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Nov 9, 2010

Lunch with Richo and the Faceless Man: launching Labor's progressive manifesto

Is there any finer way of spending an afternoon than sucking on a lobster leg, gargling chardonnay and listening to top-quality political gossip? Margot Saville went to lunch with Richo and the Faceless Man to get the Labor Party gossip.


Is there any finer way of spending an afternoon than sucking on a lobster leg, gargling chardonnay and listening to top-quality political gossip?

Following yesterday’s lunch at the Golden Century restaurant in Sussex Street, held after Paul Howes’ book launch, I resolved to eat Chinese food only in the company of the NSW Right. After Richo tucked his linen napkin into his shirtfront, muttering “just bring the usual”, a mountain of crustaceans and barramundi appeared, accompanied by gallons of the white infuriator. This may explain why Sam Dastyari is the only lean and hungry member of this faction, I thought idly, popping another spring roll into my mouth.

The book, called Confessions of a Faceless Man, Inside Campaign 2010, came about when Melbourne University Press publisher Louise Adler was watching Lateline on the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ against Kevin Rudd. On the program, Howes, the national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, was declaring his support for Gillard. The next day Adler contacted him, asking him to keep a detailed diary which could be published straight after the election.

For us politicial tragics, this is a great book. Like all melodramas, it has its villains (Rudd and Mark Latham) a hero (our author) and a rolling cast of pygmies and capering dwarves (politicians). In this era of sanitised pollyspeak, it’s wonderful to read true class hatred on the page, punctuated by the odd bout of head-kicking. The entry for day one of the campaign ends with Howes saying: “When we win, I say Rudd should be the first against the wall.” Followed by a heartfelt prayer: “Tony Abbott. Please God, don’t let us f-ck this one up.”

I particularly liked the domestic touches — Howes has three small children, one of whom is a newborn baby — including the story of him spending a whole morning trying to put a Lego plane together, saying it would have been easier to have rung one of the AWU members at Boeing.

That the book is well-written is extraordinary considering Howes, still only 29, left home and school at 14 after being bullied by his stepfather. He ends up in the bosom of the Trotskyites and travels to Cuba before joining the AWU when he was 17, succeeding Bill Shorten as national secretary in 2007.

Howes is at his best arguing that Labor has lost its way and needs to formulate and effectively communicate firm policies on progressive issues like refugees and climate change. Talking up these issues in the first two years of the government, and then summarily dumping them, was Rudd’s downfall, he says, leading the public to doubt what he stood for.

The union boss says he is heavily invested in the climate change debate because “over 80% of AWU members work in emissions-intensive, trade-exposed industries, on which an emissions trading scheme or carbon tax would have a significant impact”. Ultimately the AWU supported the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the dropping of which was “concrete proof of what Abbott had been saying about Rudd, that he was all spin and no substance. Prior to the CPRS decision, that line of attack got very little support from the wider public, but now it was almost a gospel truth.”

He has some very progressive views on population, saying that discouraging immigration and relying on a falling birth rate will lead to crippling labor shortages and a massive burden on future generations. Labor’s failure to have a real debate on this issue is “shameful”.

Howes also weighs into the gay marriage issue, saying he hopes the PM will allow a conscience vote because he thinks most of caucus would support gay marriage, as would the majority of the population. “Besides,” he writes, “it’s the role of politicians to lead, not just follow opinion polls.”

On Lateline last night, the union leader was repeating his statements in the book that Labor needs to start creating substantial policy:

“I think that the reality is that Labor has gone through a period since 2007 where it’s hard to know what we stand for. It’s hard to know what we’re trying to achieve. What is the great, next, big step for a social democratic progressive party in this country?”

Richo, in his introduction at the launch, was more succinct.

“Labor ran the worst campaign in history. No doubt about that. You didn’t read that [in the book]. It is nonetheless a fact. When Julia Gillard said this was the real Julia, no, this wasn’t a slip of the tongue. It was planned; it was thought to be clever. It wasn’t. It was just plain dumb.”

We got plenty more of that topic over lunch, along with the chardonnay vat, so of course I can’t remember anything. Maaate, it was fun.


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