The Delusions of a True Believer
At the sour point of the 2019 federal election, I was shitfaced in the Fremantle tennis club men’s room, slurring my way through a drunken rendition of The Red Flag. As I sang, I thought: bastards … useless ratf*ck bastards … couldn’t raffle a chook in a bloody pub. Just useless.
Two men entered, commented on what I was singing, and joined in. I spilled out of the stall with my face screwed up and snarled ‘bastards!’ to no one in particular.
The men, pushing 70, their jackets marked with the patches of the M.U.A, looked me up and down:
‘Jesus young fella, I thought you were one of us the way you were going on.’
I looked at them, then at myself in the mirror—pissed, red-faced, sour.
One of us.
My relationship with the ALP is one grounded in faith. The go to phrase has always been ‘I was raised in the party like it was the church’. I wish, more than ever, that this was an exaggeration, but the ALP is as baked into my DNA as OCD and hereditary bowel disease: an essential cornerstone of my genetic makeup.
My great grandfather Edmund Gray left school at 14, was an apprentice baker and confectioner, a smelter, a timber worker, a tally clerk at Fremantle wharf, a union man, a socialist, and, eventually, a member of the Western Australian legislative council from 1923 to 1952. His daughter Francis, my grandmother, was John Curtin’s secretary at the Westralian Worker—my mum’s family remains a horde of unionists, socialists, and fellow travellers. And my father, a loudmouthed (literal) bastard and ten pound pom fresh from the food-stamp slums of postwar Sunderland, a fitter and turner by trade, was radicalised by my mother while dating her, eventually rising through the ranks of the steel worker’s union in the 1970s, and on to a 30 year career as a Labor MP.
Bob Hawke put his dad in a nursing home over the phone in my parents’ living room, Paul Keating bounced me on his shoulder as a baby, and I witnessed my mother call John Howard a cunt to his face (though she denies this now [mum, there were witnesses!]).
My childhood was a blur of door-knocking, RSL fundraisers, election nights, picket lines, factional gossiping, branch meetings, and most importantly of all, remembrances—those of the old battlers, the mothballed martyrs, and the self-important bullshit artists otherwise known as the true believers.
As a small boy, I’d attend branch meetings with my mum. This was back when the rusted on Trotskyites and their compadres were still regulars at such things, particularly in Fremantle, a working port town with a proud union history. Fremantle being Fremantle, the meetings were a ramshackle mix of wild characters. Ex wharfies, truck drivers, and brickies with torn red faces, their hands like gravel, long ponytails and wild beards that always made me think they knew the dwarves from The Hobbit. Drunks and lunatics bar none, but all friends and all faithful—people who had passed beyond zealotry and into living memedom—breathing, hissing, pamphlets that rehashed debates that should have petered out with the death of Lenin, let alone the rise of Kim Beazley. They were hurt, and bitter, and angry to the point of dysfunction, but it allowed them to imbue everything they did and said with an immense amount of feeling, to the point where you’d tear up listening to them debate the construction of a new roundabout, or go full soapbox politico on the introduction of bike lanes. I was a little kid, so they managed to both terrify me and bore me to tears with their ravings, while at the same time existing as living assurance that by being here, by being a party member, you stood for something, you shared something, you were part of the narrative, and the narrative was to be remembered.
To be a Laborite was to be a historian and a storyteller. The victories of the past must be re-lived, on loop, and so must the betrayals. Grudges were not to be forgotten, enemies were never to be forgiven, and the heroes, the champions of the working multitudes, were to be idolised and deified until they were raised up, tantalisingly, just beyond your reach, like film-stars, Olympic athletes, or demigods.
A portrait of Whitlam hung outside my bedroom door like a votive to a beloved saint. Pray to saint Gough that Howard doesn’t win a second term. Pray to saint Gough that the strike can come to an end. Pray to saint Gough that Mark Latham isn’t actually a nutter. And when prayer crashed against polling, and the ballots rolled in, and the curs won another pennant, you could comfort yourself by knowing that Gough too suffered and lost, and that our suffering brings us closer to him.
The thing about being born into a religion, as opposed to converting to it, is that you’re much quicker to lose your faith. You still sing the hymns, hail the Mary’s, and nod to the apostles, but you start to suspect that the priest might be dodgy, the Bishop is on the take, and that the church itself is buckling under the weight of its own hypocrisy and rot.
I never joined the ALP, which in my family is a bit like wagging your confirmation. I just couldn’t do it. I’ve been left of every major ALP policy platform since Keating sold Qantas (note: I was born in 1990). I’ve found myself voting for them out of a profound sense of familial duty (and guilt), hearing my mother’s voice in my head the same way I do when I turn down a bump of coke. To be raised a Laborite is to believe in ghosts, and the ghosts bear witness to our every move, vote, and swing, or so it feels.
Only recently have I managed to put a Green first, even though I live in one of the country’s safest Labor seats and fully understand the kindly ways of preferential voting. As I said, OCD runs in the family, and perhaps this was just another habit I had to struggle to break—another compulsion whose root was planted long before my birth.
This break was a long time coming.
By the time I was a teenager I realised the only ‘true’ Laborite I’d ever met in my life was my mother, who remains one of those rare humanist socialists who will quite literally give you the shirt off their back, a ride to wherever you’re going, and a hot meal (or three), no matter the cost to herself.
