In October 2008 Karl Bitar, NSW Labor Secretary and factotum of his predecessor in that role, Mark Arbib, took over as the party’s National Secretary.
Labor was riding high federally, although the GFC was looming as a challenge and the Rudd Government was coming to grips with the challenge of enacting a major reform, its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.
Scroll forward two and a half years, to Bitar’s departure — in order, he says, to give his “replacement enough time to prepare for the 2011 National Conference in December.” Federal Labor is a smoking ruin, a minority government that scraped back into office after what was, by common agreement across the factions, the single worst campaign in living memory from the Labor Party.
And in NSW, led by its second unelected Premier in three years, Labor is headed for the mother of all defeats, with the only issue to be decided on election night being whether Labor will manage to retain a cricket team or — as some optimistic types hope — an AFL team.
Bitar didn’t manage this by himself, of course. He had help, particularly from Arbib, and the powerbrokers of the Right faction. But he was “present at the creation” in both cases. It was Bitar as NSW Secretary who dispatched Morris Iemma, the point at which NSW Labor stopped being a viable political entity and became a long-running, and deeply unfunny, joke at the expense of the people of NSW.
And it was Bitar who, along with Arbib, was most determined to convince Kevin Rudd and his kitchen cabinet to abandon its CPRS. He was successful, and changed the course of recent political history, because that was the single worst political decision of recent years, the one that destroyed the Rudd Government.
And it was Bitar’s election campaign that stripped Labor of its majority and left it desperately courting the independents to get them across the line.
It led to an extraordinary performance at the National Press Club by Bitar in November, when he blamed everyone but himself for the campaign’s failures — expectations of a Labor win, the media’s failure to properly scrutinise Tony Abbott, the leaks and Mark Latham were all responsible. The only thing Bitar would cop to was that “communication” could have been better. But as he told it, Labor’s election “win” was a triumph over remarkable odds.
Labor MPs were astonished at how profoundly he was in denial. Anyway, now Julia Gillard and Wayne — Bitar’s allies in that campaign to dump the CPRS — are left to pick up the pieces.
“They have wrecked NSW, and now they have driven a stake through the heart of federal Labor,” said Iemma of Arbib and Bitar after last year’s election. Frank Sartor had predicted exactly that outcome when Bitar moved to the national job.
No one will mourn his departure, no matter what faction they’re in. “Gone and definitely best forgotten” was the assessment of a senior backbencher.
Bitar said in his resignation statement, “I leave this job with the absolute belief that I owe the Party far more than it could ever owe me.”
That’s one thing no one will dispute.