Only about half the present population were around paying any sort of attention to politics when Graham Richardson was a great power in the Labor Party, in the Hawke and Keating governments and in the land. He had power and menace, and openly relished a reputation for ruthlessness, faithlessness and a complete lack of sentimentality in pushing what he would claim to be in the interests of party re-election. Anything – policy, platform or principles – or anyone – as long as it was not him – in the way of what he thought best for the party was excess baggage had to be disposed of, without delay or excessive emotion.
Richardson was the quintessential NSW Labor Right machine man, as focused on waging war against the party Left as against the Liberal or National Parties. He was a very shrewd judgment of personality, if with more focus on human weakness than intrinsic nobility. He was naturally treacherous, of the “but what have you done for me lately?” school, but, like all Labor traditionalists (and John Howard) fervently of the view that “ratting” could never be forgiven, because a person who has ratted once cannot be relied upon never to do it again.
Most of the most scurrilous stories about him, even many that reflected poorly on his character, originated from him, if only because they underlined the fact that he was a man to be feared, and not to be crossed. He could, and would, interfere in preselections and ministerial appointments. From being general secretary of NSW Labor, he went, as most of his successors have, smoothly into parliament – the senate so as to avoid the inconvenience of ratification by the electorate. He virtually invented the modern career path for many old machine men (people like him are always men) of leaving politics to work as a lobbyist and adviser to enemies of the Labor Party, particularly media moguls, and for gambling, liquor and property development interests. Far from accepting that they are prostituting their inside knowledge of the party, their access and their contacts, many indignantly believe that they have a “right to make a quid” after years of serving the party for peanuts. Except that it has rarely been for peanuts.
He labelled his memoirs Whatever it takes – with no pretence of contrition about some of the things he had done, without blinking, without remorse, and, as often as not, without pretence about throwing his own personal interests, or personal feuds and grudges, into his calculations. If he was a man for sacrifices, it was by other people.
But sometimes, he claimed a certain nobility of purpose. In the early 1980s, for example, he judged that Labor had a better chance of winning the 1983 election than the then-leader of the Opposition, Bill Hayden. Having failed, first, to persuade Hayden to go, and having helped engineer a challenge by Hawke that failed, he set out to wound and undermine Hayden, in the public as well as the party eye, until Hayden was not only politically dead, but paranoid about leaking, uncertain where the next betrayal would come from. Richardson called it “playing with Hayden’s head,” wanting him to lose confidence and popularity and party support, to the point where he could be toppled by his colleagues.
It worked, if, as it turned out, only just in time. And less than a decade later, Richardson was doing much the same thing to Hawke, trying to force him out so that Paul Keating could take over. Except that his fervour for Keating seemed somewhat strained, and it appeared to many that his treachery, disloyalty, leaking, and calculated bastardry owed more to personal payback after Hawke had failed to put him in the portfolio he had wanted. The portfolio, communications, focused mainly on the reward and punishment of media moguls, in pursuit of the perpetual political illusion that the support of these moguls is obtained for favours done, as opposed to favours not yet delivered.
Richardson is now a regular columnist with The Australian as well as a commentator on Sky polemical shows, trading more in his shrewd political judgment and capacity to recognise political pitfalls and turning points, rather than inside knowledge. He rarely does Labor any favours, but never consciously does one for the Liberals. A good deal of what he says, about either party is common sense, even if tribal Liberals would be wise to realise that much of his advice to them is not intended for their benefit.
Some observers have confused what Scott Morrison has been doing this week, in abrupt policy reversals and running announcements of policy, as some sort of bow to the Richardson “whatever it takes” tradition. Nothing could be further from the truth. Richardson knew what he was doing. Morrison gives little sign of being in charge of events, and much of what he has been doing has seemed mere panicked and ill-judged reactions to events, or poor generalship as he has moved into battle. Whether Morrison wins or loses Wentworth, he has done serious damage to himself, his party, the Coalition, and probably the national interest by what has been done in his efforts to get Dave Sharma over the line.
Australian voters have become used enough, in recent decades, to politicians who govern by opinion poll, or to appease powerful interests, or put out, or distract from, embarrassing fires. They have also seen politicians who think that the public purse is a private chequebook able to be used to secure political favours or to buy support. This sits with perceptions that too many politicians are lining their own pockets with entitlements, and over the perception that there are privileged classes of insiders – particularly in big business – with the ear of, and inside access to, ministers beyond anything possible for ordinary voters. It is small wonder that ordinary public cynicism about politicians has moved to hatred and contempt, and, in some quarters at least, a loss of faith in the power of existing institutions to deal with the problems of today.
Reversals of policy engineered by Richardson were often messy, and quite often angered and infuriated people, in and out of the party, who were attached to sound policy, consistency, and the objects, or people, intended to be served.
