They can’t all be right

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The following article from the Australian Financial Review, the daily business bible out of the Fairfax stableis by Andrew Clarke, a journalist of the traditional liberal left. It describes the current state of play in the NSW ALP right-wing machine, and is of some interest from that point of view.


They can’t all be Right

By Andrew Clark

The NSW election has thrown some light on important power shifts in the ALP. “The Australian Labor Party is composed of two main factions. Them and Us. Ideologically distinct only at their extremities, their function is the distribution of spoils. ” — Shane Maloney, Something Fishy

This view of modern Labor politics has resonated in the NSW election campaign, which ends with Saturday’s vote. An auction about who is toughest on crime, and conflicting promises and claims in other areas, made this seem, at first blush, a typical state campaign.

But the seeds of a different type of politics began to become apparent. The campaign has also served as a crucible for examining Australia’s role in the world, and even for low-key, but significant, discussion about the federal Labor leadership.

The obvious reason has been Iraq. Like a black shadow, it loomed over the first few weeks of campaigning, and in the final days, when the United States launched its invasion, so dominated the public mood that it generated a sense of empty ritual about discussion of exclusively state issues.

Iraq’s intrusion into a state election may seem understandable because Australia has committed troops and polls show most people oppose the Howard government’s policy. But it is almost unprecedented. During the six years of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict, domestic dissent found expression in demonstrations, and clashes during federal election campaigns, but never entered the state arena.

During this NSW election campaign, ALP leader Bob Carr and Liberal leader John Brogden eschewed the Iraq issue, flattering voters with comments such as “this is an intelligent electorate” and “if people are concerned about the conflict in Iraq, they should raise it with their federal member”.

But opposition to Australian military involvement in the war is one of the key planks of a resurgent Greens party. This, combined with a call to ban campaign donations from developers, cut all state spending on private schools, and restrict medium-density housing, has generated support from inner-city professionals.

The Greens’ rise has put an already nervy federal ALP more on edge. It is paradoxical that a party that tends to favour Labor with preferences should be the lightning rod for more anxiety about the ALP leadership. But this is because Greens opposition to military involvement in Iraq highlights the so far ineffectual nature of Labor’s opposition on the issue.

Prime Minister John Howard’s decision to tie Australia’s national interest to the US, from the early days of renewed US hostility towards Saddam Hussein, has again raised questions about his judgement among those who oppose the war. But federal Labor leader Simon Crean’s inability to apply significant pressure on the government has also brought on fresh leadership speculation among members of a disconsolate ALP caucus.

Earlier this week, private discussion among a growing group of Labor MPs centred on deep foreboding about a major defeat for a Crean-led ALP at the next federal election.

This is irrespective of who the Liberal Party leader is at the time of the poll. Based on their own research, party insiders fear Labor could be trounced in 2004, making it virtually impossible to win even in 2007. Labor would therefore have at least 14 years in the political wilderness.

This scenario led to the informal canvassing of a replacement for Crean. Mark Latham, MP for Gough Whitlam’s old seat of Werriwa, in western Sydney, was rejected as too erratic. Talk again shifted to Kim “Bomber” Beazley, a former defence minister who led Labor from 1996 until the end of 2001.

But it is interesting that even among members of the party’s Right, which is Beazley’s natural political habitat, his close ties to the US, especially the Pentagon, are seen as a problem. When he was defence minister in the Hawke government, Beazley argued the virtues of the ANZUS alliance, although he was careful to specify benefits, rather than embrace a Howard-style “all the way” approach.

Almost 20 years later, the world has moved on, and so has the NSW ALP Right. Dominant for more than half a century, its defining quality was the party’s success in sticking together during those turbulent days in the mid-1950s.

In Victoria and later Queensland and Tasmania, the ALP was torn asunder. A conservative, virulently anti-communist grouping under the sway of B.A. Santamaria formed the Democratic Labor Party, which allocated its preferences to the coalition.
But in NSW, the “groupers”, as they were known, largely remained inside the ALP. As a result, a Catholic, socially conservative grouping ran the biggest, richest and most successful state ALP branch.

