Few places more neatly illustrate the Australian Labor Party’s dismal plight than Lalor Park in the north-western suburbs of Sydney. The federal constituency, Greenway, is the ALP’s most marginal seat in Sydney, and its second-most vulnerable in the country. Its state member, the former garbo Nathan Rees, was briefly premier before being ousted in an unseemly backroom coup. An instigator of his downfall was Eddie Obeid, the disgraced former ALP potentate. This branch has suffered from the ALP’s “New South Wales disease”, and it’s ailing.
At a Sunday morning branch meeting, held in a community hall decorated with faded gold drapery, just 21 people have turned up. Only four are under 30. In what was once a Labor heartland, many of the blue-collar strivers now vote Liberal. “It’s a tough battle of late being a Labor member,” says one weary party worker.
This morning, the meeting will be addressed by a “funny-looking Iranian kid”, as Sam Dastyari, the general secretary of the NSW party, describes himself. Locals cannot recall the last party boss to visit, but Dastyari, a thrusting 29-year-old, has been twice in six months. (“It’s the second and third visit that always makes the difference,” he tells me afterwards.) This is less a charm offensive, though, than an exercise in humility: Dastyari’s “humble Sam” routine has been playing to half-empty branch meetings pretty much since he took the top job three years ago.
After paying a thoughtful tribute to a recently deceased local member, he addresses the Obeid hearings at ICAC. “How did we let the Labor party be taken over by a handful of people for their own personal gain?” he asks. “It’s disgraceful,” shouts a man from his wheelchair. “I cringe,” seethes another old-timer.
Next, Dastyari moves on to the federal election. All is not lost, he claims rather implausibly. He has also come bearing gifts: books on ALP history that he discovered while cleaning out the party’s notorious Sussex Street headquarters. (In what he hopes will be a monument to his reforms, he has relocated the HQ to Parramatta in the heart of the western suburbs.)
But the main purpose of his visit is to talk about the need for party reform. His ideas, which he describes as “radical”, “very controversial” and “hated by the parliamentary party”, are aimed at devolving power from political professionals like himself to the civilians in his audience. “More people need to be involved in the decision-making process,” he says. “We need to end the practice where seven people meeting in a Chinese restaurant decide everything,” a reference to the famed Golden Century restaurant next to the old ALP headquarters, the long-time work canteen for plotters and knife-wielders.
His ideas receive a favourable hearing. More dispiriting are the questions from the floor. Virtually all of them focus on how to win the next election. Most are predicated on the view that the Gillard government’s problems are primarily presentational.
Others buy Dastyari’s argument. Mark Latham has written of “the Dastyari vision” in almost as hallowed terms as “the Keating legacy”. Critics, however, are distrustful. “He keeps company publicly with reformers,” notes one Labor insider. “He keeps company privately with the old guard.” So is he a Labor moderniser with the ideas, energy and connections to revive the party, or simply an apparatchik who has mastered the double game?
“I’m over Chinese,” says Dastyari, when I invite him to select the venue for our planned lunch. He is clearly taking the piss, but his self-deprecation also brings to mind what a party insider had told me beforehand: “His duplicity is casual and charming.” We meet at a far-from-flash steakhouse overlooking Sydney’s Darling Harbour.
Known for his impeccable grooming – shades of the young Paul Keating – he arrives in a tailored grey pin-stripe suit, a fitted white shirt and a polka-dot pale-blue silk tie. He could easily be mistaken for a young Liberal on his way to a preselection interview. He has the compact physique of a jockey, luxuriant, wavy dark hair, and sharp, Persian features. Placed on the table are two iPhones. To prolong battery life, he says, rather than to carry on two conversations simultaneously.
Born in Iran, Dastyari came to Australia aged four, when his parents, Naser and Ella, who were civil engineering students at the time, fled the Iranian revolution. His mother rang him on the night of Kevin Rudd’s ouster in 2010, worried by talk of a “coup”. When I recount the story to Dastyari, his reaction is to try to work out who told me. He has already asked me who I have spoken to, and himself discovered a couple of names. As his friends get in contact, and others are lined up to speak, I quickly get the sense that he is approaching this very profile as a campaign. Also telling is that few of his critics are willing to go on the record, a measure not of his menace but his continued power.
Conversation over the next 90 minutes is animated, roaming and looping, covering ALP history, palace gossip, parallels with the British Left, marginal seats, the occasional policy issue and his ideas for reform. Talking to him feels like reading a hurtling and slightly disjointed Twitter feed devoted exclusively to politics. (Even his cats are called Lenin, Trotsky and Chairman Mao.) The discussion is loosely anchored by his three-pronged approach to party reform. First, the mass membership, rather than the party room in Canberra, should elect the leader. Second, “faceless men” should no longer select parliamentary candidates. Third, Labor needs to re-evaluate its ideas and values. His overall approach is encapsulated in the mantra “reform or die”.