As an organiser she was/remains legendary, someone who had dedicated their life to fighting for political accessibility, making sure the party didn’t abandon or neglect their more vulnerable members: the disabled, the unemployed, the chronically ill, the mad, the immigrant, and the ancient. She was the one the bullshit artists turned to when their bullshit ran out, the one doing the actual work, the kind that gets you little in the way of thanks or respect, but does win elections.
As a kid, it was hard to witness her practice what the others only preached: her selflessness stood (stands) in stark contrast with their selfishness. As I grew older, the annoyance I felt turned to contempt, as I witnessed my mother and people like her run over roughshod by a party overspilling with wonks, lobbyists, charlatans, landlords, sociopaths, and worst of all, Tories.
The Young Labor meetings I attended at UWA made me feel like the kid from Come and See. Student politicians are spoken of in the same breath as public masturbators and amateur phrenologists for a reason, but to witness them up close in a pack is truly something else. The private school to law school to staffer to MP to me-too’d former MP to think-tank advisor pipeline is one lubricated by a chain of mean-eyed reach arounds, fuelled by an unceasing fountain of narcissism, righteousness, and bootlicking. Ten years on and I see that some of the worst of these Tyranids now hold major staff positions with federal members, and worse yet, think-tanks.
People who have been politicking since their late teens are only capable of one thing and one thing only, and that’s more politicking. They are as removed from the simple empathic gestures of basic humanity as Microsoft Word’s Clippy, or Dragon Ball Z’s Frieza. Walking disconnections, who claim they want to bring us together but only know how to do so as pie-charts and bar graphs.
I almost wish it was these people and these petty grievances alone that drove me away from the ALP, but I’d be lying. It was the party itself, of course. The decades long swing to the right and the hell-bent determination to match The Enemy (for that is how I know them) in their cruelty and criminality has made whatever good the ALP claims to stand for seem, by association, rotten. In W.A., the party is little more than a wing of the mining industry, a purposefully beige cypher nursing us through the hard comedown of the boom years. Nationally, it is a soulless android stuck in a cycle of reboots and reconfigs, eternally processing data real and projected, walking like a mime through a minefield, eerily silent and off-putting, as it pushes against the walls of an invisible box which it insists it can’t find its way out of. In opposition, well, to borrow a phrase, it flogs the government like warm lettuce. Meek, robotic, empty.
When Shorten lost to Morrison in 2019 I felt that long-held contempt curdle to hatred in my gut. How could you lose to such a man? To such an ideology? After so many years of the Coalition’s corrupt, inept, nastiness…how? Bill Shorten always looked and appealed to me like an upturned empty jar of Vaseline, but I believed you could run a discarded Sybian against Scott Morrison and win because he was, tragically for him, Scott Morrison. After Abbott’s Quixotic self-destruction, Turnbull’s rectal disappearing act, all ‘they’ had left was Himmler Potato-head and Morrison, a man so seemingly banal he’d give Hannah Arendt narcolepsy.
Morrison is the purest representation of conservative thought ever put forward by the Australian Right in that he is a void: the perfect vessel for an ideology with nothing to it but nihilism, destruction, and greed.
Every dyed in the wool leftist anywhere has always understood that the void’s greatest weakness is our greatest strength. The void offers nothingness, we offer something (some would argue we are too many things). To beat the void, you just have to fill it. It hates action, ideas, and community. Offer that, and it’s kaput. Feed it more nothing, however, and it grows and grows and grows.
Somehow, somewhere along the line, the ALP decided to do just that. We met it’s nothingness (bespoke, purposeful, all to real) with our nothingness (uncertain, shoddy, illusory) again and again and again, and despaired when nothing but big hollow nothingness won out.
Under Albanese, the ALP has fallen hard for this simple parlour trick. Albanese himself is the product of the decades of self-mythologising and solipsistic yarn-spinning. He is an abstract ripped from the Labor mythos: a boy with a single mum who grew up on benefits in government housing and rose to lead the party that once leant down to hoist him up. Tragically for the ALP, this story is chained to a 30-year political career. Albanese has emerged from the focus-group pods like the monster from The Fly: Brundle-Albo, a sick mix of relatability indexes, factional lobbying, and audience feedback. He’s like a custom character avatar straight out of Dark Souls: refreshed a thousand times into a formless, spineless, husk.
So what are we left with? A Prime Minister and Opposition Leader that come off like factory mistakes of the same Happy Meal toys. Two parties that more closely resemble the monstrous hate-filled blob at the end of Akira then they do two competing ideologies, fusing their outlooks in a self-defeating attempt to out scum one another.
It seems mad to hold out hope that this will change, mad even to presume that electoral politics at is stands will be able to handle much of anything that the mid-21st century has to offer. The ALP seems intent on fossilising itself with self-congratulation and ‘compromise.’ The plan as it stands seems to be to drift so close to the right that people stop expecting you to wash up elsewhere. The bastardy holds no more surprises, and thus won’t sting as bad.
The light on the hill is now the tail end of a birthday candle sitting on a melting cake crammed in the back of a mini-fridge in some think-tank’s boardroom. At this point, for those of us whose faith lies in real and radical progress, it’s impossible to be a true believer and be true to your beliefs.