Robbo’s no yobbo, he’s all guts and brains
Call me brave, or even stupid, but after David Penberthy’s piece last week, I’ve decided to launch a defence of NSW Labor leader John Robertson on The Punch. I expect pundits are already commenting below, calling me a union hack – or worse – as often occurs when I contribute to this site.
One of the reasons I feel compelled to launch this defence is because I find it curious that we endlessly search for people with convictions in politics, but end up bagging a bloke who was willing to stand up for his convictions.
Unpopular as it appears to the Labor elite, his convictions were shared by the majority of people in the community and by the workers that he was paid to represent.
While the story of electricity privatisation is taking centre stage in the soul searching about NSW Labor’s loss, it’s only part of the story, and like any take on history there is more than one view.
My own view is that Morris Iemma and Michael Costa’s defiance in pushing through electricity privatisation proved to be a case of political over-reach – similar to John’s Howard’s over-reach on WorkChoices.
Both WorkChoices and electricity privatisation were introduced by governments immediately after their re-election, and neither policy was taken to the electorate to gain public support.
Both were driven by the central ideology of key players in an out of touch style of politics that said ‘we know best’. Both predictably attempted to scapegoat trade unions when the rhetoric and spin failed to cut through.
It would be wrong to present the defeat of WorkChoices and electricity privatisation as mere battles between political parties and trade unions. In each case, unions carried a more authentic voice of how people and communities felt.
In the case of John Robertson, the scape-goating of the former trade union leader goes on. But just as there is more than one view on the ‘battle of privatisation’, there is more to John Robertson than this one fight.
His strength is that he is a thinker, a campaigner, and (as we know already) a fighter. Robertson was instrumental in the establishment of the group Labor For Refugees, and during his time at UnionsNSW managed to both defactionalise the union movement and build some lasting coalitions with community organisations outside it.
He financially backed the innovative Sydney Alliance, which under the leadership of Amanda Tattersall has continued to inspire and impress as a coalition empowering diverse community voices.
And - often unusually for male union leaders - he worked closely with many women in the movement respecting and valuing their views equal to those of the blokes.
Few people would have spent a year touring around the state on a bus to talk to nurses, teachers, tradespeople and other workers about WorkChoices. Even fewer would have enjoyed it. But such was his commitment to the movements Your Rights at Work Campaign in NSW.
My only criticism of Robertson is that he took on a senior role upon being elected. I would have preferred him to use his time on the sort of policy and coalition building work that the party desperately needed. But like electricity privatisation that’s all history. And it’s time for the Labor party to move on.
As leader of the opposition, he will set a much needed new direction for Labor. In a speech he gave in 2008 at an event my organisation hosted in Sydney he outlined a number of challenges for progressive organisations and spoke of the need for a vision that people are prepared to buy into then building power to make that vision a reality. This, he said, means ‘leading public debate from the front – making our agenda good politics’.
Bringing together politics and policy in this way is not just smart, it’s essential to restoring faith in governments of all persuasions. For too long, policy and politics has been disjointed, with the former directed by insiders and then unsuccessfully politicked through to communities.
This approach is not inclusive of communities because it doesn’t take account of a wide variety views. And it doesn’t work. As an experienced grassroots campaigner, John Robertson instinctively knows this.
So expect to see him in your local supermarket, or at your railway station talking to people about the new agenda. You might even see him touring around on a bus coming to a venue near you.
OK Punchineers, get stuck in!
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