One Halal of a Story
By Sam Dastyari | Melbourne University Press | $29.99 | 277 pages
If you’ve ever felt unloved, unappreciated or just ignored, imagine what it would feel like to be a federal parliamentarian without a Melbourne University Press contract. It’s a worse snub than being left out of the popular group at school.
There was once a time when politicians used to wait until they were retired, or at least had a few decades of solid parliamentary service under their belts, before favouring us with a memoir. The very titles of Sir Robert Menzies’ two volumes — Afternoon Light and The Measure of the Years — exude the kind of mellow detachment that comes only with a post-retirement scotch and dry at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.
Billy Hughes’s Crusts and Crusades might seem more enticing than his Policies and Potentates, but both appeared when he was in his eighties, his long and colourful political life all but over. The Labor MP Gil Duthie’s choice of I Had 50,000 Bosses hinted at a career of busyness, if not harassment, while Les Haylen reflected even more bluntly on Twenty Years’ Hard Labor. Arthur Calwell’s Be Just and Fear Not announced that he would be keeping the faith even in the face of the humiliation delivered by the Whitlam whirlwind.
These days, though, three years in the Senate seems sufficient to get you over the line. Barack Obama might well have something to answer for here. Dreams from My Father came before rather than after the presidency, indeed before his campaign for the Illinois Senate. It was one of the instruments that enabled him to persuade the country that gave the world Jim Crow and Donald Trump that it should elect a black man — the son of a Kenyan immigrant, no less — to the highest office in the land.
But as former vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen might have put it, “Senator Dastyari, you’re no Barry Obama.” To be fair, claiming to be the next Barack Obama seems the very last thing Senator Dastyari is likely to do. As Martin McKenzie Murray recently put it in the Saturday Paper, “he is a master of self-effacement.” Dastyari does share with Obama an unusual family background, as the Iranian-born son of university-educated migrants who had been politically active in Iran and lucky to survive the ordeal.
Dastyari’s family story appears in the early part of the book. The dangers of being involved in Iranian politics in an age of revolution and war might have served as the context for reflection on the kind of politics pursued in Australia by Dastyari. For all its alleged hardness, the latter might well seem like play-acting to anyone — like his parents — who’d had close experience of the Iranian version. But the book is too loosely structured to achieve anything much of this sort, and the author’s taste for extended self-reflection seems rather limited.
Dastyari does understand all too well that modern politics is a form of showmanship: “If you want to achieve cut-through in the public, you have to make it worth watching. That was something that I learnt early.” Here is a man who, to break out of his “inner-city Labor bubble,” turns up in the town of Parkes not on any old weekend, but for its Elvis Festival. And naturally he dresses for the part — as “Halal Elvis.”
But this aptitude for razzamatazz surely works in Dastyari’s favour in this era of 24/7 news, rule by tweet and political cooking shows. Even the dreariest News Corp journalist, political has-been or jaded ex-staffer can now leverage solid C-grade celebrity status off the back of regular appearances on Sky News. In such times, Dastyari’s flamboyant exposure of the venality of corporate tax evasion and the financial advice industry is probably worth the price of whatever it is we’ve been paying him.
The rather elaborate gimmick that structures One Halal of a Story apparently unfolds from Dastyari’s 2016 election-night invitation to Pauline Hanson to join him in a celebratory halal meal. (She impolitely declined.) The book is a paper, ink and codex version of a halal snack pack, its twenty-nine chapters divided into five parts — the box, the base, the cheese, the meat and the sauces — with the inside cover providing appropriate halal certification.
None of this should be taken too seriously, of course. The product on offer is not a halal snack pack. The product is Sam Dastyari.
The reason why he has the leisure to write a book is well known. Sam is cooling his heels on the backbench after allowing a businessman closely connected with the government of China to pay what he describes as “a $1670 office travel expense.” When he was quoted in the Chinese media apparently making sympathetic noises about that country’s territorial claims to the South China Sea, it was a bad look — bad enough for him to resign his recently acquired shadow ministry.
He experienced this scandal as a humiliating blow. Here was a man who had lived and breathed politics since his teenage years, rising to general secretary of the NSW branch of the Labor Party at the ripe old age of twenty-six. Having to resign over a matter as seemingly trivial as the payment of a $1670 travel bill — roughly the price of a long liquid lunch in Chinatown for a group of Labor Party luminaries with something to plot, mourn or celebrate — was no part of the plan.
