Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Dastyari leaves parliament

Supplied by ABC News

The fall of Sam Dastyari is a story that deserves several thousand words, and no doubt it will get them over the next few days. 

There are three parts to that tale.

The first is the early rise and rapid fall of the man himself. “Man”, here, must be prefaced by “young”. Dastyari is just 34 years old. He has spent fully a third of his life – perhaps two-thirds of his adult life – holding an extraordinary amount of power. Last year there were reports that Dastyari had considered withdrawing his support from Bill Shorten. Had that happened, Shorten would have been unlikely to keep his job. Shorten stayed, and is now odds-on to become prime minister.

Explaining how Dastyari could succeed then fail so quickly is not simple. Often single adjectives are made to do the work in such matters. The Icarus figure was “ambitious”, or “impatient”. It’s possible to fit Dastyari into those words, but to me they seem stand-ins for what was really going on. Ambition and impatience didn’t give him energy; he was possessed by an energy that had to be chewed up somehow, and ambition and impatience just happened to be the available channels.

That same reckless energy characterised the senator’s parliamentary career. Labor MPs have lined up today to praise his effectiveness on banking and on multinational tax avoidance. They’re right. Dastyari was always willing to try another tactic, throw another video out there, even at the risk of appearing trashy or opportunistic. If it got the job done, so be it. This was a canny use of today’s here-today-gone-tomorrow media cycle. It may also have been a miscalculation about the way reputations solidify over time.

To acknowledge Dastyari’s skills is not to excuse what he did. It is perhaps possible, as Dastyari and others have tried to do, to explain each individual action in the Chinese affair. But at the very least, Dastyari has given the appearance of advocating for China’s interests within Australia, and left observers able to conclude that this was related to attempts to secure funding for the Labor Party. And even if you don’t accept the substance of that, politicians should be held to a higher standard, one in which appearances matter. Too often they hold themselves to a lower standard, but on this we should not allow ourselves to fall prey to Stockholm syndrome. 

The second major character in this drama is Bill Shorten. Malcolm Turnbull and his ministers have been critical of Shorten for not forcing Dastyari out sooner, but it should be remembered just how significant today’s action was. The resignation of a minister, or a shadow minister, is ordinarily a huge deal. In this case, a senator has actually left the parliament. That is a massive victory for Turnbull, but it also goes some way to emphasising how difficult a matter for any leader this would be.

Which is not to let Shorten off the hook. Yes, it would have been difficult. Michelle Grattan today writes: “Labor had no power to force Dastyari out of parliament – and sources said he was reluctant to go.” But Grattan also has the other half of Shorten’s difficulty: “It is understood that Shorten had been in intensive talks with factional allies to resolve the Dastyari crisis.”

It would be stupid to pretend factional concerns were not a part of Shorten’s calculus. Dastyari is powerful. His allies in the New South Wales Right are powerful. If that faction turned against Shorten he’d be out. Of course a man who has risen to become leader of the Labor Party knows this. But as I’ve written before, about calculations on both sides, no leader can afford to send the message to their troops that they will abandon them easily. It is always easy, and often fair, to criticise a leader for not acting against their own MPs earlier; but acting too early brings its own problems.

The other element here is the Bennelong byelection. Don’t forget how important this is for Labor. A victory pushes Turnbull into troublesome minority government. It would also make everybody forget the past week or so of Shorten difficulties. If Dastyari had clung on, and Bennelong had been lost badly, then Shorten would have had the worst of all worlds: criticised for the damage done by sticking with his senator, and forced to kick him out anyway.

Finally, remember Shorten is now without Dastyari, and may soon be without his friend David Feeney, should a byelection in Batman be called and lost. And note too that the Left muscled up to Shorten on Dastyari yesterday, via Linda Burney, Catherine King and Tanya Plibersek, and got its way. That makes for an interesting dynamic going into 2018.

The final player here is China. Dastyari has taken a lot of attention recently. But this is a much wider problem than one senator, or even one party. There was a separate story today, about Bill Shorten and Huang Xiangmo. Yesterday, it was revealed that a Liberal fundraising body was arranging briefings of MPs by Chinese officials [$]. I still find it amazing that Andrew Robb, fresh from sorting out the Australia–China free trade deal, could take a job with a Chinese billionaire aligned to China’s governing party and accept a salary that began before the election. There are many examples, and most are entirely within existing laws.

But now that Dastyari has resigned, over a matter not illegal, a precedent of sorts has been set. Blood, in politics, begets blood. It is clear that foreign influence in our politics is rampant. It will not be a surprise if more heads roll. 


In other news


Some days

Some days, nothing comes easy

Karen Hitchcock

“If there’s a disease whose symptoms are a complete lack of social energy coupled with a complete lack of knowing what the hell to do with yourself, you definitely have that disease. The weary days just keep on coming. You wonder if it’s just a variety of laziness in a darkish disguise. You wonder this thought out loud to your brother, a panelbeater who has worked at least 70 hours a week since the day he became an apprentice and who says, ‘Kaz, any mildly evolved human being has a tendency towards laziness.’ That distracts you for a few minutes. There’s an over-the-counter treatment widely available from any shelf in any bottle shop that offers rapid relief, but luckily or unluckily – depending – you find the side effects intolerable. You hope the malaise will pass. That there’ll be something that compels you to pry your face-plant off the pillow each time the sun comes up. Something that’s not bad for you.’’ read on


Hal Hattam: redefining the Australian beach scene

An exhibition showcases a painter who took an untrodden path though a familiar landscape

Sophie Cunningham

“Hattam was an obstetrician, art collector and artist whose work was exhibited regularly from 1960 until his death in 1994. A man who was paid in paintings when he delivered the babies of artists. He had a big personality and stubby fingers (as did Picasso, he was fond of telling people). From the 1950s onwards, he and his wife, Kate, transformed their house in Cromwell Road, South Yarra, into a salon. The two acquired many works by artists in their circle and beyond. Credited as the first private collectors of Fred Williams’ art, they built up a substantial collection of his paintings from 1958 onwards. Hattam was the subject of significant portraits by major artists including Williams, John Brack and Clifton Pugh, as was Kate by Pugh.” 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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