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October 30th 2015 print

Gary Johns

An Opportunity Missed

Former ALP national president Stephen Loosley's memoir sits better on the coffee table than the bookshelf, but for all its deficiencies in detailing a factional insider's guide to Left vs Right it does shed a certain variety of light

Machine Rules: A Political Primer
by Stephen Loosley
Melbourne University Press, 2015, 210 pages, $34.99 

looselyMachine Rules, by former senator (1990 to 1995), New South Wales ALP state secretary and national president Stephen Loosley (left), is a personal reminiscence, but a book for the coffee table rather than the bookshelf of a serious student of politics. This is a pity because Loosley was at the heart of the New South Wales ALP Right for two decades, so it is an opportunity missed to reveal the real and noble struggles against the madness of the Left in Australian politics, which has now in part been displaced from the ALP to the Greens.

I guess Loosley remains too loyal to his faction and party to reveal a great deal, but if you are to write a book as a political primer and title it Machine Rules, you really have to get under the bonnet and tell the reader how it works.

One chapter is about his favourite films on politics, followed by another on his favourite books on politics, unfortunately titled “Not Much of a Book”, a comment made to him by Senator John Button at the launch of the Paul Lyneham book Political Speak.

Loosley’s book is generously scattered with illustrations from US politics and especially US Civil War history, a favourite of the coterie of players in the New South Wales Right. Unfortunately, there is a remarkable lack of discussion about policy or the objects of politics.

The New South Wales Right did sterling work against the Left, whom Loosley labels “the halfway house for the maladjusted”, a label that could well apply to Penny Wong and Mark Dreyfus. These two recently trashed the Whitlam legacy, the fallen hero in the dismissal of his government by the Governor-General. Wong and Dreyfus made a pathetic attempt to have the Senate petition the current Governor-General to remove Dyson Heydon as the commissioner for the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.

Loosley’s book lacks the bite of his parliamentary and New South Wales Right colleague Graham Richardson’s book Whatever It Takes, or the humour of a Barry Cohen. Fortunately, neither is there the foulness of Mark Latham’s Diaries. There is, in Loosley’s familiar style, some homely advice based on his years in the political trenches.

Missing is the mea culpa, the hand-to-hand battle, the crude invocation of the rules, especially the famous N.40 rule of the New South Wales ALP constitution that enabled head office (the administrative committee) to do as it damn well pleased, most frequently invoked in preselection. I recall David Combe, the national secretary, sending me into battle at an ACT ALP conference in the 1980s with the express task of knocking off an unwelcome national executive representative from the ACT. He gave me only a couple of hours to do so, and it very nearly succeeded. I came unstuck, however, when I, unbeknown, lobbied the executive member’s daughter! We all make mistakes.

Loosley’s observation that he was “taught … never [to] stand in the way of a good man or woman who was seeking to advance their career” because it would be an “act of futility” and “damaging to the movement” was not shared by any number of his colleagues on the Left and Right. I recall moving to Queensland in 1984 after stints in the machine in Canberra and Victoria and was told in no uncertain terms by a young, and always sour, Wayne Swan to “get to the back of the queue”, an ignoble sentiment that Swan practised throughout his career, including at my expense on a number of occasions. Such is life in politics, but Loosley knows this well.

I recall asking Richo’s advice about a possible shift from the national office to Tasmania as state secretary. The branch was ruled by the Left, and probably still is. With characteristic directness, Richo said that the best way he could help would be to “shit-can” me. I declined his support—and in any event, thought better of joining the maladjusted.

Observations about the Keating challenge to Hawke’s leadership are interesting. Loosley places a great deal of weight on media stumbles by Brian Howe, walking into a closet from a committee room in the full view of a press conference, and John Kerin’s inability to recall the meaning of the term “GOS” as “gross operating surplus” (public servants are infamous for their acronyms), also in full view of the press. I guess it paled into insignificance compared to Treasurer Wayne Swan’s fully one minute of gormless silence when unable to recall at a press conference the government’s forecast for the rate of inflation. But, I digress.

