If John Setka did not exist, the coalition would have invented him. But fortunately he does exist, so it’s just a matter of slapping on a few bells and whistles, dimming the lights and tuning up the spooky music, and hey presto! The abrasive trade unionist is transformed into the demon prince, a bogey man designed to scare small children and gullible swinging voters.
Setka is far from a model citizen: long before he pleaded guilty to harassment, he had a long record belligerent and abusive behaviour, often breaking the rules as a militant defender of what he saw as the legitimate rights of his constituent workers.
He has been a target of the conservative right for some years, and in the process has morphed into something far more menacing than the Victorian secretary of the CFMMEU. For neo-Liberals, indeed the entire capitalist class, Setka has become a symbol of everything they hate and fear about the union movement.
It is not just the CFMMEU, although that is the largest and most obvious threat to their comfortable dominance. It is about breaking down the entire basis of collective action, reducing unions to mere individuals who can never effectively oppose the far greater resources of the employers.
And since the Labor Party is – or at least used to be – the political arm of the trade union movement, the supposed sins of John Setka can be seamlessly grafted on to the ALP leader of the time. One of the constant refrains of the last three years has been the accusation that the CFMMEU was Bill Shorten’s paymaster, and because John Setka was an official of the rogue organisation, and was frequently notorious, especially in the pages of the Murdoch Press, then the entire apparatus of opposition was illegitimate, if not actually corrupt.
So when the current dispute over whether Setka should be expelled from the CFMMEU or the Labor Party or preferably both hit the headlines, Scott Morrison and his media myrmidons couldn’t believe their luck. Not only did the controversy provide a very welcome distraction from the media furore over the AFP raids on journalism, but it allowed them to ramp up a still more virulent anti-union campaign, to resurrect bills previously rejected on the senate to further emasculate whatever remaining potency left to the ACTU’s dwindling base.
ScoMo and the troops will be fervently hoping that the expulsions will not succeed – as they readily admit, for them John Setka is the gift that keeps on giving. And equally, Anthony Albanese is determined to finally get rid of the albatross around his neck, as does Sally McManus, the ACTU secretary.
There may be some dispute over exactly what Setka said to set off the row, about how and even whether anti-violence campaigner Rosie Batty was brought into a speech which touched on the diminution of men’s rights. Apparently Setka was able to convince McManus that reports that he did so were erroneous and, his remarks had been taken out of context. Albanese is not persuaded.
But that is no longer the point: as McManus has said, Setka’s reputation – and particularly the admission of harassment – is damaging the entire Labor movement at a time when things have not been going too well anyway, and it would behove him to step down to avoid further harm.
Setka bluntly refuses: he has been elected by his members and as long as they support him – and they apparently do – this is what matters. Which means that both Albanese and McManus will have to either concede, which would be a disastrous humiliation, or fight on, which could lead to a dangerous split, certainly within the CFMMEU, probably spreading into the ACTU and very possibly into the ALP organisation and even into the caucus.
McManus is the most immediately vulnerable – she has no power to force the issue, the CFMMEU is an autonomous body within her ranks. She can try to drag them into line, but if they tell her to go and get stuffed, she is, well, stuffed, and will just have to cop it as sweet as she able.
But Albanese has far more to lose. As a new leader, it was probably unwise to test his strength so early. He rightly says he did not prevaricate – he demanded Setka’s resignation from the party as soon as he believed he had confirmation of the remarks about Batty. And he has doubled down: whatever Setka has told McManus, the miscreant has to go. So Albanese will take his ultimatum to the ALP’s ultimate arbiter, the federal executive meeting next week.
It will not quite be a Gough Whitlam crash or crash through confrontation: Albo is not threatening to resign if he does not get his way. And it is unlikely, in all the circumstances, that the executive will defy him – that would do far more damage to his leadership than anything Setka could manage.
But even if Setka is expelled, that would not be the end of the matter. If the CFMMEU is intransigent, it would almost certainly suspend its contributions to the federal party, if not split from it altogether. Some other big union allies could do the same. And the cancer would in all likelihood spread through the rest of the broad left. Chaos and confusion, dysfunction and disunity – just what the coalition ordered.
And if it does not work out that way, all is not lost. Already other victims are being marinated in the steaming cauldron maintained by the witches and warlocks of Newscorps. McManus herself is a likely candidate, but the favourite seems to be Kristina Keneally – like McManus She is damned from birth, being, like McManus, both a woman and a lefty, need we say more?
Well no, but we will anyway, in article after article, page after page – such is the Murdoch press. And the fact that she will be face to face with one of their heroes, Peter Dutton, makes her all the more reprehensible. Her time will come.
But for now there is plenty to enjoy in the evisceration of Setka. And isn’t the right enjoying it.