Betrayal: The Underbelly of Australian Labor – Review

5 August 2010

Written by: Lawrie Zion

‘“Congratulations on the new job,” read the text from Frank Sartor. “Now that you’ve fucked up NSW, you can go and fuck up the country.”’

Simon Benson, the Daily Telegraph’s chief political reporter, has written an engaging and important book. The text from senior Labor MP Sartor to NSW party secretary Karl Bitar goes to the heart of the bizarre events Benson recounts: An elected Labor premier brought down not by the Opposition but by the Labor party secretariat and the union movement. NSW Labor was left to plumb new depths of crisis and unpopularity, while Bitar became Labor’s federal secretary and is now managing Labor’s national campaign.

Betrayal: The Underbelly of Australian Labor recounts how the party machine thwarted Premier Morris Iemma’s plan to privatize electricity assets in 2008. In the process, Iemma and Treasurer Michael Costa lost their jobs and NSW ended up with the fraught, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it premiership of Nathan Rees (‘when did being premier become an amateur sport?’, asks John Della Bosca, reasonably enough).

The ‘betrayal’ of the title belongs to Kevin Rudd. Benson argues that the former PM reneged on a deal to support Iemma’s privatization plan in return for Iemma delaying its announcement until after Rudd was safely elected prime minister. Treasurer Costa was immediately alarmed, warning Iemma that Rudd was ‘only interested in himself. He doesn’t give a fuck about electricity or NSW Labor!’

Sure enough, it would all end badly. Opposition to privatization was whipped up by union and party officials, and Iemma’s policy was overwhelmingly condemned by a conference vote of the party rank-and-file. Rudd avoided communicating with Iemma and, when they finally spoke, he welshed: ‘It’s a state issue. I can’t get involved.’

Benson’s narrative is fast-paced and captures the hectic untidiness of politics behind the scenes. At Council of Australian Governments meetings, Costa passes Rudd clichés around on notes and starts a competition to guess the next one (‘the rubber hits the road’, ‘no bonanza at the end of the road’, ‘I’ve got to zip’, etc). Having taken his family to Disneyland, General Secretary Bitar sits on the floor of a gift shop with his phone plugged into a power socket and calls MPs, urging them to dump Iemma while shop assistants ‘began to look at him with concern’. In his final week as Treasurer, Costa shows reporters a ‘life-sized toy parrot’ which, when switched on, squawks the last word on the party free-for-all: ‘you’re all fucked, you’re all fucked’ (‘as impressive as it was disturbing’, Benson recalls).

Amid the often colourful recriminations, Betrayal has a serious point to make. It is that when the party machine lacks ‘policy purpose, it has nothing more to offer than to focus on marketing and polls’. The words belong to Paul Keating, whose observations thread through the narrative, playing the part of a Greek chorus lamenting the depths to which the party had sunk.

The NSW Right of the Labor party is by tradition a pragmatic, governing movement, prepared under the likes of Paul Keating and Neville Wran to make the tough decisions. Privatisation was such a decision. As Benson tells it, the leaders of the Right opposed it out of a combination of opportunism, populism and genuine thick-headedness. At a crisis meeting in the premier’s office, Party President Bernie Riordan sketches out his scheme for union part-ownership of the assets on a paper napkin. Unions NSW Secretary John Robertson admits that ‘what we are proposing doesn’t stack up’ and, when Iemma asks what he wants, replies: ‘I don’t fucking know. Just do something, change something, because this is about saving face’. ‘This is not’, as Keating observes with some understatement, ‘a winning formula’.

Having chronicled the destruction of a Labor government by party officials, Benson is scathing in his conclusion: ‘More than 20 years ago, Keating managed to push through labour market deregulation, privatization of a national banking institution and a national airline with barely a whimper. Yet in 2008, a newly-elected federal Labor Prime Minister couldn’t bring himself to come to the aide [sic] of a provincial government seeking to sell a few clapped-out, coal-fired power stations.’

The book ends with a list of questions which Benson put to Kevin Rudd and which were never answered.

 Stephen Minas graduated from the London School of Economics in 2009. He has written for various publications in Australia and the UK and has reported on-air for Radio Television Hong Kong. Twitter @StephenMinas