With his Melbourne University Press contract and, as a senator, no electorate to fuss over, Dastyari was soon churning out a therapeutic 1000 words a day. Fortunately for all concerned, he turned out to be a “fabulous” writer — or so the chief executive of MUP, Louise Adler, assures us — and this book is the happy outcome of their literary association.
Dastyari’s predicament can be seen in at least a couple of ways. The case against him can be made fairly simply: substitute “Russian” for “Chinese” and “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” for “People’s Republic of China,” and then place the story thirty-five years ago. It’s not just Sam’s political career that would have been over. He’d also have struggled to find anyone willing to employ him in one of the usual lucrative jobs pursued by the political class when they’re done with voters. Once the dust had settled, Sam might have been able to look forward to an eventual diplomatic posting to one of the lesser Soviet republics. (Something a bit like this happened in 1983 after David Combe became entangled with a Russian diplomat whom ASIO judged a KGB agent. The ex-Labor official and ruined lobbyist eventually touched down as trade commissioner to Vancouver.)
But a more benign reading is both possible and arguably more sensible. This isn’t 1954, the year of the royal commission into espionage, or even 1983, the year of the Combe–Ivanov affair and Dastyari’s birth. There’s no evidence that Dastyari has a more developed sense of entitlement than the general run of the political class. For if recent history is any guide, some of these humble servants of the people expect the taxpayer to subsidise their family holidays, attendance at interstate birthday parties, trips to football finals, bidding at real estate auctions, and even paid advertisements attacking ABC journalists — to say nothing of the party fundraiser racket.
Dastyari is good at seeming to be frank while telling us very little: “Information is power; details are currency for trade. And so the goal becomes being seen to speak, without giving anything away.” There are plenty of moments in the book — both eloquent utterances and meaningful silences — that exemplify the point. “Coming into parliament, I was quick to realise that I really had no idea what power was, and what it actually meant,” he says. “All my life I had thought that parliament, and political parties, were the ultimate decision makers in Australia. It was a rude shock to see how much influence business and industry wielded in Canberra — incredible!” This from a man who ran the NSW Labor Party, and was responsible for chasing the business donations needed to keep it afloat.
In fact, we learn little from One Halal of a Story about how the Labor Party works. It’s a world that Dastyari must know rather well, to put it mildly. He does tell us that he rings his father-in-law regularly for advice. This might seem odd, except that Dastyari has married into the Labor gentry; his wife is the daughter of Hawke adviser and NSW Right legend Peter Barron. But when he’s being particularly coy, Dastyari conveys an impression of Labor that really makes one wonder whether he wishes to be taken seriously. Here’s how he explains the ballot for general secretary of the NSW branch: “By the time that delegates have been selected, the ballot is sorted. That is the part that makes the difference. The cups of tea at houses, the time spent with delegates before the conference. The vote itself comes at the end of all that.”
No factions, and no factional warlords. No unions. No bloc votes. Just a few cups of tea, a bit of glad-handing, and an exchange of pleasantries. One can understand a young senator whose career depends on the continuing support of the party machine not wishing to foul the nest. But does he consider the rest of us so naive?
Dastyari sheds little light on the meltdown during the final years of the late and unlamented state Labor government. He clearly found it depressing: how could he not? But it’s too easy to describe it as a government that did good things but had “some really bad people occupying positions of responsibility.” The reason we had to suffer Eddie Obeid, Ian Macdonald and the other assorted deadbeats whose dirty linen has been aired by ICAC and the Fairfax press is not that they accidentally slipped into positions for which they were temperamentally unsuited. Rather, the NSW Labor power system provided the villains and deadbeats with such generous and effective protection for so many years.
This has been a story of power, preferment and pragmatism, a story of who you know and, sometimes, what you know about them. “Whatever it takes,” as Dastyari’s mentor, Graham Richardson, put it in the title of his own memoir; it’s surely the unofficial motto of the NSW Labor Right. Obeid, Macdonald and their mates were products of a system that privileged the art of the deal (and the long lunch) over ethical standards most of us would simply take for granted. That same culture — apparently so formidable in its pull on the loyalty of individuals — was utterly ineffective in preventing or even discouraging a few well-connected shysters from breaking the law when it stood in the way of their making a motza from a shonky mining lease or some other fraud.
