‘It was just a good title for a book’, Graham Richardson protested last week, after a federal Labor front-bencher blamed the latest ALP ‘Aldi bag’ scandal on the ‘long legacy of whatever it takes’ within the ‘cabal that runs NSW Labor.’ Richo cannot escape being a central element in this self-destructive ethos of the dominant right wing of the NSW branch of the ALP. Recurring crises and scandals are an inevitable legacy.
Reviewing Richo’s political memoir Whatever it Takes, 25 years ago for The Bulletin, I described it (much to his annoyance) as ‘a primer on how to lie, cheat and bully your way to political success.’
Richardson, I said, used his trademark facade of disarming apparent honesty (now evident in his Sky News commentaries) to try to convert the improper practices and political thuggery of a NSW right-wing warrior into justifiable, often whimsical, commonplace actions that anyone would have done—and anyway, the Left was doing it too.
His book is ‘an essay in the accumulation and exercise of power,’ with Richardson revelling in exercising that power: ‘a surge of adrenalin better than sex and almost as exciting as a good feed’. Now on Sky he ridicules the proposition that he was all-powerful. Perhaps, to some extent, Richo could exercise power because the media, under his enthusiastic prompting, kept on asserting that he was powerful but real power was evident over his seven years from 1976 as NSW general secretary and 11 years from 1983 as a Senator.
Yet his book revealed nothing of how this power was acquired by, according to Bob Hawke, ‘a paunchy, urbanised, sedentary,’ unprepossessing person who dropped out of university and enjoyed a very non-commanding presence.
Richardson’s power went far beyond that of someone who, as Labor’s general secretary, knows all the Party’s dirty secrets, was helpful in pre-selections, is owed plenty because of his patronage and was an astute numbers man in Canberra.
Back in 1982 the left wing circulated a document titled ‘Abuse of Power,’ pointing to Richardson’s alleged support and protection of the extreme stacking operations that existed in the inner city.
Richardson admitted in his book that he should have acted quicker to clean up all of this, even though the practice of branch stacking and rorting of branch books was, as he said, ‘a tradition to which I was instinctively attracted and which I felt bound to protect.’
One of the left’s heroes, former Labor leader in the Senate John Faulkner, criticised Richardson for having ‘supported the very worst elements’ of the right-wing, inner-city political machines, and for ‘misplaced tribal loyalties.’
Faulkner, who spent nine years as assistant general secretary (three under Richardson who rarely spoke to him) has continually but unsuccessfully fought for reform, acknowledging that ‘those who run the show’ will never give up their power. Faulkner wrote about individuals who have ‘tainted our party … their success depended on nothing but factional anointment … the party’s culture has made this behaviour possible … Our system rewards intrigue, trading favours and doing deals.’ His call for Labor officials to be required to behave with integrity is relevant yet again with last month’s departure of the NSW general secretary after her appearance before a NSW ICAC inquiry.
Former Labor leader Mark Latham has written of Richo’s legacy: ‘First there was the Labor warlord Danny Casey and his company Balmain Welding, which imported drugs from the Philippines. Then Tom Domican, reportedly linked to the bashing of Peter Baldwin. Then Eddie Obeid and Ron Medich, one a corrupt politician, the other a murderer, both now wearing Her Majesty’s pyjamas. The list goes on: Offset Alpine Printing, Swiss bank accounts, trouble with the Tax Office, the Marshall Islands Affair and a business associate paying for Gold Coast prostitutes. Any one of these controversies would have destroyed the career of your average Labor Party factional hack, but not Richo.’ If it continues to live by Richo’s dictum that ‘power is attractive and absolute power is irresistible’, Labor runs the risk of proving the truth of Lord Acton’s famous warning.