Revenge of the Wog Boys


On ABC Radio National’s Breakfast program last week, James Carleton deployed the most effective weapon against the idiocy and arrogance of the powerful satire.

In just three minutes, he skewered NSW Treasurer Michael Costa’s claim that he and several Cabinet colleagues had become innocent targets in the State election campaign because of their ‘wog’ backgrounds.

‘Let’s be clear about this,’ Costa told Sydney commercial radio, ‘the Opposition decided to target a bunch of people with Italian sounding names.’ He didn’t like the NSW Opposition’s repeated references to The Sopranos. Carleton responded with a skit in which Costa, Ports Minister Joe Tripodi and Planning Minister Frank Sartor sat around the Cabinet table discussing ways in which they might ‘wack’ Liberal leader Peter Debnam, as the theme to The Godfather swelled in the background.

The Mediterranean countries are well represented in the NSW Cabinet. There are five Italians (Morris Iemma, Frank Sartor, Joe Tripodi, John Della Bosca and Sandra Nori) and two Greeks (Costa and John Hatzistergos). But it is ludicrous, and embarrassing, for Labor Ministers to allege they are the victims of Debnam’s racism.

Aside from anything else, Debnam is hardly going to alienate thousands of voters of non-English speaking background in key marginal seats, such as Monaro, and in western Sydney and the Hunter Valley. The Liberal leader has been ridiculed justifiably for his shrill pledge to round up ‘200 Middle Eastern thugs and charge them with anything,’ but remember it was Iemma, beholden to the shock-jocks and tabloids, who established the ethnically specific Middle Eastern Crime Squad within the NSW Police Force.

(There may, indeed, be crime problems in some of Sydney’s Middle Eastern communities but the formal establishment of such a police unit suggests that particular offences are exclusive in some sort of genetic way to Australians of Middle Eastern background. If we’re going to base policing on crude and inaccurate ethnic stereotypes, why not establish an Irish Crime Squad to deal with illegal gambling?)

Thanks to Bill Leak

Costa’s real complaint is not based on perceived racism it is based on resentment. He has highlighted a long-simmering, but largely unmentioned, phenomenon inside the NSW Labor Party. That Costa has risen effortlessly, if undeservedly, through the Labor movement to a position of such power shows that his Greek background has never been a problem. But he and Tripodi seethe with resentment at ‘middle-class Anglos,’ whom they believe hijacked Labor in the 1970s. This is an argument about class and culture, not race or ethnicity.

Costa and Tripodi parade themselves as defenders of Labor’s suburban, working-class constituency. No matter that Tripodi has never earned his living on the tools, or that Costa was a train driver for barely five minutes they have spent years raging against inner-city elites and their small-l liberal preoccupations with human rights and the environment.

Costa and Tripodi’s hero is, or was, Paul Keating, who in the 1970s and 1980s dismissed white-collar Laborites as ‘Balmain basket-weavers whose idea of economics is wider nature strips, more trees and eating your own shit.’ Their enemies are Gough Whitlam, Bob Brown, et al.

Much to the chagrin of Costa and Tripodi, Keating who was actually from a prosperous small business family with very distant Irish roots became a darling of the Balmain-Fitzroy set, ending the Ministers’ cultural claim on him.

Yet it was the economic policies of Keating, embraced by Costa and Tripodi but opposed by the ‘middle-class Anglos’ such as former Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe, which destroyed the livelihoods of their cherished working class, especially its legion of men from immigrant backgrounds. Every time Iemma relates his one and only story of struggle about how he drove his father around looking for a job after he lost his factory job during Malcolm Fraser’s recession of 1982 it strikes me that the economic policies of Costa and Tripodi would have ensured that Iemma’s father never got another job in a factory.

Costa is a four-wheel driving, free-market fundamentalist, who, despite once holding the ‘Hunter Valley’ portfolio, argued in Cabinet that local manufacturers should get only the most minimal amount of work in the production of new railway carriages. This former Secretary of Unions NSW favoured cheaper, Chinese contractors.

Tripodi was once an advocate of lower wages for workers in rural areas (I heard it from his own lips), a policy that would no doubt interest the Italian and Greek veterans of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme who were employed across southern NSW in the post-war period. Indeed, it was the Iemma-Costa Government that wanted to privatise this monument to multicultural enterprise.

Pumped up on the myth that they are plucky ‘wog’ boys from the ‘burbs who have done it tough, Costa and Tripodi have also led the charge to deny rank-and-file ALP members their democratic rights. Tripodi’s sticky fingers are all over centralised pre-selections from the eastern suburbs to Parramatta to Penrith to south-western Sydney, where the Right-wing ALP machine has imposed compliant candidates. Costa is the tactical genius responsible for the impending disaster in Newcastle, in which the ALP machine installed a candidate who is likely to lose to an Independent.

In stark contrast, John Hatzistergos in the difficult Health portfolio would never be so crass as to claim he is the victim of ethnic bigotry. Perhaps because Hatzistergos built a successful career as a barrister, without the patronage of the ALP head office machine, before entering Parliament, or perhaps because he comports himself with a quiet dignity and does his job effectively, he has escaped the opprobrium attached to much of the NSW Government. It is certainly not because he denies his Greek heritage. He is proud of it often giving impressive, extemporaneous speeches in Greek.

It is not their ethnicity or their ‘Italian-sounding names’ that make Costa, Tripodi and Sartor such easy targets for ridicule. It is ineptitude and their bullying style. Above all, it is their arrogance the essence of which is that they do not know what they do not know.

Their cries of racism in this election campaign are merely an excuse for their own failures and their betrayal of the people they claim to represent.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.