Opinion

Michaelia Cash and Shorten’s factions

Your correspondent has previously gone on record describing Barnaby Joyce as a big-hatted toby jug the colour of ham. In Sky News “Outsider” Rowan Dean, I’ve seen both a wet, upturned ugg boot and an explosion in a woolshed. So it is to be hoped that no one will object if I ask of Michaelia Cash: That hair. The nation wants to know. What’s the intent here? Is it Latvian air hostess? YouTube Sale of the Century clip from 1986? Divorcee who has taken over the gift shop in a quirky seaside town and is not yet ready to give up on love?

Yes, okay: it’s still unfair. But until the Federal Court subpoena landed last week, Cash’s Jane Jetson ’do may have saved her quite a bit of trouble. As she and Senator Doug Cameron went at it like a hungover couple arguing over the free buffet at Jupiters Casino, it was difficult to really see the spirited Cash as the embodiment of malign forces. For god’s sake, this woman was in the original B-52s, wasn’t she? What could be so bad?

Quite a bit, as it turned out. For a while there, Michaelia Cash had a degree of credit, even from her enemies, as a woman who had made it to a position of power, who had mastered the strange politics of the Liberal Party and risen through it. She was minister material.

“From an early age, I learnt that you can either talk about change or be part of the change process,” she has said. “My parents brought my siblings and I up with a very simple philosophy – to achieve, you work hard, and to achieve more, you simply work harder.”

Cash’s father is a former Liberal head of the Western Australian Legislative Council, as is the way, and she’s a former student pollie who passed through that Liberal finishing school, Freehills solicitors. She’s a master of confected outrage, and when she took aim at “the young women in Bill Shorten’s office” that side of her became painfully clear. Boots’n’all student politics, union coffee shop games. Faced with a subpoena for the real stuff, it suddenly got serious.

You could forget in the middle of all this low comedy that Cash has pushed the back-and-forth of Australian politics about as far as it can go without becoming something else. There’s the police raid on the Australian Workers’ Union offices, the tip-off to journos from her office, the almost-maybe of what she knew and what she told the Senate, the whiteboard she hid behind. And now the subpoena directing her to front the AWU’s court case challenging the legality of the raid. All of this is such farce that it is easy to miss how serious it is. 

The AWU raid came in the wake of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, dodged up by the Abbott government and spectacularly politically unsuccessful. The royal commission was conceived in the hope militant construction union officers would end up in jail and mass corruption would be found in the right-wing unions that were Bill Shorten’s stamping ground. Instead, the Liberals’ favoured unionist, Kathy Jackson, was committed to trial on almost 200 charges of theft and deception, which she denies. Right-wing unions were exposed as being too friendly to corporations, commissioner Dyson Heydon was forced to consider recusing himself over Liberal Party links, and half a dozen CFMMEU organisers had charges against them dropped, in a manner that strongly suggested railroading. The great takeaway was footage of Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne saying how great Jackson is. Perhaps it will appear at some stage of the trial.

So it is not unreasonable to suppose that the AWU raid occurred at a time when the Coalition was in a state of sheer pique, and also desperate to land a blow on Shorten, sufficient to disable him, yet not serious enough to displace him, preferring that his right-wing supporters keep him in the leadership to become a victory-killing negative for the party, protected by Kevin Rudd’s stabilising leadership rules. The Coalition, not always cluey about Labor factional brawls, knows Shorten is the target of a slow pincer movement that began when the right-wing alliance between him and Stephen Conroy began to come apart about two years ago. These right-wing forces comprise those who never left to join the DLP in the 1950s, now personalised as the “ShortCons”, Labor being the sort of place where two men who look like accountants for a regional hospital can acquire the status of charismatic superstars. The Conroy group – now “led” by his hapless deputy, Richard Marles – are in a de facto alliance with the Albanese Left in New South Wales and hence with the mainstream Socialist Left in Victoria. The alliance threatens to get the numbers sufficient to overcome the 60 per cent rule preventing an easy spill – the one in which two-thirds of caucus must agree before a spill in Opposition, lifting to 75 per cent in government.

In desperation, Shorten’s “brains trust” reached out to the Left – the CFMMEU – who had recently split from the Socialist Left. This bloc is the “Industrial Left” – with erratic state member for Brunswick Jane Garrett as the unlikely hood ornament.

