Dec 12, 2016

Rundle: Conroy moves to Big Gambling, Labor on a losing streak

If Labor keeps joining the banks, the global corporations, the industry bodies, it is not just the political party that will end up the loser.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


When it was announced last week that former minister Stephen Conroy had taken a major position with gambling industry lobbyist, ahaha, Responsible Wagering Australia, the reaction was resigned, rather than angry. Coming on top of everything that has happened to the left and progressives in 2016, it was just a kiss of the whip. Conroy had resigned abruptly some months earlier; doubtless this was motivated by no more than the sudden realisation that he had nothing further to give to the Australian people. That it created a time gap between his resignation and his acceptance of the new job surely had nothing to do with it -- though it has worked out exceedingly well in that regard. Watching another Labor/union heavy cross over to lobbying for business has lost its power to shock. There was merely a sense of something further deflating. Doubtless Conroy will gain some camouflage from the name of the group, which brings to mind an NGO. But of course RWA represents CrownBet, Betfair, Unibet, and Bet365, among others -- all companies that have a duty to their owners to maximise their profits, which means maximising the presence and spread of gambling, in most circumstances. Labor heavies clearly assume they can all do this, and that opposition, or even awareness of it, will be minimal in places where it matters most, and that it can simply go on indefinitely, the political caste conveyor belt, from student politics to Parliament to Richo's Chinese Restaurant. They may be right. But these things are cumulative and times are changing. The Labor/business conveyor belt isn't new -- "Red" Ted Theodore was perhaps the first consequential Big Labor figure to make his fortune in the media, from, among other things, founding the Australian Women's Weekly -- but there were long decades in which most Labor figures were content to retire on their pension, as was, or even go back to their goddamn jobs (that's right, Labor pols were once people who had had jobs). [What will Conroy's departure mean for Shorten's leadership?] That began to shift in the Hawke/Keating years and because of the politics of those years -- Hawke's endorsement of the idea of "consensus" followed by Keating's giving it content as a business-friendly move. As the creation of consolidated unions and large super funds bridged the union-business gap, and most unions became, de facto, labour management organisations, delivering their members to the employers, the line between labour and capital dissolved. What difference did it make which side you were on, the union or the merchant bank, if you were simply managing the expectations of workers-members? The structural shift means that it is not merely the obvious rats -- the Mal Colstons -- willing to slip across. It is the people who never had much of a conflict model of politics in the first place, who simply find that there is no barrier, internal or external to the passage across. Indeed, such is the spirit of the time that one has to note why it's so undermining that Conroy slid across so easily. It's not simply going from being a politician to being a lobbyist. It would be irritating even if Conroy were becoming a flack for the Australian Humidifier Manufacturer's Association or some such. But his crossover involves far more. He's taking the specific knowledge gained and applying it for profit back against structures he put in place. He's doing it for an industry that relies on an addiction/dependency model in order to generate revenue, and sell the consumer to the product. Labour as a movement relies on going in the opposite direction -- to encourage people caught in the constraining circumstances of wage-labour to free themselves by becoming as fully understanding of their circumstances as possible, and change them through collective action. This involves a journey to fuller reflexive autonomy. Thus, the much maligned 19th-century temperance movement was essential to the creation of the labour movement -- because without self-possession, en masse, there can be no collective action. You have to regain a continent selfhood in order to give part of it back to collective action. The relentless spread of gambling works against that sort of subjectivity, that sort of citizenship. That it should be legal is as without doubt as that its spread should be limited. That's especially the mechanised gambling of the pokies, which are simply "weaponised" Skinner boxes -- conditioned-response tools, their design refined ceaselessly to bypass reflective decision-making. You couldn't make up a better example of the manner in which atomised "choice" -- hundreds per hour -- defeats any possibility of real freedom, for hundreds of thousands of people in Australia, and the millions who are close to them. Conversely, genuine and hard restrictions on their availability is, for many, the path to freedom, by removing the need to repeatedly make a decision not to gamble. The gambling industry adopted "responsible gambling" only after it realised that the social cost of its industry was so high that something would happen if it didn't. Since then, it has offered a main course dolmades serve of fig leaves to put on the central fact of gambling: its relentless availability online and offline. [Fake Stephen Conroy says goodbye] So Conroy's new commitment is not just to a quick-bucks payout. It's to an industry that actively demoralises and disempowers, and forwards the sort of society in which Labor cannot prosper, because you cannot base a party of collective advancement on an individualised and atomised social life. Would Stephen Conroy care about this? Who knows? The current generation of Labor Right have always been something of a mystery to me. The old Labor Right were aligned against socialism and communism, understandable enough. The new Labor Right are such a mix of genuine centrists, venal schemers and delusional narcissists that it's hard to draw a bead on them. They suffer from a want of ethical desire -- there is nothing they want very much to happen, nothing they want greatly to change. It's difficult to know whether someone like Stephen Conroy always aspired to be a flack for Big Destitution, or whether he's someone who started with modest aims, and has had his ambitions up-sized by being around all that money. He could take his lifelong super and head up an NGO, and he'd still pull in $300k+ a year -- and do decent things for the country. He wants to be where the big boys are, with their big incomes, as a toady and factotum for James Packer. Pathetic. Well, keep at it. Individually these things make no difference. Cumulatively, they become too big to be ignored. Despite Brexit, despite Trump, despite the fact that labour parties are actually starting to die -- witness Scottish Labour, now essentially a ghost party, a distant third behind the SNP and the Tories -- they think they can get away with this forever. Yet when the populist impulse hits Australia it will, because so long delayed, hit hard. Keep joining the banks, the global corporations, the industry bodies, Labor. Keep being not the faceless men, but the manless faces. You are taking a big gamble on the continued inattention of the Australian public. The party will deserve what happens, we won't deserve the consequences of the party doubling down on its decades of elitism, complacency and self-satisfaction. Cue further gambling metaphors here. Note that they're all about loss.

