Graham Richardson called his memoir ‘Whatever It Takes’, which was not only his own credo, but also the mantra of the NSW Right faction of which he was supremo.
He learnt at the feet of John Ducker, who was in turn the protégé of Ralph Marsh; these were the hard men, fired in the furnace of the great ALP split of the 1950s. Their relentless campaign against communist influence in the party and the unions prevented the schism that developed in Victoria from spreading over the border, and for that they were regarded as heroes.
But as so often happens, the war continued for far long than victory should have been declared: the battle against the Left and all its works became a self-perpetuating reality, often overshadowing the need to engage against the real enemy, the conservative coalition.
The Right became known as The Mob, the Sussex Street Death Squad; one federal leader, Bill Hayden, said that being called ‘mate’ by the faction was like being presented by the Mafia with a bunch of flowers; the next step was a severed horse’s head on your bed. One capo of the Right, Mark Arbib, claimed the reason he had moved to destroy Kevin Rudd was not that the people had stopped listening to the Prime Minister: ‘He stopped listening to me’, boasted the enforcer.
And over the years the culture of the Right became, not more cooperative, but more intransigent, more triumphalist; Whatever It Takes morphed imperceptibly into Whatever We Can Get Way With. This was the school which produced, among many others, Sam Dastyari, once an enthusiastic foot soldier, later to become a war lord in his own right. He was a man of respect, a Don; his colleagues were expected to follow his counsel with reverence and fear.
Dashergate was embarrassing, but not fatal. Slippery Sam, as he is now known, will retire to his lair to plot, manipulate and connive, and he will probably return fairly quickly
This is the explanation a frustrated press corps could not extract: why Dastyari had asked a Chinese form to pay off his election expenses, a relatively paltry sum which he happily declared to the Electoral Commission. Eventually he admitted that he simply did not want to pay the debt. The real question was not ‘why?’ but ‘why not?’ If there was loose change to be picked up, he had every right to trouser it; he was a Made Man, who was going to challenge him? Whatever you can get away with. In the old parlance, Dastyari was what was called a wide guy.
In the end – or at least the end of this episode, there may well be more to this saga – he did not get away with it, or more correctly his party didn’t; as he belatedly realised the damage to the collective was too great to manage. His colleagues hung on to him for a while – probably rather longer than they should have, although it must be said that Bill Shorten was far less stubborn than Tony Abbott had been over the lingering political death of Bronwyn Bishop, and less suicidal than Abbott’s prolonged protection of Joe Hockey and Peta Credlin.
Dashergate was embarrassing, but not fatal. Slippery Sam, as he is now known, will retire to his lair to plot, manipulate and connive, and he will probably return fairly quickly; Shorten, and perhaps more significantly Richardson, have suggested that he is too valuable to sideline for too long – too valuable to the NSW Right, if not for the country at large.
And in the end, it may even be beneficial in the medium term for the Labor Party and further down the track for the Australian body politic. Dastyari’s example has provided a focus for the venality of the politicians at all levels – perhaps, finally, the age of entitlement may be, if not over, at least being somewhat stalled.
The political game has always been transactional; there is very seldom a free lunch. Whether it is a direct payment to a politician, a freebie for a trip, some gratis accommodation or expenses, a hefty donation to a party or an electorate, a promise of support or a bargain struck over policy, almost everyone expects, if not demands, something in return. Almost the only altruists are the long-suffering idealists who hand out the how-to-vote cards at election time, and even they may occasionally dream of advancement.
The public knows all this, or at least suspects it, and as a result is deeply cynical about the whole process: politics is seen as, if not actually corrupt, certainly compromised. There is a hunger to reform the system, but few expectations that the politicians are willing to do so – until, occasionally, a headline-grabbing example of an obviously over-the-top outrage such as that of Dastyari. So now, suddenly, reform is back on the agenda.
Malcolm Turnbull, having spent much of his time overseas inveighing against the Dasher, says he is willing to consider the whole regime of donations. Even Tony Abbott has jumped on board. Bill Shorten has long been an advocate to ban foreign donations, limit domestic ones and make disclosure somewhat faster than the current tortuous delay.
But unfortunately there are multiple problems of implementation, ranging from the constitutional to those of simple self interest. Those with most to lose from reform are the party apparatchiks – the bean counters and the bagmen. They are quite happy with things as they are, thank you very much; the idea of actually having to rely on raffles and lamington drives, or still less, to resort to old fashioned street meetings and door knocking in place of television campaigns and robot calls to woo the punters, is too terrible to contemplate.
And so it is unlikely to be contemplated: the more likely outcome is that yet another inquiry will be shunted off to yet another committee until the whole controversy dies down and the parties can resume business as usual. The Augustine formula will prevail: Lord, make me pure, but not yet. And so the Sam Dastyaris of the world will receive forgiveness and absolution, the NSW Right can continue its thuggery, and the rest of the politicians will, as usual, rejoice in the belief that there, but for the grace of God, go they. Whatever it takes.