Garrett is part of a friendship network dating back to Australian National University days, which includes Sharon McCrohan, now a senior adviser to Shorten, and the former “national union relationship manager” at Slater and Gordon, Emma Walters, wife of CFMEU Victoria head John Setka.

The network reaches across factions, and may be running the whole process of Shorten’s survival. It came to public attention when Shorten had a much-reported sit-down with various proxies from the Right and Left factions, apparently facilitated by Andrew Landeryou, househusband of Senator Kimberley Kitching and Shorten’s off-the-books consigliore. Landeryou is a former bankrupt, internet troll and failed online gambling entrepreneur, most recently fined for vandalism on election day.

This is the background against which Cash lacquered her ’do. There are at least some in the Liberal Party who understood what was going on, and realised this might be a way to head off looming defeat: as victory after victory piled up for Labor in Newspoll, Shorten’s numbers as leader have continued to kick around in the doldrums, and even downturn. They’re low enough to give the Coalition an ace in the hole. An efficient and brutal campaign would be enough to sow sufficient doubt in key swinging voters.

What a court will now decide is whether the Liberals could leave it at that, could let nature take its course.

You see, the Liberal Party really, really hate Bill Shorten. This is not James Killen’s Liberal Party, nor even Billy Snedden’s. It is now almost entirely a network of the urban haute-bourgeoisie, the chino-and-pearls mafia, an intersection of private-schools-called-public-schools, sandstone uni student politics, the IPA, Freehills et al, a sort of hermetically sealed Biosphere 2 of perfect bourgeois stupidity. This is my tribe – alliances and marriages formed at parties on soft summer nights, poolside in Double Bay and Brighton, as early Madonna played, and pushy mothers brought out endless trays of pigs in blankets.

The Liberal Party is now a cult within a class, rather than a party organically expressing its values. They police their borders, chant their mantras, and keep the faith. And they hate Bill. Albo? Albo they can cope with. He’s like the funny little man who fixes the Audi. But Shorten, the slightly effeminate Xavier boy with the always-pressed shirt and the habit of marrying up? Shorten is too much like them not to be a class traitor. They hate him not because they suspect he’s bogus, but because of the haunting fear he may be at least partly genuine: that it’s possible to cross class, and recognise an unanswerable claim for justice, and want, amid ravenous personal ambition, to do something about it.

The AWU raid may look like student politics, but it has a nastier edge: banana-republic stuff, power wielded without consideration of civil society. It is a small part of the wider decomposition of Australian politics, and of the Western right more generally. The Liberals are, and always have been, about the assertion of power. In the postwar era, against the rise of the productive state and working-class movements, they championed free-market liberalism as ananswer to the growing problems of social democracy. Now, they prefer racis— sorry, “national security”, and vast subsidies for the fossil fuel sector. Whether it’s attacks on unions, or the spruiking of the Ramsay Centre, the kitsch piles up, to the point where the right’s true character is revealed: a party of state order and repression, for whom the openness of markets and social life are a secondary consideration.

These are the people who rule us, and who, in 95 per cent of seats, you must choose “between” if your vote is to count. This is bathysphere politics, the mutual race to the deep bottom.

The banks royal commission is exposing the connections on the right side, as the trade union royal commission never did. But Labor knows there is one big thing coming: the Kathy Jackson trial. Jackson has applied to call more than 60 witnesses, as is her right, given the number of charges. That would amount to a real royal commission on Victorian Labor and Shorten’s base, with the potential to take the whole sucker down.

If Malcolm Turnbull has sufficient audacity, he will land the election right in the middle of it, and make Shorten’s association with Landeryou and Kitching a cause célèbre. That would be enough to get Turnbull all that he wants at the moment: not to be in the historical rollcall, an asterisk to Tony Abbott.

So here is Michaelia Cash, fighting a subpoena from the Federal Court to say what she knows. Has she – one last time, a Mulholland Drive bit part on the cutting room floor – screwed it up for Malcolm? Or has Bill Shorten been too cynical and assured in his judgements about what his party’s supporters will put up with, such that he has made it possible Turnbull will bring this crew back for another three years?

In that case, the fix is in. So is the ’do.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 9, 2018 as "Michaelia Cash or credit?". Subscribe here.

Guy Rundle
is an author and commentator. His most recent book is Trumped! Election ’16 and the Progressive Collapse.