Monday 6 December 2004

Et tu, Conroy?

Another in the continuing saga of Australian Labor Party (ALP) Backbiting.

I've given Mark Latham (well-known leader of the opposition and assaulter of cab drivers) a serve or two in the past. So in the interests of balance, some quotes in what is as close to a pro-Latham article as you'll find these days, from the Sydney Morning Herald about his current nemesis, Scorned Senator Stephen Conroy :
You can learn a lot about people in toilets. I first encountered Senator Stephen Conroy in a toilet in the NSW Parliament. It was the morning of Tuesday, May 20, 1997. We were at Macquarie Street for a hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, a federal committee conducting hearings around the country. Conroy was a member of the committee. I was there to present a submission on corruption in union elections.

We would clash soon enough.

Conroy is intensely irritating, with a cockiness untempered by charisma and exacerbated by a grating accent he brought from England when his family emigrated. In the past 10 days, Mark Latham has received enormous, perhaps fatal, criticism of his leadership for a public brawl with Conroy, but Conroy is a special case. Latham has taken a disproportionate blame for the party's problems, becoming a scapegoat for a much deeper problem in the party - it has devolved into an insular patronage machine dominated by vindictive mediocrities.

Conroy personifies this problem. He embodies it. His constant warring and plotting in the past year prompted the former ALP federal president, Greg Sword, to call him "mad", and the federal Labor MP, Bob Sercombe, to call him a "dill", among other insults from other Labor opponents.

When I encountered Conroy he still had his P-plates as a senator. He was only 34. He had been in Parliament less than a year. And he had not even been elected. He'd been appointed by the governor of Victoria in 1996 to fill the vacancy left by the departure of Senator Gareth Evans. Such is the manner in which Labor factional warriors can make their way. Conroy's career was always politics. After university he worked for several Labor politicians, then the Transport Workers Union. His real career, expertise and power base was factional trench warfare for the Victorian Labor Right.
A Professional Politician, in other words. I know of no greater insult.
Conroy was re-elected because he was one position higher on the party pecking order. But the electorate's indifference to his presence was deep and wide. Even though he was in the second slot of a major party, 18 candidates received higher personal votes. Conroy received the lowest Labor vote across most of the 37 Victorian electoral subdivisions.

His power comes from offstage, from the patronage of his mentor, Senator Robert Ray, and his years as a recruiter (his enemies call it branch-stacking), deal-maker and kneecapper for the Victorian Right. His reward was Senate preselection at the age of 31. Once in the Senate, Conroy could start knifing people under the protection of parliamentary privilege. He did not waste any time.

On September 12, 1996, barely four months after arriving in the Senate, Conroy used privilege to target a dissident faction in the NSW postal workers' union which had mounted a successful court challenge to an election victory by the Labor Right faction. War ensued. Smear-sheets - usually defamatory, always anonymous - were distributed by the thousands, attacking the reputations of opponents.
Now we see the real reason why Conroy and Latham don't get on : they're too similar.
Last Monday, Labor frontbencher Laurie Ferguson had had enough: "The whole party's tiring of Mr Conroy's concern that he's not the leader in the Senate." By then, the damage had been done. Latham now looks like Simon Crean, even though Labor's problems are far deeper than the leader's shortcomings.

Conroy does not have clean hands in these matters.

This is not new. When I first encountered him on May 20, 1997, he was occupied at a urinal in a men's toilet. As I walked in, he finished his business and walked out. He did not pause. He did not wash his hands. He went straight back to the committee room.

You do not forget such images.
Even though politically I really should be more inclined to vote Labor than Liberal, it's the general ickiness of the ALP that always pursuades me that they're not serious about it. With a very few exceptions, they're game-players.

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