Karl Bitar seems to have made it his life’s work to symbolise the decline of the Australian Labor Party. And, in rather stark contrast to his performance for the party, he’s doing a brilliant job.
He’s also doing a great job of infuriating Labor MPs. “Grub”, “fuckwit” and “scumbag” were some of the epithets being used by MPs about him this morning.
It is of course a great Labor tradition to go and work for the Packers. Peter Barron and Graham Richardson found rewarding careers at Park Street. But both did so after very effective stints at the highest levels of politics. In a sort of variant of Marx’s maxim about history repeating itself first as tragedy, then as farce, Bitar’s version of the tradition is to go work for a lesser Packer, having left behind the smouldering wreckage of a political party and ruined leaderships stretching from Macquarie Street to the PM’s office in Canberra. James Packer ought to hope Bitar’s a better lobbyist than he is a machine man, because based on Bitar’s ALP form, Packer will end up booted out of the Crown chairmanship.
It’s pointless railing about the need to regulate this sort of traffic between politics and business. Bitar never held a publicly funded office. There’s no way to enforce any “cooling off period” like there is for ministerial staff. You can’t regulate what careers private individuals pursue just because they helped run a major political party.
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No, this is more about the culture of a political party, and about the personal values and capacity for judgment of its senior members. Bitar had no judgment as a senior figure in the party and he’s showed he hasn’t acquired any since he did the only half-decent act of his blighted time as national secretary and quit.
And it’s about the party’s culture as much as Bitar’s own shabby judgment because this is modern Labor in action. This is the new Labor career ladder in operation, a process that enables the conversion of the contacts and relationships established during one’s time in politics — either holding public office or, in Bitar’s case, behind the scenes — into a fruitful “post-politics” career that is, really, simply a further step in the same career, doing the same thing but for different interests.
Bitar is only a more flagrant example of what dozens of former Labor MPs, state and federal, now do. The lobbyist registers are full of them, touting their wares on behalf of companies prominent and not-so-prominent, wandering the corridors of Parliament Houses across the land, ringing former colleagues, staffers and bureaucrats, pushing the interests of their clients. Bitar isn’t even the worst example. Recall David Epstein, Kevin Rudd’s chief-of-staff, went from Rudd’s office first to oligopolist Qantas, then to BHP, one of the transnational companies that successfully engaged in a regime-change campaign against his former boss last year.
Bitar’s replacement as national secretary, George Wright, is a rare example of traffic back the other way: Wright left the maelstrom of the Rudd government for a corporate affairs gig with NAB, before heading back into the fray. But then Wright had a track record of success behind him, especially with the Your Rights At Work campaign. Bitar would have to die and be born again to achieve anything like Wright’s resumé.
Those are the prize gigs. Hanging your shingle out as a lobbyist can mean hard work and wearing out shoe leather. Getting one of the corporate affairs jobs at the big end of town is where the serious money is for former politicians and party officials. And you don’t have to lower yourself to put your name on a lobbyist register, either.
Such transitions used to be unusual. Politicians were older, had usually only entered politics after a career in the real world, and in the case of many Labor MPs, following a stint at the senior levels of a union, or a long period of party activism. They had a generous parliamentary pension to look forward to post-politics, and weren’t usually looking for another career when they lost their seat or pulled the pin.
Now people in politics are younger; they have families to support, and every major company has a dedicated and well-remunerated corporate affairs area that wants people politically connected.
It’s a nice collision of interests between the mainstream political parties and corporate Australia and it’s only going to grow. As I’ve said before about Karl Bitar, we shall look upon his like again.