But, abrupt as the changes might be (sometimes to the consternation of the person in charge) they rarely seemed to come into being out of sheer immediate panic, let alone give the appearance of having been dictated, at gun point, by some powerful lobby to government. And, important as it was to win by-elections, the general flow of ordinary government and the longer term image and message of the party was rarely compromised in a frantic search to find goodies for a particular set of voters, to put out some instant fire, or to create some fake crisis or emergency. Hawke, like Howard after him, was quite capable of making complete U-turns, and sometimes admitted ruefully that he had misinterpreted or underestimated public opinion. But both were reasonably capable of giving the appearance of smooth progress across the water, even as they were paddling desperately underneath.
Scott Morrison has made an array of announcements over recent weeks. Some have been focused on marketing himself as a sensible, perhaps boring character who is rarely fazed and who is determined to get on with the normal processes of government. He has tended to blandly deny problems, or to insist that he is not being distracted by continuing tensions within the governing parties, or by a day-to-day parade of embarrassing blunders or excesses in parliament, restaurants and on the hustings. Continuing signs of apprehension within the party about election prospects are making it harder and harder to appear professional, to sell a message of calm and steady management, to pretend unity, or to persuade voters that the opposition is both evil incarnate and a clear and present danger to personal savings, secure borders or balanced budgets. All the more so when announcements seem to come from nowhere, with little evidence of lead-up, intensive discussion and Cabinet debate and keen eye for the national interest.
The decision to announce that the government would consider moving our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, following the example of President Trump’s United States, is perhaps the best example of government on the run, but it is far from the only one. Whether it is a good idea or not (and it was not) it was a decision that called for careful consideration, and extensive and calm investigation of the potential consequences. The idea that there was some pressure to make an announcement because of an impending vote in the UN was ludicrous. The claim that the announcement was not motivated entirely by panic at apparently poor polling for the Liberal candidate in Wentworth was far from convincing, and few, apart from the Prime Minister, even tried to convince. It was true that there was Cabinet discussion of the question, in Turnbull’s Time (before a firm decision not to follow Trump’s initiative), but the argument that there was a lengthy, and well-informed recent Cabinet discussion, that canvassed all of the considerations, before the announcement was false.
All of the evidence suggests that this was primarily a captain’s call on short notice, in a last-minute effort to attract Jewish votes in Wentworth. And the evidence confirms that Morrison, like Turnbull and Abbott before him, makes rotten captain’s calls, particularly on the run. And, like Abbott and Turnbull before him, the primary problem is a lack of instinct for public opinion, and, probably, a failure to recognise that the opinions of the shock jocks to whom he is in thrall are hardly representative of wider public opinion. And, for a good many in the audience, chairman’s efforts to declare the debate over, and demands that we move on, are not enough.
The same sort of panic and confusion was evident in the shuffling about on the issue of gay children in private schools, and a few days later, in what happened as government senators were completely wrong-footed over Pauline Hanson’s “It’s OK to be white” provocation. Just as damning were the efforts made to explain what was called an administrative error.
Morrison can hardly be unaware that most of his problems come from within, perhaps from people playing with his head. The leak of selections from the Ruddock report on religious freedom was sabotage from within, at a time calculated to cause damage to him and to force his hand at the most inconvenient time – during the byelection. The several damaging days afterwards were, of course, own goals. The havering and indecisiveness about homosexual students and teachers before he responded, not to his instincts but to public opinion, could only have underlined questions about whether he is up to the job.
But many of the other problems, whether about immigration, our maltreatment of refugees, “whiteness” and white rights, and even about school funding owe more to the culture wars going on inside his party than to a general debate going on outside it. He seems no more in charge of his party than of the general ship of state. That he is faced with the acute embarrassment of efforts by Queensland Nationals to roll the deputy prime minister – perhaps, though this seems impossible to imagine, even from the Nationals, for a restoration of Barnaby Joyce – is hardly helping either. If events are being manipulated by some Machiavellian character of the Graham Richardson type, it is hard to imagine the agenda.
A loss of Wentworth loses the government its technical majority, but will probably have little effect on the capacity of the Coalition to limp to a general election at a time of its choosing. But it could hardly fail to have a massive impact in party and Coalition morale – akin, perhaps to that in Bass in 1975 or Canberra in 1995. But there will be many critics, including in business and commerce, who will be unimpressed even if the seat is retained, given the damage the government has done to its reputation over the past few months. Morrison is failing to make any headway, and it is becoming clearer that he doesn’t have whatever it takes. It’s too late to change leaders again, but the boat is burning, and efforts will now be on saving the passengers, crew and deck cargo as possible. In the meantime national interests can go to hell.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times
This article was published in the Canberra Times on 20 October 2018