Two former NSW Labor powerbrokers have rubbished James Packer’s hiring of dumped ALP national secretary Karl Bitar as a Crown Casino lobbyist, suggesting the media scion might be better off dispatching his new charge back to the dole queue.

Ex-NSW Labor leader Morris Iemma and recently-retired cabinet minister Frank Sartor didn’t hold back this morning when contacted by Crikey over the Bitar gig, which has led to a chorus of calls for changes to federal legislation to prevent government insiders using their fat contact books to bend ears.

Iemma, who was brutally knifed as premier by Bitar in 2008, told Crikey this morning that “Karl has gone from shooting crap inside the Labor Party to shooting craps in the casino”. “Maybe he’s found his true calling in life. Crap shooter,” he said, adding “the game of craps would be something imminently suitable for Karl Bitar”.

Last year, Iemma famously remarked that Bitar — a one-time sword carrier for NSW Young Labor — should be “flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s” following his disastrous overseeing of the 2010 federal election which resulted in the loss of 16 seats, forcing Labor to humiliatingly court rural independents to maintain a toe-hold on power.

Iemma slammed the ease of Bitar’s transition just two months after leaving the inner confines of federal Labor, calling for NSW’s tough lobbying code to be extended to include the post-politics behaviour of party officials as well as MPs.

“For the elected representatives there’s now very strict rules in place. The Independent Commission Against Corruption that produced a very convincing report on the topic,” he said. “It should apply to everyone … MPs, staffers, bureaucrats … the last category of those that work in the political system is the party officials.”

As a Crown employee, Bitar will avoid scrutiny under federal lobbyist register, which only applies to external government relations groups. Yesterday, South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon called on the Labor lifer — and people like him — to be banned from harassing their frenemies for two years.

Frank Sartor, who has singled-out Bitar for Labor’s implosion at this year’s NSW state election, was similarly scathing. Packer was taking a serious risk hiring the man that laid waste to Labor’s state and federal heartland, he opined.

“Karl went and gambled away the political capital of NSW Labor,” he told Crikey. “Then he went and gambled away the political capital of federal Labor. I only hope he doesn’t gamble away the financial capital of James Packer.”

But the appointment could — theoretically at least — still come up trumps: “Karl doesn’t understand public policy at all, but private interests he definitely does understand. So maybe he’s found his true calling.”

Sartor was reluctant to call for Bitar to be subject to onerous rules, dismissing lobbyists as “more of an irritation” in the daily life of MPs.

“Politicians have to move on in life,” he said. “You want them to get jobs easily when they leave. If they leave it too long after politics then they might not get a job.”

Victorian Labor insiders have also expressed dismay at the appointment, suggesting Bitar would be fighting an uphill battle to twist Socialist Left minister Jenny Macklin’s arm — who has carriage of Andrew Wilkie’s and Xenophon’s proposed pokies legislation under her families portfolio. Among the faction, Bitar’s name is mud after he was blamed for running policies through the notorious “Lindsay test” — which according to internal party polling led directly to Cath Bowtell’s devastating loss in Melbourne to Adam Bandt.

“If your mobile rings and it’s Karl, the knee-jerk reaction would be to hit reject,” the insider said. A more appropriate “Lindsay test” would have been to consult the views of former member Lindsay Tanner, who maintained semi-regular contact with Bowtell’s campaign.

But not every Labor player was quite as hostile. Immigration minister Chris Bowen backed his NSW Young Labor Right buddy this morning, assuring Fran Kelly on Radio National Breakfast he wouldn’t get any “special treatment” in the Capital Hill corridors.

“He has a right to earn a living and he has a right to do that,” Bowen blathered, at the end of an unconvincing monologue defending the Malaysian Solution, an issue close to both Bowen and Bitar’s hearts.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey