In the week of a friendly ABC profile and the launch of his confessional memoir, Sam Dastyari’s speedy rehabilitation after his Chinese donations scandal has irked many, even within his party. Is his brash style a positive or a flaw? By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
Selling Labor’s Sam Dastyari
Dasher is calling. Faithful to a nickname coined for his energy, the young Labor senator skips formalities when I answer. He goes straight to the matter. The night before, Sam Dastyari was the subject of a Vaseline-lensed portrait on ABC Television’s Australian Story. Today, there is no shortage of critics. It’s a diverse choir: Liberals, Greens, Cory Bernardi – even members of the ALP – condemn the national broadcaster for aiding the public rehabilitation of a senator burnt by a donations scandal last September. The program coincides with the release of the senator’s book, One Halal of a Story, this week, a mix of memoir, manifesto and calculated contrition.
“I’d have thought Dastyari has done both the crime and the time and is therefore a legitimate subject for profile,” a senior ABC source told me. “The stuff on his family was genuinely interesting and new. People are questioning whether an ABC program should be dealing with someone who has a book to flog, but applying that standard would instantly deprive ABC Radio of 70 per cent of its content.”
It was a fairly stock defence, until it got to the point: “As to the style of show, Australian Story lived up to its industry-leading position as first port of call for no-hard-questions-asked reputational rehabilitation.”
In the outrage that followed, Dastyari’s publisher, Melbourne University Press, maintained that the ABC approached them about the piece. The program’s interest was in his return to Iran for a family wedding. “No mention whatsoever was made of the publication of a book on Australian Story,” the publisher’s chief executive, Louise Adler, said. “If MUP had sought to promote the book in the program, it was a spectacular fail.”
An ABC spokesperson told me: “The Australian Story episode ‘Playing with Fire’ is a balanced retelling of events, with voices from across the political spectrum. There is clear public interest in hearing Senator Dastyari’s answers to previously unanswered allegations and questions about his conduct. The idea for the story came up in a researcher’s meeting and the program then approached Senator Dastyari’s media adviser about an interview. As is always the case, the timing of the episode was dictated by the scheduling needs of the program and the availability of Senator Dastyari and other participants.”
Dasher is calling. He’s talking almost before the call has connected. “How hilarious is this right-wing outrage about the ABC today?” he says.
“But there was criticism from your own party,” I say. “Michael Danby said–”
Dastyari interrupts. “Danby had a go at the ABC, not me. He called me endearing.”
“He said almost endearing.”
“That’s just Danby being Danby,” Dastyari says.
For the record, the veteran member for Melbourne Ports told Fairfax: “His self-promotion is so brazen it’s almost endearing. By contrast no one at the ABC is interested in my views on China’s jailing and killing of its only Nobel peace prize winner, Liu Xiaobo.”
Here was the Dastyari I was told to expect: intense, flattering, cajoling, and always looking for an angle with which to ingratiate himself. “Are you in Sydney or Melbourne?” he asks. Dastyari is in Sydney, I’m in Melbourne.
“Damn,” he says. “I would’ve come and seen you.”
Last September, the senator faced a large and aggressive press pack in Sydney to answer questions about his handing a travel bill to a Chinese donor. There were also reports that Dastyari, speaking before Chinese media, had broken with Labor and government foreign policy and sympathised with China’s territorial claims to the South China Sea. “He’s got to explain why this is not cash for comment,” the prime minister said just a few days before.
What followed was a meltdown that would confirm his removal from the Labor frontbench. Arriving with typical insouciance, Dastyari’s articulateness quickly devolved into stuttering deflections. Ordinarily, the senator was as comfortable before cameras as a dolphin in water. But not that day. His silver tongue melted; his face, which usually declared joyous assurance, creased. The dolphin was beached. He resigned from the frontbench the next day.
These days, the self-declared “operator” is calling for a ban on political donations. Some I’ve spoken to within the Labor Party cannot stomach the apparent hypocrisy but admire the way in which Dastyari seems to have benefited from both donations and from the prospect of their eradication. “People say it’s a hypocritical position to take,” Dastyari says. “But people talk about fundraising without knowing anything about it. But, yes, we have a problem with political donations. And I’ve spoken with Bill about this. If you passionately believe that we should have publicly funded campaigns – as I do – that means arguing the case. I want to do that.”
