First published in Anticipations, the Young Fabian journal | Volume 17, Issue 2 | Winter 2013
Just over six months ago my time working for Australian Labor party (ALP) began. The first week started with me leaving Progress annual conference in London and ended with a Eurovision event in Sydney. Both had a similar demographic in attendance, and the latter felt very much like a home away from home. The week in between featured many of the gems that were to unfold in an election where the party changed its candidate for prime minister half way through the campaign.
Having landed (late) I was picked up by my new colleague. Before the pleasantries were over we were dialling into the weekly conference call. I was introduced as the ‘fall guy’ for the campaign. My driver turned out to be the chair of Young Labor for some of the time I had held the same position in the UK. We exchanged battle stories and tales of Trots in student politics – nothing else would have put me at such ease. On arrival I was given the essentials – a phone and hotel room key.
Within 24 hours of landing I’m back in the air and heading to Canberra. It’s budget day. Australia’s twenty-second year of continuous economic growth (started under Labor) is in full swing and everyone is in town. The rest of the G20 might look on with envy but you wouldn’t know it from the chatter- it’s all about the government cutting ‘middle class welfare’ and John Howard’s use of public money to bribe the electorate for votes.
I’m travelling with my southern hemisphere boss, Sam Dastyari. Four months after I met him, Sam was made a senator. This first generation migrant from a small fishing village in Iran had made it into the federal parliament a shave past his thirtieth birthday. His story is inspirational and very Australian. An impressive style and relentless personality secured him the general secretaryship of one of the world’s finest political machines at just 26.
The New South Wales (NSW) Right, as they are known, are a powerhouse of machine politics and dominate the ALP. Sam’s modus operandi was to run circuits of the parliament at great pace. Entering offices without knocking, he would interject in conversations and help himself to the nuts, sweets and fruit available on people’s desk. On one occasion, to the astonishment of a nearby staffer, he picked up a stray sandwich and ate two thirds of it before throwing the remainder in the bin.
As the day continued we ventured to see the former ministers who had been sent to the naughty corner by Julia Gillard after the latest attempted coup. All were sent to the political equivalent of Siberia.
The budget was finally delivered. Labor championed jobs and growth. They warned about the Tories’ plan for European austerity and cutting to the bone. Julia Gillard arrived at the banquet organised in her honour and I turned out to be the only one to give her a standing ovation.
This was unnerving. I had been warned about the lack of deference but this was the prime minister! This frosty reception didn’t bode well. The food was served, the dinner flowed, the night rolled on…
The Rudd/Gillard situation was described to me in terms I could easily understand. Rudd has Blair’s communication skills and Gordon Brown’s paranoia and briefing operation. Gillard has Neil Kinnock’s politics and Brown’s communication skills. After a few drinks my new Canberra friends were quick to make it even simpler for me: ‘Everyone likes Kevin until they meet him twice. No one likes Julia until they meet her twice.’
Thanks to a hostile media and a barrage of vicious attacks from now prime minster Tony Abbott, her relationship with voters was always precarious. In my first two days I witnessed first-hand how discussion about Gillard was consistently framed in sexist terms- by my taxi driver, hotel receptionist, and face-to-face on the doorstep with voters.
The next morning I awoke to a one-word text message that read ‘sh*t’. It turned out that while in political Siberia, my boss had dropped his parliamentary pass and Rudd had personally, and very generously, returned it to Gillard’s private office. Other people read lots into this.
Before the aforementioned Eurovision party, I had my first real taste of the doorstep. Armed with Labor’s second-to-none fiscal message and Gillard’s impressive programme of school improvement, disability care package and broadband access, I was ready to be let loose on the voters. Within seconds I realised I had walked back into the 2010 UK election. The people of NSW were nothing but gluttons for punishment and would not give Labor a break!
Richard Angell is the deputy director of Progress and worked for the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor party during their 2013 general election