There were many people eagerly awaiting the Paul Keating interview on 730 tonight, where there were people waiting to see Keating give Robertson a similar bake he gave him in this letter. I was be one of them – and loved his comments on the current Bruce Hawker – promoted “sicko populism”, as well as the “lead weight in the saddlebags” and reducing Robertson’s role as transport minister to just him “jumping on and off buses”. However, I have a different view of “Robbo” than Keating, partially because I am an outsider, partially because I don’t share Keating’s views on privatisation and partially because of Robertson’s pivotal role in the Your Rights at Work campaign.
I’ve had two encounters with Robertson, both of them quite different. One was seeing him speak at a union council meeting, explaining with great detail how the use of language was going to be key in the Your Rights at Work campaign. He was in part charming, friendly, professional and not at all ocker, as many union leaders have a tendency of being, even when the situation doesn’t call for it. He was very persuasive and it was largely due to him that the campaign took flight, at least in NSW. He seemed to be a better Unions NSW leader than Michael Costa, to use a direct comparison. It is telling that Costa has been quick to judge Robertson this week, because people have made unfavourable comparisons between the two for a long time – usually to Robertson’s favour. I am one of them – Costa’s scrapping of the Parramatta – Epping rail link was one of the stupidest acts committed by the government.
The other contact was at a union Christmas function, where I talked to him about the dual wins in NSW in 2007. In those days, I was a strong ALP supporter and handed out HTVs for Phil Koperberg; as well as ringing late night radio shows (well, the Spoonman’s) to counter a lot of nonsense being spouted about unions and WorkChoices. He was friendly, genuinely warm and seemed interested, which was not the impression I have gained from other ALP figures. (Mind you, looking back at that evening, I should have realised that the writing was on the wall for Iemma. But that’s another story.)
I was not a fan of Morris Iemma, simply because he seemed like a machine man who really didn’t have much of a clue how to lead, rather he responded to disaster after disaster. Not his own man with his own ideas. I really don’t like Premiers like that. So, when he fell, due to his desire to privatise the Government’s electricity companies, I wasn’t too upset. I was even happier to see Nathan Rees’ rise, simply because we had a Premier who wasn’t a smug patrician more interested in other countries’ history than the day to day drudgery of being a Premier, nor was he obviously a machine man. Which, of course, was his problem, ultimately. Hence, I didn’t mind Robertson’s role in that – I still think keeping public ownership of electricity is a good idea.
Keating, of course, doesn’t. His ability to see the Australian economy as a machine, with little levers and buttons, does not include public ownership of a great deal, including electricity. Hence the letter, probably written while he had Mahler’s 6th Symphony on repeat, very loud. I think he put it back on before he appeared on 730. He is right to identify Robertson’s cynical machinations, because he would know plenty about those, having performed a few activities of his own over the years.
This is all why Robertson, despite his charm, skills and abilities is probably the wrong man for the job. It’s not because Keating doesn’t like him. It is because he is too closely linked to the old ways and histories of NSW Labor. Too connected to the old union networks dominated by the “obscurantist neanderthals” of the ETU, as well as the AWU and NUW, amongst others. The ALP really does need a completely new approach, where the ability to connect with local areas is enhanced by a completely grassroots nomination system. Trust the local branches, not decide from HQ.
There also needs to be a move away from Sussex Street to a new HQ for Labor, maybe Parramatta, closer to the areas they need to win back. The leader of this new style of ALP needs to be someone who can meld some the professional organisation skills of old Labor with a return to Labor values not muddied by cynical union politics.
That means Nathan Rees or Carmel Tebbutt. But the ALP won’t. They won’t learn from this election for a while. Mind you, perhaps 3 years as an opposition leader of a rump of a party is what John Robertson deserves. Part of me has a liking for watching obscurantist neanderthal sicko populism.