Sam was 26 when he was elected secretary of the New South Wales Labor Party. The year was 2010. He says scandal or fatigue had eliminated all the other candidates.
Dastyari inherited a corrupt party. He became the chief engineer of a greasy machine. People I have spoken to for this article, who had worked for the Labor Party for many years, speak to me with disgust about NSW. “I wanted to cut out the state and send it out to fucking sea”, was one comment I heard from a veteran campaign organiser. “So many had worked so hard for this party, and the grubs in NSW sold it all out.”
There is no suggestion of impropriety from Dastyari, but the corruption scandals – which led to the imprisonment of two former ministers, and the recommendation of further charges this week against Joe Tripodi and Tony Kelly – decimated the party at the 2011 state election. Dastyari spent a good amount of that campaign vomiting anxiously in toilets. “I inherited the secretaryship because there was no one left,” Dastyari says. “I was the only one standing. I didn’t realise how unprepared I was until I had it. It was a huge burden. But compared to 2011, the party is in a remarkably better place.”
Dastyari promised reforms and to stick around until 2019 to see them through. But just three years later, he accepted a senate vacancy. Party stalwarts, including Paul Keating, asked him to stay. “I’ll be honest with you,” Dastyari tells me, “I was burnt out.” But he also admitted that the prospect was “seductive”.
Since then, he has cannily acquired more press than any opposition backbencher could dream of. Perhaps incongruously, the man who enjoyed the patronage of the NSW Right has become a voice for the reformation of refugee policy, taxation law and banking accountability. In his own party, some see a modern and effective progressive, others a craven opportunist. Dastyari inspires passionate responses. In multiple conversations, any number of flattering or venomous adjectives were used to describe the senator: charming, gossipy, scheming, duplicitous, energetic, impulsive, impatient, intuitive and clever. Dastyari tells me these are the ordinary passions provoked by a political life “played tough”, but he understates how polarising he is.
“He’s slimy, but interesting,” a Labor source tells me. “Very charismatic and savvy. Very good at schmoozing. Very good at telling stories. And he’s very energetic – he was big into the social life of the ALP. Late nights at the bar.
“There’s elements of trying to appeal to branch membership of NSW, and wider party membership. Certainly the Left is gaining its influence over the party – the broader political game is changing here and around the Western world and with it we are seeing the party take on a bolder, more left-wing economic agenda, and Sam has been at the forefront with some of that. There’s an element of him trying to create a political base for himself – combining left progressives and ethnic/Arab voters of western Sydney. I don’t think many people in the ALP would disagree with him on the banks’ conduct or multinational tax avoidance, nor really on combating the crackpot Bernardi/One Nation halal conspiracy stuff. Most of the stuff he talks about is pretty on the money and he gets it across in a very accessible and energetic way.
“He seemed to be sounding out support for Albo in late 2015 when it looked like Turnbull would romp it in. He was less than loyal to Shorten then. I think the thinking was, ‘Get Albo in for a loss, that’s the quickest route to a NSW Right leader’.
“But I think [Shorten and Dastyari] are getting closer. I think Bill thinks Sam’s redeemable, and Sam knows his future is reliant on being loyal to Bill. There’s recognition that his brasher or poorer instincts can be worked on, and that ultimately his positive qualities, when focused and hitting the right notes, are exceptional enough to want him to succeed.”
The source believes that the senator is “aggressively” trying to rehabilitate his image.
Dastyari admits to me that he contains tensions and contradictions. “I’m aware of my own flaws, my insecurity, my anxiety, and that rushing into things has done me more harm than good,” he says. “The question I know others are asking of me is: Can I slow down and think before I act, and do so without losing my sense of adventure? I want the answer to be yes.”
Richard Denniss, the chief economist at The Australia Institute, and a man familiar with most parliamentarians, tells me he’s recognised the tensions in Dastyari, too. “Sam is almost the perfect embodiment of the contradictory tensions that pull at modern politicians,” he says. “For some, his biggest problem is his obvious ambition; for others his biggest strength is his obvious energy. For me, I think there is honesty in ambition. For democracy to work we need skilled politicians who can harness their own ambitions to a positive agenda that delivers for the masses. And nobody has ever accused Sam of failing to engage with the masses.
