Australian Books

Saints and demons

26 November 2015

3:00 PM

26 November 2015

3:00 PM

‘The Australian Labor Party is composed of two main factions,’ writes novelist Shane Maloney, ‘Them and Us’.

This truth illuminates the recently published tales of two authors – Machine Rules, A Political Primer by Stephen Loosley and On The Edges of History, A Memoir of Law, Books and Politics by Michael Sexton – each on a quest for a career in the ALP.

Both join the Right wing of the NSW Labor Party but that is where the similarity ends. As Maloney suggests, ideology matters only at the extremities. The main factional game ‘is the distribution of spoils’.

The subtitles offer clues as to how this game will play out. Loosley is a machine man; Sexton is a servant of the law and letters. No points for guessing who gets to divvy up spoils.

Loosley goes to Sussex Street, HQ for head kickers and number crunchers. Life is not dull. Bob Carr does impersonations of Whitlam on the phone to fool the comrades while Leo McLeay, a former telephone technician, rigs up an intercom to eavesdrop on his neighbours. Loosley pals up with Graham Richardson, following him up the greasy pole to become NSW general secretary and is duly rewarded with a seat in the Senate.

Machine Rules is a Debrett’s guide to the manners of the Right. We learn after dinner anecdotes on the lunacy of the Left; the perils of ratting; what to do when handed a bag full of money; how to defend the indefensible; branch stacking for beginners and how to stonewall ‘without seeking to obviously dodge questions’.

Loosley gives high praise to a staffer in Neville Wran’s office who keeps a dirt file on Labor’s enemies and dips into his own when he occasionally admits to fallibility on his side of politics. He recounts, for example, how the former NSW Premier was introduced to Lenny McPherson ‘the most notorious of Sydney’s underworld figures’ by their mutual barrister. But there is no mention that Wran was investigated by the Street Royal Commission with Chief Stipendiary Magistrate Murray Farquar who went to prison for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Instead he segues to former Liberal Premier Barry O’Farrell’s appearance before ICAC. Predictably, Loosley’s account of his own turn at ICAC reveals next to nothing.

Partisanship infuses his analysis. Sir Robert Askin is denounced as ‘among the most corrupt’ of NSW’s premiers while Richo’s mates are merely ‘rumoured to have links to Sydney’s underbelly’ and are ‘not exactly going to find themselves on the Queens’s Birthday honour’s list’.

Sexton had a head start on Loosley having worked as a judge’s associate and academic before joining the staff of Whitlam’s Attorney General, Kep Enderby. Yet although Loosley says Labor people were taught to ‘never stand in the way of a good man or woman who was seeking to advance their career’, Sexton misses out on pre-selection while Milton Orkopoulos becomes a NSW minister, only to be jailed soon after for 14 years for sexual assaults on minors.

The trouble is Sexton isn’t prepared to repeat Labor pieties. He feels no need for a hero to worship. Whitlam is not amused. Whereas Loosley recites the Labor Shibboleths about Vietnam, Sexton dismisses them as myths.

Loosley follows the rules, Sexton breaks them. And in doing so, Sexton crosses various powerbrokers. He earns the enmity of the Left by running for pre-selection in one of their fiefdoms. But Sexton is never frightened to be true to his beliefs or to take unpopular positions. He supports Bill Hayden when others are abandoning the opposition leader. And Sexton also tells home truths about Hawke, who he hears snarl ‘f–k off’ at an admirer who simply wanted to shake the great man’s hand.

Sexton backs a GST and Keating when most Labor lawyers see the Treasurer as a ‘devil figure’. ‘Some of them simply stopped speaking to me’, he writes. ‘I never understood why it was necessary to divide the entire universe into saints and demons.’

Sexton, realising he will never get to the Senate, moves on to the Bar and then to be Solicitor-General. Throughout, his interest in policy and justice shines through as he discusses truth in sentencing, the poor treatment of victims of crime, free speech and defamation and successfully pushes for reform. Loosley runs for the Senate as ‘it’s where serious political questions can be determined’ but devotes no space to discussing serious political questions.

The two books provide other telling contrasts. Loosley is contemptuous of state governments, dismissing them as ‘little more than service-delivery vehicles’.

Sexton is proud to serve on the board of the State Rail Authority precisely because it provides a major community service on a daily basis.

Loosley concludes by advising against a career in politics noting the ‘material rewards’ are much greater in the private sector. Perhaps, but for many, a political salary is well above what they could earn elsewhere or the income of 90 per cent of Australians.

Indeed, when Loosley seeks a job in a law firm after serving as a senator, the first offer is not much of an improvement on what he earns in the Senate. He demands, and gets, more. But given that he joins as partner before he has finished his law degree, he is presumably employed for his political connections not his legal expertise. This isn’t leaving politics; just leveraging it for a greater financial reward.

Sexton paints carefully on a much larger canvas with reflectiveness absent from Loosley’s tome. Sexton discusses not just politics but his work on some of the most sensational crimes of recent times, offering important observations about the legal profession, defamation and freedom of speech, with great clarity. He also sketches scenes from his life, just occasionally with a little too much detail.

Both books offer fresh insights into well-trodden terrain. Indeed, Loosley’s genially cynical, policy-free success is the perfect counterpoint to Sexton’s thwarted political career and there is even a happy ending – both achieve their goals. Loosley makes money. Sexton secures reform.

True political junkies will enjoy reading them together.

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