Mark Arbib quit politics in 2012. Photo: Jacky Ghossein Paul Howes went to the private sector after hopes of a seat in the Senate were dashed. Photo: Anna Kucera
Senator Sam Dastyari quit after a week of sustained pressure. Photo: Wolter Peeters
The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long. It’s a phrase attributed – somewhat ironically, given the events of this week – to the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi, father of Taoism.
It certainly describes Labor’s backroom wunderkinds over the past decade. Karl Bitar, Mark Arbib, Paul Howes – once leading luminaries of the NSW Right, their political stars rose quickly and fell even faster.
Now Sam Dastyari, a successor to Bitar and Arbib as NSW Labor general secretary, has crashed and burned just months into his frontbench stint. And the question has to be asked: why are these bright flames burning out?
“The culture they come from is intensely corrosive,” says one Left MP intimately familiar with Sussex Street. “If you’re not grounded in values, you’re doomed from the start. You don’t have anything to fall back on when you hit adversity.”
Much is made of the so-called “NSW disease”, a sort of morally degenerative condition rooted in the “whatever it takes” philosophy championed by Graham Richardson. But Richo, who was 26 when he ran NSW Labor, may have been the last to practise the dark arts successfully (though controversially).
Bitar, head NSW honcho through 2008 before taking charge of the party nationally, presided over a run of disasters that rendered his name political poison. He relentlessly pursued NSW premier Morris Iemma, sparking implosions that led to catastrophic defeat for Labor in 2011. Federally, he was instrumental in convincing Kevin Rudd to dump the planned emissions trading scheme, which might stand as the most ill-judged political decision in recent memory.
Enjoined in these machinations was Arbib, Bitar’s predecessor as NSW general secretary, who was by this time safely ensconced in the Senate. Having sunk Rudd’s credibility and approval ratings, they set about having him overthrown. Under Julia Gillard, a much-maligned campaign saw Labor almost lose government after just one term. Arbib abruptly quit politics hours after Rudd’s unsuccessful leadership challenge in early 2012. He declined Fairfax Media’s invitation to comment.
Both men ended up taking lucrative jobs in James Packer’s Crown empire. And Howes, another key faceless man of the era and a career unionist from the age of 17, left the Australian Workers Union after seven years at the top to work for KPMG soon after being passed over for a Senate vacancy.
Enter Dastyari, boy wonder with an impeccable CV. He stacked branches in high school, was president of the Sydney University ALP Club and NSW Young Labor, and became NSW general secretary in March 2010 at 26. After an inevitable electoral drubbing in 2011, the young gun began the daunting task of rebuilding Brand Labor. By the time Dastyari graduated to the Senate in 2013, he was being touted by his mentor Richo as “probably better than me”.
“He could have a dramatic effect federally,” Richardson told the Sydney Morning Herald at the time. “The national Right has broken down to a very large extent in recent years and he’s the one bloke with an opportunity to put it back together.”
With Dastyari in the deep freeze after barely five minutes on the frontbench, that prediction is looking shaky. The cause of his demise – outsourcing a $1670 travel bill to a Chinese donor – smacks of the same careless, sleazy, wheeler-dealing antics that have tainted Sussex Street for so long.
“Everything is seen through the prism of short-term tactical advantage,” the Left MP tells Fairfax Media. “That’s how they rise through the Labor Party. That then continues into their political career.”
Not that it’s confined to NSW. Victorian powerbroker David Feeney became general secretary in that state at age 29, then held backroom positions in the Bracks government, South Australia and on the national executive. He was elected to the Senate in 2007 before moving to the lower house seat of Batman, which he battled to retain this year after a series of stumbles such as failing to declare a negatively geared property and accidentally leaving confidential briefing notes in a TV studio.
He too now finds himself on the outer, and certainly off the frontbench.
All signs are that Dastyari will recover from the bruising that befouled him this past week, with everyone from Bill Shorten down implying he will be back. But he would take little comfort from the fate of his predecessors.
“These characters are mirror images of one other,” says a senior interstate observer. “There’s clearly a problem with how politics is conducted in NSW. It’s an entirely different culture.”