Some of Dastyari’s ideas are already being implemented, spurred by the party’s catastrophic performance at the 2011 NSW election when it lost 30 seats, its worst performance since 1898. In choosing the ALP candidate for last year’s Sydney mayoral race, Dastyari insisted on holding a US-style primary. Some 4000 members of the public were given a 50% say in the choice of the candidate, with the other 50% remaining in the hands of party members. Ahead of the 2015 NSW state election, he intends to expand this experiment by running community selection ballots in five winnable seats. He also wants members to elect the state president and to preselect state upper-house candidates, positions that have become virtual sinecures given out by union bosses.
On the policy front, he has set up a forum in NSW giving party members more of a chance to contribute and has also helped to found a new progressive think-tank, the McKell Institute. It is named after William McKell, a Labor premier in the 1940s who leant his name to the “McKell model”, based on centrism, gradualism and a rejection of left-wing radicalism.
Party factions, whether Left or Right, should no longer be a vehicle for exercising power, Dastyari argues. He has ended the practice of factions gathering in the party room in Sydney’s Parliament House before a meeting of the full caucus. After taking over the state secretaryship, he also insisted on forcing out the key powerbroker, Joe Tripodi, who exercised even more influence than Eddie Obeid. Despite the Independent Commission Against Corruption hearings and the fact that Labor now occupies only 20 of the 93 seats in the NSW parliament, party membership has increased on Dastyari’s watch.
As a reformer, then, he can already claim noteworthy results. “It’s easy to be cynical,” says Troy Bramston, a former head of Young Labor who now works as a leader writer for the Australian, “but nobody has done it before.” Lachlan Harris, Kevin Rudd’s former communications director, agrees: “Sam favours gradualism, but he’s the person inside the tent pushing the hardest.”
Viewed more negatively, the Sydney “primary” could be seen principally as an exercise in public relations. Given the popularity of the incumbent, independent Clover Moore, who won re-election handily, it did not really matter who contested the seat for Labor. Besides, the candidate who emerged, Linda Scott, was always Sussex Street’s first choice. Still, as Dastyari points out, she did win both the party and public vote.
Nor did a preselection controversy in the Sydney suburb of Campbelltown before the 2011 state election inspire much hope of genuine change under Dastyari’s leadership. Local party members strongly favoured Anoulack Chanthivong, the Laos-born former mayor of Campbelltown, but Sussex Street blocked his candidacy. Suburban Sydney was not yet deemed ready for an Asian candidate. Dastyari, who says the situation was not solely about race, concedes it was a mistake.
There is also a glaring omission in Dastyari’s reform agenda: any attempt to curb the dominant influence of unions, who hold half the votes at state party conferences. Precious few of his proposals challenge the power of union bosses. “He’s pushing the envelope, and that’s refreshing,” says Bramston, “but he’s not challenging the unions.” Were Dastyari serious about reform, his detractors argue, he would be calling for the membership to decide who does his job.
Dastyari is manifestly a product of the system he is now professing to dismantle. He’s a factional creature and a factional player. His formative political experience was working for the “Yes” campaign during the 1999 republic referendum, but he joined the Labor Party soon after, at the age of 16, and started rising through the ranks. The story of how he wrested control of a local branch in Baulkham Hills in north-west Sydney by recruiting pals from school has entered ALP folklore. Summoned to Sussex Street for a dressing-down, he arrived wearing his school uniform. So impressed were party bosses by Dastyari’s precocity that they earmarked him as a “numbers man”, the ultimate accolade of the NSW Right.
At Sydney University, Dastyari studied economics and became a leading light in Young Labor. After working briefly for Bob Carr – he arrived the day before the NSW premier retired – he continued his political education at Hawker Britton, where he concentrated on campaigning rather than lobbying. Then he went to work at Sussex Street under Eric Roozendaal, Mark Arbib and Karl Bitar, three old-style general secretaries.
Dastyari has become such an adept machine man that it undermines his trustworthiness. “He presents himself as a naive young guy trying to change the world,” says a Labor figure who has observed his rise. “That’s his schtick. ‘I’m a simple boy, a refugee from Iran, trying to make my way in a complicated world.’ He does the naive outsider stumbling into the world of Realpolitik – a kind of Mr Smith [Goes to Washington] act. But Sam is every inch with the old school.”
Dastyari has nurtured close relations with the NSW old guard. His mentors include Graham Richardson, who also became general secretary in his 20s, and his father-in-law, Peter Barron, Bob Hawke’s old fixer. (Dastyari met his wife, Helen, while she was working for former NSW premier Morris Iemma.) Bob Hawke himself is another friend.
Bob Carr, who has Dastyari to thank for his return to front-rank politics, is another confidant. On the day that Julia Gillard saw off Kevin Rudd’s challenge in February 2012, a smaller drama was also unfolding behind the scenes. Mark Arbib had decided to leave the Senate to spend more time with his family – and, as it turned out, with billionaire James Packer. Arbib gave Dastyari three hours’ notice to line up a replacement. With not only a Senate seat but also the post of foreign affairs minister on offer, Dastyari went straight to Carr’s office in Sydney’s CBD. With the former premier’s consent, he presented the scheme to Gillard. After a false start – Stephen Smith had been promised the post – Dastyari’s plan eventually came to pass, a boon to Carr and a victory for the NSW Right.
