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Meagher, Tripodi, and friends

By Tom Clark - posted Friday, 25 March 2011

Anybody who was at the Mekong Club in Cabramatta to watch the so-called Centre Unity faction cement its control of the NSW Young Labor Council in 1993 might have seen the party's 2011 doldrums coming. The truth is, lots of Cassandras were complaining about the progressive shrivelling of Labor's reasons to exist - and of course they were all fundamentally correct.

When people vote Green, they essentially know they are voting for green things, like leaves and grass. When they vote Liberal, they know they are voting to keep more of their own money in their own control. Modern Labor, though, seems only to stand for winning - or, in its most dignified version, something like professionalism in politics. Unless the Liberal party conspires to make an election about workplace relations, there is no core value that connects with any certainty to what ordinary people might care for, or even fear.

Nobody votes for political professionalism, except political professionals. It is especially difficult to sustain a commitment to professionalism when your government is old, tired, and scandal-ridden. But the NSW right's cult of 'whatever it takes' gave rise to this anti-charismatic doctrine, starting in the era of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, which has spread across the party factions and around the country. We can now see it playing out to a certain logical conclusion in that state.


To do so, we wind back the clock a bit over 17 years...

A triumphant pair, Reba Meagher and Joe Tripodi were celebrating the first year of the right's control, which had concluded with the election of their acolytes to all the key leadership positions.

Clearly, they saw much to celebrate. Both stood arm in arm on the balcony with the Club's then proprietor, Phuong Ngo. They beamed and swayed while some clown with access to the stereo system ramped up the volume on Holst's Jupiter theme, favoured by the right since Keating had declared it good music. As Graham Richardson wrote in his memoir, 'winning is good.'

Losing is not good, and so of course the left was outraged. There was a lot of anger that somebody over the road was forging bank cards, creating pseudo-identification to get right-wing voters accredited in the names of absent comrades. Never mind that the left had been stacking Young Labor for years too. It just wasn't as ruthless and proficient at it any more.

But the critical difference since 1992 had been that right-wingers in the 'senior party' were now playing hard in Young Labor. The adults were sick of trumped-up young amateurs putting out press releases bagging the Hawke and Keating governments on the environment, the first Gulf war, and HECS, so they made sure the slew of left challenges to Young Labor's internal election results went nowhere. It was time to make sure the youth wing was singing from the same songsheet as they were.

It is not as if the ALP has ever been a particularly tuneful organisation. In 1993, though, NSW Young Labor simply gave up choir practice. When it stopped being an alternative voice to the senior party, it stopped being a voice. The organisation still exists, and arguably its apparatchiks are every bit as effective in what they seek to achieve now as 20 years ago, but the spark is almost invisible and the once-real appeal to a generation of idealistic high school students is now very weak.


The senior party's deal on Young Labor was well-known to both the insiders and the outsiders. Those who had helped engineer the right's victory would be rewarded with political jobs. I am not sure how many people knew how senior those jobs might be, though.

In 1994, somebody murdered the Member for Cabramatta, John Newman. Apparently only hours beforehand, right faction leader John della Bosca had offered Meagher preselection for this seat. Newman did not live to learn his career had been terminated. Meagher was duly preselected for the ensuing by-election, which she won.

In 1995, Tripodi secured preselection for the safe seat of Fairfield by outflanking incumbent Geoff Irwin in his local branches. The battle was won almost before anybody knew it was under way, and Tripodi's victory made him look like just the sort of cunning tactician the party machine loves.

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About the Author

Dr Tom Clark is a senior lecturer in Communication at Victoria University, Melbourne, and the author of Stay on Message: Poetry and Truthfulness in Political Speech (Australian Scholarly Publishing).

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