There were deeper policy events in Hawke’s downfall. The 1991 cabinet decision on Coronation Hill had a definite impact. Coronation Hill, a gold mining project in an area that had already been mined for uranium, was stopped and the area rolled into Kakadu National Park by a decision of the Hawke cabinet. The decision was petty and deceptive.

I was not present in cabinet, but a Centre Left faction colleague who was, on this one occasion, was more than happy to describe the scene in vivid detail. Debate went around the table with twelve against stopping the mine and six in favour of stopping the mine. After debate, Kim Beazley turned to Hawke, who had spoken through tears about the project (affected apparently by his son’s close links to the Aboriginal land rights cause) and said words to the effect, “Well, Bob, it’s your government.” Indeed, it was. Hawke called it against the majority, a very risky thing to do. From that moment, he lost authority in the cabinet.

The next morning I led debate against the Prime Minister in caucus, seconded by Michael Lee of the New South Wales Right. Of course, we lost the vote. The ministry had to remain solid; otherwise the Hawke government would have fallen. Hawke was now a captive of the Left, but also of the second-preference strategy for Green votes devised by Richo. The strategy was a signal factor in the government’s (and my) electoral survival, but the cabinet and caucus knew the game was over for Hawke. Policy substance counts; it is not all silly mistakes and fumbles before the camera.

Naturally, Loosley waxes lyrical about his colleague Paul Keating, scion of the New South Wales Right, as well he should. Keating was the man. He was an ordinary Prime Minister, not a touch on Bob Hawke, but he was a brilliant Treasurer. In my time in caucus, almost nine years, Keating received six standing ovations from caucus—not, as was traditional following an election victory, where the leader walks triumphantly into a caucus grateful for retaining their jobs, but in the ordinary course of questions to the executive.

Keating’s six standing ovations came from answers to questions from caucus members. Paul approached the microphone, if he was not already there as leader, and proceeded, in a very calm and considered way, to take the questioning member through the previous several budgets, their settings, the economy at the time, the reasons for the policy changes and so on. The hairs on the back of your neck would rise. The caucus was in awe of his grasp of detail and the big picture: we were happy that he was in charge. Although, as Senator Peter Cook remarked immediately after we rolled Hawke and installed Keating as leader, “Hang on to your hats, we are in for a wild ride.”

Paul was a bold showman and always prepared with a line for the next day’s front page. I recall he strode into Question Time one day in 1990, and in answer to a Dorothy Dixer announced that Australia had defeated inflation, it was zero for the quarter. I turned to my colleague Ric Charlesworth and said, “the economy’s fucked”. And so it was. But Paul got the headline he wanted.

There was one very juicy tidbit from Loosley, of which I was unaware:

It’s necessary to acknowledge that ASIO endeavoured to recruit me to its ranks while I was the General Secretary of the New South Wales ALP in the mid 1980s. I was approached by a fellow whom I had met as an Australian diplomat in the Middle East [I presume the agent was the diplomat, not Loosley]. He made it clear to me that there was to be some financial reward for keeping ASIO briefed on what was happening inside the labour movement. It took me less than a moment to decline …

There is no doubt that the New South Wales Right was a bastion of anti-communism and an anti-Left bulwark in Australia and should be applauded for it.

Where I also applaud Loosley is his observation that “very few people go into public life for the money”. He makes the point:

it is now possible through active involvement in non-government organisations or through philanthropy to play an energetic role in the formulation of public policy and in implementing measures which accomplish real outcomes.

Nevertheless, he tells us that “politics remains the only game in town”—but cautions, especially for the young: “unless you want to occupy public office with every fibre in your body, it would be best to reconsider your ambition”.

His best observation is that “leaving politics is a little bit like endeavouring to leave the Hotel California: it is indeed possible to check out whenever you like, but it is not possible to actually leave”. In this, I heartily concur.

Gary Johns, an ALP Member of the House of Representatives from 1987 to 1996, is the author, most recently, of The Charity Ball