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31 thoughts on “Rundle: Conroy moves to Big Gambling, Labor on a losing streak

  1. Charles Richardson

    Great stuff, Guy. One quibble, though: “… you cannot base a party of collective advancement on an individualised and atomised social life.” But as you’ve just pointed out, the thing about addiction is its destruction of individual autonomy. It’s the denial of individualism, not its realisation. I presume that’s why you put “choice” in scare quotes in para 8 – because it isn’t real choice at all, and so can’t be real individualism.

    1. Bob the builder

      I don’t think an “individualised” life is the same as individualism. One is lonely, the other is self-sufficient.

  2. zut alors

    What If…Rudd had held firm to his CPRS policy, a grateful ALP and electorate had returned him to government & Conroy, who actually understood the Communications portfolio, had rolled out the five-star NBN to such extent that Abbott/Turnbull weren’t game to meddle with it once in power. I’m dreamin’…

    Instead… Australia has no CPRS (or anything remotely like it), a third rate NBN with ballooning costs and a previously competent Communications Minister selling his soul to become a stooge for the gambling industry. Reality sucks.

  3. form1planet

    I hadn’t even bothered to read beyond the headlines about Conroy, it seemed like just another redundant data point confirming the already well established ‘world is fukt’ hypothesis. Trust Rundle to turn it into a scorching indictment of somebody who I would once have considered to be, well, at least not as fukt as the rest, and the endless dragging mediocrity of the whole system in which these time-worn processes are embedded. You don’t even get the sense that you’re up against some serious evil, just a bunch of half-competent self-serving twats who will follow the path of least resistance until they end up screwing us all. “Manless faces” indeed.

    1. AR

      Manless faces and men without navels.

  4. Josh Mehlman

    Although fig leaves are edible, dolmades are made from grape vine leaves

    1. David Irving (no relation)

      While technically accurate, that would’ve ruined the metaphor.

  5. Matthew Davey

    When The Greens eventually eclipse the ALP as the party of ‘the left’, we will be able to look back on excellent articles like this one to explain why.

  6. Nudiefish

    Thank you Guy, inspired piece.
    I am amazed that more isn’t being written on the pending demise of the once great Labor party. The ALP has been taking on a serious amount of water for at least a decade. Now that it has become standard practice for ex-Labor politicians to beg for rent-seeking corporate “jobs” after a lifetime in the golden trenches why can’t they see that the party is over? One stands in the ballot box with pencil a quiver and reflects upon a “Labor” party which fought for a TPP, promotes funding to wealthy private schools and had to be dragged kicking and screaming to a position on equality for SSM.

    Sometimes you can just see the writing on the wall. If they can’t take a principled stand against this currant mob of brain-dead reactionary LNP corporate stooges they never will prevail – ever. In time Labor will slowly shape-shift into a slightly less toxic version of the conservatives and nobody will care. The people will have deserted them, and that is their fate.

  7. ian smith

    Another reason why perks for ex-politicians/ministers are now no longer justified.
    Time to get rid of them now that paid positions are so readily on offer.

    1. Damon

      Indeed! The old rationale that they gave up on a lucrative career and thus need compensation for their service seems rather outdated, now, doesn’t it?

  8. Joe Fitzpatrick

    “… when the populist impulse hits Australia …”
    Fascinating aside. I wonder what form that populist impulse is likely to take?

  9. Elbow Patches

    Very disappointing. I don’t understand the attraction. Gambling is so damn tacky. It wouldn’t be worth the money to associate yourself with that industry. When they have a secure pension and no doubt plenty of other opportunities.

  10. Dog's Breakfast

    Well, I tend to look more at appointments to resource company jobs after you’ve just approved some world destroying coal mines more egregious in the great scheme of things. There will definitely be no choice about the outcomes from increased carbon emissions, whatever they end up being, as opposed to the freedom for a pokies gambler to pluck out their eyes and put sticks in their ears.

    But yeah, point taken.

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