By far the most important political relationship in his life is with Paul Howes, the head of the Australian Workers’ Union, who refers to him affectionately as “Dasher”. They speak at least once a day, wherever they are in the world, and describe themselves as “best mates”. They met first in Young Labor, but their friendship blossomed when Howes moved back to Sydney in 2007 and they worked a floor apart in the same building. Tellingly, Howes, who is two years older, was above him. “The guy is a million miles an hour,” says Howes. “He’s exhausting and at the end of a day with him you’re tired.” What is particularly striking about Dastyari, he says, is his range of political talents: “He’s got a great policy mind, he’s strong organisationally, he’s an amazing networker, a coalition builder and, when required, a fierce warrior.” Had it not been for Dastyari, he says, the ALP would have been completely wiped out at the 2011 state election, and embroiled in a vicious civil war.
The two men differ, however, on the pace and nature of reform. “We are not the Borg,” says Howes, referring to Star Trek’s humanoid drones. Where Dastyari is bold, Howes is more circumspect. They were also at odds during the recent leadership contest. Howes, who played such a prominent role in Rudd’s removal, remained firmly in Gillard’s camp. Dastyari’s position was that if the party room wanted to change leaders it should do so, but not via a divisive ballot. The Rudd camp interpreted this as a sign of support, and the Gillard camp viewed it as a sign of disloyalty. The disagreement did not sour the friendship. They spent the weekend afterwards together at a mutual friend’s wedding in Byron Bay.
Dastyari had taken an unusually non-interventionist stance, as Howes well knew. When the Australian Financial Review claimed that Dastyari was pulling strings behind the scenes, he issued an instant rebuttal on Twitter: “Let me be clear – this is a complete load of BS.” In the end, four or five NSW Right MPs continued to back Gillard, without fear of recrimination.
“He’s denied himself some power,” says Troy Bramston. “He genuinely recognises that those days are over.” As Lachlan Harris notes: “He understands the toxicity of overusing the power of the secretaryship.” Dastyari views it quite simply: “People in my position should not be able to exercise the kind of the power that we’ve been able to exercise.”
Like a defence attorney about to wrap up his case, the last witness Dastyari presents is John Faulkner, a prominent reformer but also a long-time critic of the NSW Right. Faulkner is out of the country, but Dastyari tracks him down in Sicily and tells him to expect a call. The veteran senator has promised to break the habit of a lifetime, he says, to say something nice about a general secretary. “Sam is at the vanguard of change in the NSW Right, and I don’t question his motivation. As far as I can see, he’s genuine. Good luck to him.”
Still, Faulkner’s idea of reform is far more sweeping than Dastyari’s. “These are steps in the right direction, but we need to go a hell of a lot further.” He wants a much greater devolution of power to the membership. “How many of these changes will reduce the power of the NSW Right?” he asks. “The answer is not many. Genuine reform means party members will have a real say in how the party works, and that requires factional leaders – Left and Right – to relinquish power.”
Dastyari has to tread carefully because the unions effectively wield a veto. “You could take the path of declaring war on the old vested interests, and then they’ll throw you out,” says a Labor insider. Maybe the time will come when Dastyari breaks with the people who have sponsored his career, but not yet. “He’s received the necessary permission from the right people,” says another.
If Dastyari is playing something of a double game, it is partly because he has no other choice. He must be both reformer and fixer. “He has to handle so many groups and sub-groups, it’s mind-blowing,” says Bruce Hawker. “But he’s very well intentioned, and one of the true people in the white hats.”
His main opposition comes from the Victorian Right, dominated by Bill Shorten and Stephen Conroy, and figures within the parliamentary party who have leveraged the votes they control in the party room to accrue more power. Ultimately, however, he believes he can win the argument. Powerbrokers will prefer to have less influence in a more viable party than retain their power in a derelict movement. “I’m a zealot,” he says. “If the party doesn’t want to go down that path and I become a casualty, I have to ask ‘Is that the party I want to be in anyway?’”
After our lunch at Darling Harbour, we walk back towards the CBD, talking about juggling work and life. His second child is due around the time of the September election, which sounds like unfortunate timing. But Dastyari is looking to what will come afterwards. Labor will almost certainly be thrashing around in search of a path back from the wilderness, and he has already sketched a map. By then, Labor will have jettisoned its pre-election short-term thinking and “reform or die” will have more resonance than ever.
As we walk on, I ask where he is headed. “To Sussex Street,” he says. “But only to pick up my car,” he adds hurriedly. Sure enough, when we reach the building that used to house the headquarters of the NSW Labor Party, he disappears into an underground car park. And with that, he is off to his new digs in western Sydney. Sam “Dasher” Dastyari, in a rush to change his party.
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