Ris­ing La­bor star crashed to earth

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard Fer­gu­son

Sam Dast­yari wants you to like him. Made gen­eral sec­re­tary of the Syd­ney branch of the ALP when he was barely out of nap­pies, he was elected to the Se­nate in 2013, the first per­son of Ira­nian ori­gin to sit in an Aus­tralian par­lia­ment. Ever since, it’s been hard to es­cape the 34-year-old se­na­tor. He’s a grand vizier of so­cial me­dia, ap­pears on ev­ery TV show that’ll have him ... and now there’s the furore over his mem­oir, One Halal of a Story.

Dast­yari is em­bark­ing on a bit of a re­brand. He was forced to re­sign from La­bor’s front­bench 12 months ago when it was re­vealed a Chi­nese donor had paid one of his travel bills. Around the same time, he backed the Chi­nese regime’s line on the South China Sea, which is op­po­site to La­bor’s. He has de­nied any con­nec­tion be­tween pay­ment and opinion, but the per­cep­tion hurt him.

His mem­oir has launched a thou­sand me­dia think­pieces. Should he be for­given for tak­ing Chi­nese money and spin­ning the web of Chi­nese for­eign pol­icy? Was ABC TV’s Aus­tralian Story spe­cial on Dast­yari and his book an ex­am­ple of elit­ist lefties stick­ing to­gether no mat­ter what? Is he just a fail­ure, as one writer in The Satur­day Pa­per put it, who rep­re­sents the small­ness of our po­lit­i­cal world?

Well, I’m tasked with one only ques­tion here: is Sam Dast­yari’s book any good? It is. It’s one of the warm­est po­lit­i­cal mem­oirs I have read. A lot of Aussie pol­lies have writ­ten can­did enough books about their time in Can­berra. Oth­ers have scripted in­ter­est­ing pol­icy man­i­festos. But few politi­cians cum writ­ers have the warm­heart­ed­ness and hu­mour that Dast­yari boasts in buck­et­loads.

The book starts in post-revo­lu­tion­ary Iran. Dast­yari’s mother is mak­ing the big­gest de­ci­sion of her life. And the ay­a­tol­lah is watch­ing: My mother, whose name is Ella, likes to tell me about the ex­act mo­ment she de­cided she would have me. It was 26 Septem­ber 1981, and it was the day she was not ex­e­cuted ... For my mother, it was pos­ses­sion of a po­lit­i­cal pam­phlet that brought trou­ble her way. She read pro­pa­ganda in the form of a news­pa­per. This might seem in­no­cent enough when oth­ers are killing each other with bul­lets and bombs but the regime un­der­stood that ideas mat­tered.

The ex­tra­or­di­nary sto­ries of Dast­yari’s par­ents, stu­dent rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies whose re­bel­lion was stolen from them, feed into his touch­ing por­traits of the ear­lier gen­er­a­tion. The fierce women of the fam­ily with fem­i­nist ideals be­fore fem­i­nism ex­isted. His post of­fice-work­ing grand­fa­ther saved young boys from the IranIraq war by burn­ing the let­ters they sent to the Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard vol­un­teer­ing to die.

The fam­ily came to Aus­tralia in 1988. We read the ad­ven­tures of young Sam. There’s his mother read­ing tea leaves for the white women on the street, the small busi­ness em­pire the ex­tended Dast­yaris amass where Sam slaves away (and is of­ten sacked). Then there are great, self-dep­re­cat­ing sto­ries of grow­ing up for­eign in Syd­ney, tinged then and now with a sad­ness and a con­tin­u­ing quest for ac­cep­tance.

As at­trac­tive and feel-good as the Dast­yari Show is, it will dis­ap­point read­ers who want the pol­i­tics. There is no hot gossip, no take­downs of Dast­yari’s en­e­mies ( The Latham Diaries this is not). What shines through in­stead is his abil­ity to con­nect with or­di­nary peo­ple.

His pro­posed in­qui­si­tion of the banks is seen through the eyes of a ter­ri­fied whistle­blower. His pas­sion for indige­nous rights is told through the sto­ries of young vol­un­teers in re­mote com­mu­ni­ties (Dast­yari has no time for lefties who are all talk and no ac­tion). It’s all part of his abil­ity, ea­ger­ness even, to put him­self in other peo­ple’s shoes.

Then there are the re­grets. He talks about his time lead­ing the NSW La­bor ma­chine into the abyss at the time of the 2011 state elec­tion that saw Kristina Ke­neally lose in a land­slide. There’s the Rudd-Gil­lard wars and his role as one of few face­less men loyal to Kevin 07 through­out the en­tire pe­riod.

And then there’s the scan­dal. Dast­yari ad­mits he was “dumb” to take a Chi­nese donor’s money to pay for his travel bill.

“I was naive. I made a mis­take in letting some­one sort a bill. This was a bill, as I said, I had de­clared, but I should have had the pru­dence to fore­see that op­po­nents might run with the pay­ment of the ex­pense in or­der to ques­tion my mo­tives.”

It’s not ex­actly beg­ging for for­give­ness, is it? And it’s a bit wor­ry­ing that the more se­ri­ous sin of par­rot­ing the lines of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party seems pretty lost on him. “The al­le­ga­tion was that I contradicted ALP pol­icy on the South China Sea. I’m not sure that I contradicted it. But that doesn’t mat­ter.”

Dast­yari is frank, if not to­tally con­trite, about the scan­dal that al­most de­stroyed his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. That’s rare enough in Aus­tralian pol­i­tics and it’s not to be sneezed at.

Today he’s work­ing his way back to the front­bench. He’s still the Se­nate’s best ne­go­tia­tor. He still has a me­dia pro­file that eclipses two-thirds of the La­bor front­bench. Why is he not dead? It’s be­cause he’s gen­uinely in­ter­est­ing and he speaks like a liv­ing, breath­ing hu­man be­ing

Yes, Sam Dast­yari wants the read­ers of One Halal of a Story to like him and prefer­ably for­give him. Well, you don’t have to. But read his book any­way. It’s a ripper. Aus­tralian. is a jour­nal­ist with The

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