"I was a bit wary of this Obeid, getting into the parliamentary party and then very quickly emerging as an organiser," opined Foreign Minister Bob Carr on the ABC’s Four Corners last night.
"There hadn’t been this level of factional organisation before in the Right."
Carr was on the television trying to get out in front of Marian Wilkinson’s Obeid story. It’s part of an ongoing campaign to downplay his relationship with Obeid and his faction in Carr’s NSW government. Last month, for instance, he told Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National that he was the man who sacked Obeid from his cabinet. "I’m very proud to say, Fran, and this is common knowledge, that in 2003 I expelled him from the ministry."
No-one wants to seem too close to a corrupt colleague, but even for a profession that routinely sews its fabrics with the thread of hypocrisy, current efforts by Labor luminaries to dissociate themselves with the now-scandalous Eddie Obeid are pretty impressive. Many of the people claiming to have been bitter opponents of Obeid’s rise through the party are the very same ones that promoted him.
Carr is one of them. As journalist Alex Mitchell pointed out yesterday, Carr was instrumental in Obeid’s appointment to Carr’s first ministry in 1999. Carr convened the factional meeting that put Obeid’s cabinet spot to a vote. And then, according to Mitchell, Carr voted for Obeid himself.
Like much of what Carr told Wilkinson, the idea that the former premier was swept unwillingly along by the irresistible force of Obeid’s factional strength doesn’t pass the smell test. Carr was a part of the same broad faction as Obeid. What he is really apologising for is under-estimating Obeid’s organising abilities.
"A member of Parliament could be someone who’s insecure, who’s nervous, who’s lonely," Carr continued in the Four Corners interview, "and all of a sudden at the door of their office is Eddie. And Eddie says: ‘You’ve got a future in the place, you ought to be the next vice-chairman of the road safety committee. We can get it for you. But you gotta vote with us on other things.’"
What Carr describes here is the core of the ALP’s factional system — of a factional system in any parliamentary democracy, really.
Factions are both unfairly maligned and commonly underestimated. In any democratic party, interest groups tend to coalesce around certain values, of which the most over-riding is self-interest. Factions will always exist, because that is the nature of small organisations.
Once a group within a caucus begins to organise itself, it will quickly dominate every position unless other factions organise to counter it. There are factions in the Liberal Party and the Greens, and state branches of both these parties have seen vicious factional warfare break out from time to time.
The main difference between the ALP and the Liberal Party is that the Labor factions have become institutionalised components of the broader party structure. Fiefdoms are based on numbers, which flow from power bases in affiliated unions and party branches. Formalised power-sharing agreements often split up the spoils of office, such as party positions, committee memberships, winnable seats and Senate slots, and ultimately the leadership itself. For those looking for a life after politics, a cushy seat on the board of a super fund could be just the trick.
And that’s the problem with Labor’s argument that Obeid was somehow a rogue operator. In fact, his M.O. was indistinguishable from that of all the other power brokers, including and especially his mentor in the New South Wales Right, Graham Richardson. What distinguishes Obeid from his colleagues is not his skills as an organiser, but rather his unusually fluid personal ethics. But his path to power was typical.
Former Labor Minister John Faulker explained how it was done to Four Corners last night. "This is an exercise of factional power, as you know," he told Wilkinson. Obeid, Faulkner explained, ran the Terrigals. The Terrigals controlled the broader New South Wales Right. The Right faction controlled the government. QED.
But Faulkner himself was hardly innocent of odious colleagues. Rogue mining minister Ian Macdonald was a prominent officer of Faulkner’s left faction in New South Wales for many years. The problem here is far from a couple of bad eggs. It is the factional system itself.
"The great lesson of it for the Labor Party, if anyone gets to the stage in the future, where they’re spoken of as a factional powerbroker, at that point they should be ritually executed," Bob Carr said towards the end of his interview last night. That’s a lesson that, if learnt, would see Carr exit from Julia Gillard’s Government.
Let’s remind ourselves of why Bob Carr is the Foreign Minister of Australia. Bob Carr was not elected to the Australian parliament by voters. He was put there by the Labor Party. The Australian constitution has a convention in which the party of a retiring Senator gets to nominate a new Senator to replace them with (technically, the Premier of that Senator’s state makes the appointment, on the advice of the party). In Carr’s case the resigning Senator was Mark Arbib.
Who was Mark Arbib, again? He was a former secretary of the New South Wales Labor Party: a factional powerbroker of the New South Wales Right. Arbib was boss of the New South Wales party at the very time Obeid’s tentacles were spreading throughout the Labor government; indeed, while Obeid and Macdonald were cooking up their grand plans for the Mt Penny coal lease.
Arbib ran Morris Iemma’s 2007 election campaign. Obeid was his key numbers man. It was Iemma that put Eddie Obeid back into the cabinet, and Ian Macdonald into the position of mining minister.
Carr’s elevation to the Senate and the Ministry could only have occurred because of the recommendation of the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party, specifically, the New South Wales Right — Obeid’s faction. After all, Mark Arbib’s Senate spot was a New South Wales Right slot on the ticket.
Bob Carr is a Minister today because of the factions. The same faction as Eddie Obeid, actually.
You don’t get to be premier of New South Wales for a decade if you’re not pretty handy with the numbers. And that’s the real concern for Labor. Outright corruption on the scale of the allegations levelled at Obeid and Macdonald is thankfully rare in the broader party. But low-level factional warfare is endemic. And it is the factional system that allows kingmakers like Obeid to amass power, and to turn that power into ill-gotten wealth.
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