Matt Thistlethwaite’s position in the Senate says more about party allegiance and machine driven politics than it does about his personal credentials, experience, and drive for a spot in the federal parliament.
Thistlethwaite comes to the house of review after 18 months as the general secretary of NSW Labor. Following in the footsteps of Mark Arbib who made the same move from general secretary to senator, Thistlethwaite resigned on the proviso he be parachuted into the Senate. In the 2010 election he was placed second on the party ticket behind John Faulkner, effectively assuring himself a job for the next six years.
With his election all but sewn up, Thistlethwaite told ABC Radio in the lead up to the 2010 election that he was confident he would be elected. As an afterword, he added, "but of course I understand that I still need to win the support of the people of NSW".
The thing is, in so many ways he didn’t need to win the support of the people of NSW. The system of proportional representation that operates in the Senate means that no candidate needs to obtain a majority of votes to be elected. While this means the chances for independents and members of smaller parties are better than the lower house, in this case it also meant that Thistlethwaite, as a representative of a major party, was all but assured of election the moment he was done with running NSW Labor.
Leaving aside the means by which he got to this end, Thistlethwaite seems a good performer with a diverse background, if only slender interests.
Before his stint as general secretary he worked for over a decade in the union movement, first as an industrial officer with the AWU, and then later as the deputy assistant secretary with Unions NSW. He coupled some of this time as a director of the State Transit Authority of NSW. In the community he has had a long and passionate involvement as a volunteer lifesaver. He has said that his interest in politics was prompted by his early involvement in surf lifesaving and in the PCYC movement.
Insofar as representing the state of NSW goes, it is fair to say that Thistlethwaite’s experience means that he is across most issues, to say nothing of the national Labor party platform with which NSW Labor has so strongly been associated recently. The day-to-day requirements of the job, predominately of reviewing and amending legislation, should not prove arduous for Thistlethwaite. As a voice for all of NSW, however, it is unclear how he will balance his experience in downtown Sydney with the diverse needs of Australia’s most populous state.
With little on the record it is not entirely clear how Thistlethwaite will perform, both speaking in the Senate, and more broadly within the party. He has been aligned with the Right in NSW and this looks set to continue in Canberra. On policy he was opposed to electricity privatisation pursued by the previous NSW state government. And more controversially, much has been made of the NSW Labor leadership fiasco which saw him back the wrong horse when he was general secretary. When Nathan Rees was dumped, Thistlethwaite favoured Frank Sartor, and at times Carmel Tebbutt, rather than the eventual victor Kristina Keneally. By not backing the winner, it was thought that NSW Labor Head Office lost out — particularly regarding choices for the new Cabinet. Thistlethwaite’s personal image and number crunching ability were both questioned at this time.
While waiting for his new job to begin, Thistlethwaite has drawn on his academic background in economics and law and worked as a senior consultant for the firm Mallesons Stephen Jaques. With experience in the union movement, party politics, and the corporate world, Thistlethwaite should prove capable and well connected in the Senate. Yet with so much written about the NSW Labor disease — and whether it has already taken root in Canberra — it is hard not to wonder what Thistlethwaite’s position in the Senate means for the party more broadly. Hopefully the situation with NSW Labor will only cloud his initiation.
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