The Politics    Monday, December 11, 2017

Lingering issues

By Sean Kelly

Supplied by ABC News

Labor seems divided over the Dastyari affair

Byelections are often interpreted – over-interpreted, you’d have to say – as referendums on the fate of prime ministers and Opposition leaders. Rarely are they seen as votes on the future of backbenchers.

But only the unsurprising is surprising in politics these days, so we should not be shocked that this weekend’s Bennelong byelection will likely play into the debate over the future of Labor senator Sam Dastyari.

That debate was already occurring in the media, but it seems pretty clear from today’s events that the debate within the Labor Party, too, is heating up.

This morning, Fairfax reported that Dastyari tried to pressure Labor’s deputy leader Tanya Plibersek to cancel a meeting with “a pro-democracy activist opposed to Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong”. The report cited “multiple sources who say the 2015 intervention surprised Ms Plibersek”. Dastyari’s office rejected the report as “complete rubbish”.

Separately, the Daily Telegraph reported [$] that questions put by Dastyari to defence and foreign affairs officials about China during Senate Estimates were “not authorised”. While some questions were expected, “it is understood the extent of the grilling came as a surprise to Ms Plibersek and her office”.

Then, in Crikey today, Tony Walker wrote [$], “I know of another example of [Dastyari] telling one of his Labor senate colleagues to lay off China in his public criticism”. In another piece in Fairfax, Walker cited “a prominent Shorten ally on the Labor right” as saying, “We have lost all momentum because of this”.

Despite the pretty clearly correct opinion of that Labor Right figure, it is Labor’s Left MPs who have really hurt Dastyari today.

Let’s start with the leaks themselves. There is no way of knowing where today’s stories have come from, but it is worth quoting Michelle Grattan, not known for excursions into wild speculation: “The latest claims against Dastyari, which appear to have come from within Labor, are thought to be part of an effort to get him to resign from the senate.”

The stronger stuff though came on the record. First there was Linda Burney, who said Dastyari would be “thinking very deeply about his role within the party”, and said, “It’s now up to Mr Dastyari to consider his position.”

Next came Catherine King, who said, “We have been very, very clear about the matter of Sam Dastyari, that his political career is, in essence, going nowhere … Bill has been very clear about that and has said that he has paid a price for his actions. And I think that those are all matters for Sam to reflect on.”

And then there was the statement from Plibersek’s spokesman: “Ms Plibersek’s itinerary in Hong Kong, including a meeting with a prominent pro-democracy activist, went ahead precisely as scheduled – I think that speaks for itself.” Of course, it did no such thing, making clear that Plibersek ignored any advice, if it was offered, but also that she wasn’t going to be directly addressing the claims about Dastyari.

Burney, King and Plibersek are all in Labor’s Left faction.

The Fairfax report did contain one “suggested explanation”, that Dastyari contacted Plibersek’s office “after receiving an enquiry from a Sydney Chinese-language media outlet that was doing a critical story on her meetings”.

That might be plausible. Obviously in the context of recent revelations about Dastyari, there must be heavy emphasis on the “might”. But at this stage Dastyari won’t be worrying about the legitimacy of the story. He’ll be worrying about what looks like a concerted effort from his colleagues to pressure him to leave the Senate.

That said, the senator will take comfort from the fact that several senior shadow ministers continue to defend him. Today we heard from Mark Butler (Left), Anthony Albanese (Left) and Tony Burke (Right). The internals of any political party are complicated, and this matter is no exception.

Nevertheless, you can see how much things have shifted by looking at the use of Shorten’s statement that Dastyari’s career was “going nowhere fast”. When Shorten delivered it just a few days ago it was meant as a defence of not acting further. By today, the use of the same words by Catherine King came across as a warning and an urging. We won’t let Shorten promote you, seemed to be the message. Don’t stick around in the false hope this will all go away.

It’s hard to know how much to read between the lines in situations like this. The meaning of today could be simple: there are Labor MPs very concerned about the impact the Dastyari scandal is having on the party. It could be that the Left is generally exercised about Dastyari’s influence on Shorten – remember that Dastyari travelled on the Bill bus during the last campaign – and strongly wants him out. It might be that some in the party have broader concerns about Shorten’s approach as leader, especially after the citizenship circus ricocheted into Labor last week, and are using the Dastyari affair as an opportunity to muscle up.

If Dastyari survives this week, Bennelong will be the next indicator of his future. If John Alexander performs much better than expected, the result will be used by Dastyari’s enemies to intensify calls for him to resign from the Senate. If Kristina Keneally achieves a win, or even a massive swing towards Labor, that will enable Dastyari’s backers to dismiss the concerns. More importantly, it will take pressure off Shorten after a bad week or two, and put the pressure back on Malcolm Turnbull as we head into summer.

This really is the year that just won’t end. 

In other news


Arresting time

Gerhard Richter’s GOMA exhibition finds beauty in banality, meaning in the arbitrary

Sebastian Smee

“‘The Life of Images’ – which is the title curator Rosemary Hawker has given the show – could as easily have been dropped, you feel, in favour of ‘The Long, Drawn-Out Death of Images’, or, perhaps, ‘The Inexorable Leaking Away of Enchantment and Truth from our Moribund Late-Capitalist Visual Environment and the Dread-Infused Implications of This for Our Social, Political and Private Lives’. Neither option probably had the zing the organisers sought.

Instead, they have talked up Richter’s status as, in the eyes of many, the ‘world’s greatest living artist’. The claim may be reflex and glib, but if greatness is to be measured, at least in part, by breadth and depth of influence, it’s difficult to refute. Not too many major artists of the past few decades, working either in photography or painting, have managed to avoid grappling with Richter, and with what his work appears to say about the relationship between images, intimacy and the engulfing roar of history.’’read on


Fire man Sam

Dastyari’s China-related missteps have been a gift for Turnbull – one that the PM hopes will keep on giving

Mungo MacCallum

“Now, obviously Malcolm Turnbull is hardly a full-time hate master; the lawyer–banker is far too suave and supercilious for the role. But having said that, it is just as well Sam Dastyari is fireproof. As a war lord of the New South Wales Right, and its chief bagman, he has had to be.

But the problem is that while the miscreant senator may not be flammable, he, like asbestos, can still be potentially lethal to those around him. Which is why Bill Shorten, who is the real target of the prime minister’s vehemence, is in serious trouble because of his longstanding association with one of his main men.”READ ON

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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