The NSW Right’s sectarian nature began to break down in the mid-1970s, or 20 years after the Split, when Neville Wran was riding high. Now, the NSW Right presents a more fluid picture. In internal matters it remains the same tough, effective political machine. Before the current campaign, the NSW party apparat employed a party rule, known as N40, to enforce its diktat in nearly half the preselections.

The state party machine also raised a record amount to help fund a campaign war chest of between $10 million and $12million. State ALP secretary Eric Roozendaal refuses to release the precise figure, saying it would not be “constructive”. But according to even conservative estimates, the NSW ALP has spent more than two-thirds the amount spent by the ALP throughout Australia in the last federal election.

Of this total, Roozendaal says about 40 per cent came from campaign funding, but he acknowledges corporate donations comprised about a fifth. Developers and hotels have stuffed the party’s coffers.

But on policy issues, the faction does not present the same unified voice of yesteryear. Roozendaal is a well-organised and tough administrator who harnessed an awesome campaign machine. Veteran left winger Bob Gould claims he generates the most hostility because “he’s such a brutal operator”.

But the head of the NSW Labor Council, John Robertson, another senior figure in the NSW Right, presents an interesting policy stance. He exhibits the hallmarks of his faction in no-nonsense, well-controlled union dealings. However, he has been outspoken in his condemnation of the federal government’s refugee policy. “Robertson is a decent man,” Gould says. “He’s got genuine beliefs.”

And a truly remarkable policy development in the history of the NSW Right has been the strong stance taken against the US invasion of Iraq by Laurie Brereton, whose family has been a scion of the ruling faction for three generations. A former state health and public works minister, Brereton was industrial relations minister in the Keating government, but is now on the federal back bench.

Earlier this year, Brereton, who was once extremely close to Carr, warned a meeting of the ALP’s Clovelly branch that conflict in Iraq could become Australia’s new Vietnam. US policy, he said, “is less about the threat of weapons of mass destruction than it is about redrawing the strategic map of the Middle East. It’s about changing the regime that controls Iraq’s oil wealth. It’s about putting in place a regime supportive of the US military presence in the Middle East.

“Where does Australia fit in all this? The short answer is we shouldn’t fit in at all.”
Brereton said a substantial element of the Australian media, led by Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian, had “failed to ensure effective scrutiny of [our] government’s gung-ho diplomacy”. He called for a clearer and tougher Labor line “against Australian involvement in any attack on Iraq”.

A few days later, ALP state president Ursula Stephens wrote to Brereton, claiming his remarks undermined Labor’s position. They provided “grist for the mill about disunity within the NSW Right” and had serious implications ahead of the state election, she said.
Brereton described her claim about serious implications as “simply laughable”. Any attempt to present the Right within caucus as a “disciplined sub-factional voting bloc, on issues where there is a range of opinion amongst our members, is politically foolish in the extreme”, he wrote.

This contrasts with the NSW Right’s early days. According to recently released documents from the US National Archives and Records Administration, US labour attaches were assiduous in massaging bright up-and-comers in the NSW Right, such as John Ducker and Barrie Unsworth. A US official wrote in 1967: `”Ducker and Unsworth are both energetic, democratic and sternly anti-communist young men. The promotion of Ducker and Unsworth in the NSW Labor hierarchy has more than ordinary significance. The two are active in an informal group of younger trade union leaders who are consciously grooming themselves to be the next generation of NSW trade union leaders who are sternly anti-communist.”

Jonathan Kwitny, in his book on the money-laundering Nugan Hand Bank, The Crimes of the Patriots, refers to the “CIA’s long-standing secret co-operation with the AFL-CIO [federation of American unions], in bringing potential union leaders to the US”.

The CIA’s interest in the Australian officials was in picking early talent. But in the aftermath of Saturday’s election, the NSW Right will be involved in more than picking talent. It will be active in the election wash-up and, because of its increasing complexity on policy and personnel, may end up playing a surprising role in the federal arena.

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