So bring another chair for the great afterlife banquet at Richo’s Chinese Restaurant. Resigned NSW ALP general-secretary Jamie Clements is set to join the ranks of the failed, turfed-out and superannuated in the endless afternoon of post-political life. It’s comfortable in the Chinese Restaurant, and the courses start rolling out as soon as you arrive; the beer is cold and the dim sum is warm. Like all Chinese banquet restaurants, you’re surrounded by gormless scaly creatures staring wordlessly back at you, but well, Bramston and van Onselen are mates, you have to invite them.
So Clements will be comfortable in the great political afterlife — or interlude, if he manages to make it back — and I doubt anyone needs to be told to spare no sympathy for him. He remains convicted of no crime, he disputes the accusation that he pushed his secretary Stefanie Jones against a wall and made threats to her. But whatever the particulars of the incident, I suspect few would doubt her charge that the NSW ALP head office has a culture of filth about it, when it comes to men and women.
No one really doubts that something very, very bad has happened to the NSW Right of the ALP, and the NSW ALP more generally — that it has suffered a sort of catastrophic collapse of purpose and moral identity, which has not only left it directionless and unable to propose a plausible alternative, but created a moral decay within, an ungoverning of self in its principal players.
Viable political movements tend to limit the degree of personal appalling behaviour and outright corruption by the very nature of the project itself — if something is worth doing, people will keep themselves in check, by and large. Once that is gone, once politics becomes a tedious and meaningless process of getting the numbers to take over the Ulladulla Branch of the Amalgamated Frittlers, then the activity goes from compelling to intolerable. At that point everyone starts to take their slice off the top. No one’s really minding the store.
That’s the NSW Right at the moment. The faction always prided itself on its “practicality”, but its practicality was grounded in a belief system drawn from Catholic teaching. It had an idea of the good life that it wanted to achieve for its base, and for the whole country. That vision wasn’t socialist — but it saw the role of the market in social life as a strictly limited one, bounded by community values and modest expectations.
When the faction and the party went over to a neoliberal vision of individualised prosperity, with the “good life” simply toted up as the sum of those individual aspirations, they started to undermine their own values. That in turn changed the pattern of recruitment. A rising generation of the ALP Right lacked even the most vestigial connection to an earlier, more grounded era. If they had a politics at all, it was some vague thoughts about jobs and growth, and a hatred of the Greens — a fatal process whereby they started to define themselves against, rather than for.
The last powerful figure from the Right who was of that honourable political tradition was Bob Carr. The day he went in 2005, the joint went to shit, and it hasn’t come back from it since. The Clements thing is bad enough, publicity wise, but it’s about to get a whole lot worse, when the trial of former NSW minister Ian Macdonald, on charges of gaining advantage, begins in the next few months. “Macca” ran primary industries, planning and infrastructure in various combos during the post-Carr years (aside from the Rees interregnum). Nominally of the “Hard Left”, he was effectively part of the Right all along.
The trouble for Labor is, all but the most stalwart are going to conclude that in NSW and federally — anywhere the Right has control — Labor is unfit to govern. One could never imagine voting Liberal or advocating it, but how could one advocate for the ALP in its current state in those places? That’s by contrast with Labor in Victoria and Queensland, where success was achieved by both the appearance and reality of bypassing the Right machine, and taking a more direct approach to citizen politics.
Once election was achieved, it was back to business as usual, of course. The Andrews government has gone down the same path both the Bligh and Iemma governments went — thinking that sneaky privatisations or long-term private leasing can be used to pay for election promises and pay down deficits. Because it worked so well for Anna and Morris. Any coincidence that the Andrews government’s numbers have fallen just after the Port of Melbourne privatisation was announced? They never learn, the bright boys in the ALP backroom. And they never learn because, whatever their class background, deep down they are elitists filled with contempt for average citizens, and their base.
The Andrews government may get away with it. New South Wales Labor won’t. For all the talk of structural and administratve changes, the only thing that will get the ALP on the road to recovery is a split on the Right, and a factional reconstruction — similar to the one that created the Independents faction from the ’70s to the ’90s. The split in the ALP is no longer between Left and Right per se. It is now between people who joined the ALP to get something done on a general scale, a steady progressive, reflexive and above all thoroughly debated program of reforms to make for better lives on the one hand, and a bunch of people who were never interested in much more than petty power, the thrill of it, the access to eventual big money, the chance to fuck the staff, etc, etc, on the other.
Perhaps it would be politic to leave such a split — even if it is possible or plausible, a big if — until Shorten’s defeat and his passage to the big afternoon banquet, which is getting crowded (“Mr Combet! Defence Industries spinner! Do pull up a chair! Spring roll? Do tell us about the new civilian-directed fragmentation mines we’re hearing so much about …”). But something has to happen. The danger for Labor is that both the Turnbull and Baird governments can use their own side’s recent defeats — Abbott, Newman and Baillieu/Napthine — to reshape their approach. They appear to be doing so, and:
A few tired old Reds
A few fat old Whites
We’ll get on the board of Telstra
A few jobs for the mates
You and I,
One on one,
Faceless to face
Do you over anytime you want
At Richo’s Chinese Restaurant…
— not Billy Joel, Richo’s Chinese Restaurant