Dastyari’s disgust with these crims, crooks and charlatans is unquestionably sincere, but he isn’t really interested in helping us see how the culture of the NSW party enabled their misdeeds. His career up to this point has depended on serving his faction faithfully; his future is likely to depend on preserving what is left of the NSW Right’s diminished power and authority.
So, among the final chapters of the book, there is a doting account of an ailing Graham Richardson: “If the Labor Party were Microsoft, Graham would be our Bill Gates… he is both a mate and a father figure.” There is a not terribly revealing sketch of Kevin Rudd that tells us he was rather demanding. (Who’d have thought?) There’s a hymn of praise to the current general secretary of the NSW Labor Party, Kaila Murnain, acclaimed as “The One to Watch.” (It would be peculiar if she were not “One to Watch” considering that the track from general secretary to federal Senate has been travelled by so many of her predecessors, including Dastyari himself.)
And, as befits a man on a mission to rehabilitate his career, he includes a final chapter on “Bill Shorten: The One Who Will Be King.” (One of McKenzie-Murray’s sources told him that Sam was rather less convinced that Shorten would be king late in 2015, and appeared to be sounding out support for Anthony Albanese.)
One Halal of a Story contains a good deal of padding. We learn of the author’s favourite TV shows when growing up, the unskilled car-driving of a friend, the mixed pleasures of group-house living, pets’ names, friends’ weddings and kids’ concerts. Especially in the early part of the book, there’s quite a lot of ethnic comedy of the “those zany Iranians” type, but there are also some thoughtful reflections on growing up as “different” in the western Sydney of the 1990s, at the time when Pauline Hanson first emerged as the raw and authentic voice of Australian bigotry.
You sense in the end, however, that what we have here is “premature autobiography,” to borrow a phrase from the historian Paul Bourke. It’s not that youngish people should avoid the genre at all costs: Alexander the Great and Richard III had lived rather full lives by the time they reached their thirties. But celebrity biography and memoir — and that’s essentially what we’re dealing with here — can be tedious for any reader who is not signed up to the relevant fan club. And while Dastyari is no slouch as a writer and obviously has a big brain, it’s hard to leverage minor political celebrity status into a book with real oomph, not least when it’s so obviously part of a campaign to restart a stalled career. In the end, he understands all too well that he needs to keep his powder dry.
All the signs, in any case, are that Dastyari will be given a second chance. That’s as it should be. He’s clearly a skilled operative, an imaginative politician and a media magnet, even if his judgement has on occasion been poor. The Chinese jokes will continue to follow him around but that’s the way it is in the internet age and they probably won’t do him lasting harm, provided his ambitions don’t run to international or security policy.
All the same, there is a distractedness about this book, as there seems to be about Dastyari’s political style in general; a habit of skating over shiny surfaces and moving on to the next set of colourful lights before the last lot have really been taken in, by him or anyone else. His nickname, “Dasher,” is strikingly apt, as Australian nicknames so often are. Dastyari himself evokes this aspect of the political culture of which he is a lively product — its unrelenting pace — in some of the best passages of this book. As he puts it, “everyone is only ever half-listening to what anyone else has to say.”
And there’s also an evocative chapter on what happens to a good idea — as well as its bearer — once both are subjected to the rigours of the modern political system. As ever, Dastyari adopts the perspective of the insider–outsider that comes with the political setback: he reminds us that, as a party official, he has run the focus groups that have contributed to killing off promising ideas. Such comments, of course, can appear insincere; he has been criticised as hypocritical for advocating a clean-up of business contributions to political parties when his own career has been so devoted to extracting money from such donors.
But perhaps a case might be made that the driver responsible for getting the truck stuck in the bog is best placed to help get it out. Dastyari can’t quite be made to bear that much responsibility, but he has undoubtedly been an influential operative in a powerful political machine for a decade or so. It is discouraging that, despite the privileged vantage point and considerable sway that his access has given him, he seems to have so few bright ideas about what might be done to alleviate the afflictions of our current politics. ●
First published 10 October 2017