brought to light. Patrick has provided a start, but how much of the iceberg remains hidden is yet to be seen.