Mus­ings on ALP’s party games weighed down by history

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Derek Parker

Ma­chine Rules: A Po­lit­i­cal Primer By Stephen Loosley MUP, 210pp, $34.99

Stephen Loosley made his rep­u­ta­tion as one of the hard men of the NSW La­bor Right, and in his day that was thor­oughly de­served. But on the ev­i­dence of this book he has mel­lowed con­sid­er­ably, es­pe­cially since leav­ing the Se­nate in 1995. Ma­chine Rules seems an op­por­tu­nity for him to look back and tell some sto­ries.

Loosley started on the Left, com­ing up through the anti-Viet­nam War move­ment (although his par­ents had sup­ported Robert Men­zies). But he quickly re­alised the Left was more in­ter­ested in pu­rity and protest than get­ting things done. His con­nec­tion with another ma­chine man, Graham Richard­son, who pops in and out of the book, led him to the NSW La­bor Right, the ‘‘what­ever it takes’’ fac­tion (to bor­row the ti­tle of Richard­son’s 1994 book) that pow­ered the party’s suc­cesses through the 1980s.

For a long time, Loosley was not es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in elec­tive of­fice, see­ing his tal­ents as more suited to the back­room. En­ter­ing the Se­nate in 1990 to sit on the back­bench seems like a step down from roles such as NSW ALP sec­re­tary and ALP na­tional pres­i­dent, and Loosley never prop­erly ex­plains it here. He says that af­ter seven years he was “look­ing to move on”, although it does not sound con­vinc­ing as a rea­son for the switch. He might have given us more to go on, es­pe­cially as he later com­ments on the strain of par­lia­men­tary life

on the fam­ily. Pro­vid­ing rea­sons is not Loosley’s strength, and in­deed this points to a larger is­sue with the book: the ra­tio­nale be­hind it is un­clear.

It is not an in-depth po­lit­i­cal bi­og­ra­phy, as Loosley does not talk much about his think­ing and phi­los­o­phy. His po­lit­i­cal aim seems to have been to keep the wicked con­ser­va­tives out of of­fice. Is that all, in terms of ob­jec­tives? One might have ex­pected some­thing more pos­i­tive. But at least Loosley was, in his hey­day, very good at it.

The prob­lem is that Loosley’s hey­day was a fair while ago. He gives a good ac­count of the 1983 elec­tion — he was there and had close in­volve­ment — but it does not add much to what we al­ready know. And it is hard to es­cape the fact that elec­tion was 32 years ago. He also spends a good amount of time talk­ing about the Whitlam gov­ern­ment.

There is an as­pect of the ALP’s un­healthy ob­ses­sion with it­self here. Are we re­ally in­ter­ested in hear­ing about Bill Col­bourne, a “leg­endary” NSW ALP gen­eral sec­re­tary in the 1950s and 60s? It’s col­lec­tor-only stuff. Loosley sees the Hawke-Keat­ing pe­riod as the gold stan­dard for suc­cess­ful La­bor re­form gov­ern- ments, which is hardly a novel view. He adds that Neville Wran, then NSW premier, con­sid­ered go­ing to Can­berra in the late 70s to res­cue the strug­gling party but the tim­ing never quite worked out. Again, this is no se­cret.

You keep ex­pect­ing, and want­ing, Loosley to talk about the Ab­bott gov­ern­ment or the Rud­dGil­lard-Rudd gov­ern­ments, or even the Howard era. (The Mal­colm Turnbull era will have to wait for a re­vised edi­tion.) But there are only glanc­ing ref­er­ences, bits and pieces. In­stead, in the sec­ond half of the book he goes off in another di­rec­tion, pro­vid­ing a se­ries of pot­ted lessons about po­lit­i­cal oper­a­tions.

This, pre­sum­ably, is the ‘‘primer’’ bit. And it might be use­ful if you need to know how to rig elec­toral bound­aries, chair a party con­fer­ence or keep your sup­port­ers on the elec­toral roll even af­ter they have died. The chap­ter on fundrais­ing is also in­ter­est­ing: the trick is to know how to raise funds with­out look­ing as if you are rais­ing funds. Loosley says he was al­ways care­ful to tell donors there would not nec­es­sar­ily be a quo for the quid.

Well, maybe. Loosley sounds gen­uine, but this is the La­bor Right we are talk­ing about, and it might be noted that there is another chap­ter about how to say things that are — how might it be put? — not en­tirely founded in fact.

He has been around for long enough to know that ab­so­lute de­nials and un­equiv­o­cal com­mit­ments of­ten come back to bite you. Avoid them, he ad­vises — although this is more dif­fi­cult in the age of media sat­u­ra­tion and the Twit­ter­ing class.

He might be on safer ground when he speaks about the use of hu­mour to defuse po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions. This re­quires a sense of self-dep­re­ca­tion — Ron­ald Rea­gan’s quip about hav­ing known Thomas Jef­fer­son is an ex­am­ple Loosley cites — and that is in short sup­ply these days, per­haps be­cause the hy­per-crit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment sim­ply does not al­low for it.

Could Loosley be as ef­fec­tive an op­er­a­tor in 2015 as he was in 1983? One can­not help but feel as if the lessons he of­fers are for a dif­fer­ent, and by­gone, era. The book starts to me­an­der to­wards the end, with Loosley mus­ing about sport, Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and, some­what strangely, the Span­ish Civil War. Per­haps that is the dom­i­nant tone of the book: a mus­ing chat. It lacks the ex­u­ber­ance of Richard­son’s ac­count of his chi­canery, but nei­ther is it a con­sid­ered anal­y­sis of con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian pol­i­tics.

Those in­ter­ested in the back al­leys of La­bor pol­i­tics will find some in­ter­est­ing ma­te­rial here but for the gen­eral reader there is not much that is new or in­sight­ful. This is a pity, be­cause you want the book to be bet­ter, with the fo­cus that Loosley showed in his po­lit­i­cal life.

For­mer NSW La­bor Right stal­warts Stephen Loosley, left, and Graham Richard­son

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