“Good politicians can think on their feet and adapt quickly to today’s events. But great politicians not only look down the track to see what’s coming; they think about what they can do to shape the future events that others will respond to down the track. Sam was an early adopter of the need to rein in the power of the big banks. He gave a talk for The Australia Institute at the beginning of 2016 on the 10 companies that were running Australia. Such claims were way outside of the realms of polite public debate back then, but today I don’t think anyone outside of the BCA [Business Council of Australia] would bat an eye. Indeed, the Coalition got stuck into the big banks in this year’s budget.”
Operator, fixer and showman, Dastyari has cultivated political relationships throughout his young life. One mentor was former NSW premier and later foreign minister Bob Carr, whose office Dastyari happened to join on Carr’s final day in the job. One Labor source told me he assumed Sam’s list of wealthy Chinese donors was one bequeathed by the elder statesman.
“Sam’s analysis is very good, his reading of situations,” Carr says now. “He’s always plugged in. He’s a very good adviser. I think all his friends look forward to the day that he moves beyond being a showman and settles into policy work.
“He’s conceded that it was a huge error to dash out there and say to Chinese media that we shouldn’t criticise their behaviour in the South China Sea. It wasn’t a line from someone with foreign policy expertise. If he had called me, I would have told him that: 1. Australia respects the rule of law; 2. We must warn against unilateral action; 3. That we hoped disputes could be managed more effectively; And 4. That Australia will help in a peaceful resolution, including issues of sovereignty and resource sharing.
“This experience will probably have been searing enough to make him more guarded. He has to gravitate to more diplomatic language. He has to inhabit a conscientious and intelligent space. There’s a vaudeville quality to his vaulting over his mistakes. He has to work hard at getting the tone right, and he has to show that his apology is not facile.”
The fact of Carr securing his dream job – that of Australian foreign minister – is in good part attributable to Dastyari. In 2012, the “stars had aligned” for Carr when a senate vacancy coincided with Rudd’s being stripped of the foreign ministry after a failed leadership challenge. What followed hinged on a conversation between Dastyari and Labor powerbroker Mark Arbib.
“I get a call from Arbib,” Dastyari tells me. “It’s the day of Rudd’s first challenge. He got 30 votes in caucus. Arbib tells me he’s going to resign from the senate. He says to me, ‘Don’t act, don’t do anything, I’m just giving you a heads-up’. Without missing a beat, I pick up the phone and call Bob. ‘I gotta see you,’ I tell him. I get to his office, and he’s doing Pilates. ‘Bob, I think we can make you foreign minister in the next 24 hours.’ There is no amount of time measurable by science that was shorter than his time in saying ‘yes’.”
It’s obvious that Dastyari relishes telling this story – and that it’s a pebble he’s polished with many tellings.
Dastyari can write. He has a breezy manner – there’s plenty of irony and levity, as befits the Degrassi High generation – and he is a master of self-effacement. His memoir is not weighted by pomposity, like many others. It is also filled with shiny anecdotes, like the time a fretful Dastyari was summoned by Rudd to Kirribilli House and attracts the suspicions of the Australian Federal Police.
But it is difficult to shake the feeling that Dastyari is always trying to sell you something – namely himself. Perhaps this is a churlish observation of a politician, but Dastyari’s transactional nature seems heavier than most. In our conversations, Dastyari is always suggesting angles. “Let me pitch something to you,” he says.
Regardless, Dastyari tells me he didn’t write the book to burnish his public image. “If the purpose was rehabilitative, I would have been less loose in the book. Yes, I want politics to be my life’s work. But no, this isn’t about rehabilitation. I started writing this book in quite a dark place – originally as an article for Rolling Stone – and it grew and I found the experience cathartic. I was depressed in the colloquial sense, not medical. Writing the book was a way of stocktaking my emotions. I’m not prone to long periods of self-reflection, but sometimes it’s forced upon you.”
Michael Danby is right. Dastyari is a “media whiz”. But at the age of 34, many are watching to see whether he has been sufficiently chastened to become something else.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 5, 2017 as "Ply it again, Sam".
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