The Party at the End of the Party
Arriving at the Randwick Labor Club for Saturday night’s ALP election function, the staff at the desk were joking about having voted Liberal. This was obviously going to be a bad night for the Labor Party.
Like residents waiting for a massive cyclone, the Labor faithful knew when it was coming and where from; the only thing for it now was to buckle down together and wait. Needless to say, it was weird.
One benefit of this particular bunker was the open bar, which was probably the most useful bit of campaign spending the NSW ALP had made in the last six weeks.
Wandering around the room you detected no palpable sadness or anger, both of which were present at the disastrous Labor function following the federal election. Rather it was an air of well prepared and rehearsed acceptance. It was black comedy.
I started chatting to Mike, a member of the party for over thirty years who had spent the day handing out how-to-vote cards in Waverly. When asked how the day went, he was blunt: “Bloody awful.”
Asked why he thought the party had found itself in this position tonight, he looked up from his beer and thought for a moment. “I guess they’re just sick of us. But you know this happens when you’ve been in power so long,” he said - smiling the entire time.
When I put it to Mike that it had never happened this dramatically he became more introspective about Labor’s future: “We need more actual Labor people, plumbers and stuff, you know?”
Others expressed similar sentiments about “losing touch”, the accepted phrase among the ALP faithful to describe the disaster. Still, it had already begun to sound a like a worn cliché, a kind of meaningless response given by a modern politician.
When asked what they meant by losing touch most people couldn’t really say - partly as it would mean admitting other things about the party they didn’t like, but mainly because these people weren’t the problem with NSW Labor. These were people who would vote for Labor till they die (which, for many, wasn’t an entirely distant prospect), volunteer on election-day and turn up to the function as a matter of course. These people were all that Kristina Keneally had left.
As well as for Keneally, the function was for Coogee MP Paul Pearce and Maroubra member Michael Daley.
Pearce gave a good concession speech after being thumped with a 14.5 per cent swing against him. He declared that the Labor Party had to become the party of the working class once more and that the ALP in NSW “was where it needed to be”. What exactly he meant by that I’m not sure, but it sounded sincere.
Daley suffered a similar swing against him but managed to somehow hang on. He made a victory speech, concluding: “It has been catastrophic, but let’s hold our heads high, we are Labor and have nothing to be ashamed of”. Daley left the stage to rapturous applause from his young volunteers who had turned the room into a small sea of green with their campaign t-shirts. Evidently Mr Daley was so proud of Labor that he found it necessary to dress his workers up like The Greens.
Peter Garrett showed up at one point and had photos taken with young volunteers. As his huge figure cut through the room an old bloke muttered to his mates: “Yeah Garrett, great idea that was, turn a safe seat into a marginal one.”
Then, finally Kristina arrived, and was rushed through a human corridor on a wave of photographer’s flashes and gorgeous blond hair.
Her speech was as forgettable - as it needed to be. More platitudes about losing touch, and then she predictably decided to take the blame for the entire loss. Something that she knows is untrue, something we know is untrue, but something that has to be said by leaders in moments like these.
When Keneally announced that she was stepping down, the crowd booed and somebody yelled out “but who else is there?”, followed by what can only be described as an awkward pause. Then she left the room and went upstairs, to be updated on further casualties from the evening.
As the room cleared out a few journalists and the more masochistic Labor supporters moved forward to the Sky feed to watch O’Farrell’s acceptance.
Halfway through the new Premier’s speech an old bloke who worked at the club interrupted on the mic: “I just want to announce that the bar will be closing at 10:30, but the bar on the second floor will be open, along with the best pokies in the eastern suburbs”. There’s a lesson somewhere in there about New South Wales.
I briefly tagged along to a Labor staffer party, which, all things being considered, was full of surprisingly convivial people who seemed glad the whole thing was finally over with (except for Bob Ellis, who sat moribund on a large foot stool in front of the television).
We ended up at a pub in the city crammed with Labor types. They were all there - outgoing ALP National Secretary Karl Bitar, NSW Labor General Secretary Sam Dastyari and (the faceless man who never appears to be off the television) AWU Secretary Paul Howes. You might have said if a bomb went off in that bar there would have been nobody left to run the NSW Labor Party, except on Saturday night the bomb had already detonated.
None of this seemed to quell the mood, however; Howes and Bitar were happily chatting like they were planning the next four years of Labor Government rather than discussing the annihilation that had just taken place.
The mood was upbeat, if only because engaging with reality was too horrible, and, right now, completely unnecessary. One campaign strategist was thrilled. Not only had the Greens not picked up a seat, but the ALP were likely to get to 20: “Mate I’m dancing on the ceiling with 20 seats.”
Yep, weird night.
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