Article published on the occasion of Michael Costa leaving the Labor Council of NSW for a career in NSW Labor politics, Workers on Line, 21 September 2001, print edition, pp. 42-45.
There has never been a Labor Council Secretary like Michael Costa. Even though his term was the shortest of living memory, his impact is such that Michael is arguably one of the most successful Secretaries ever. Lest this be regarded as farewell hyperbole, let me outline my case.
The result of Michael’s business sense and achievements include a very financially healthy Council. He has achieved things I tried and failed to achieve – including the sale of a lease of Currawong and the takeover of the Trades Hall. This doesn’t come easy.
Costa is a hard person to know and even harder to pigeon-hole. Provocative and iconoclastic, viscerally indignant about bureaucratic inefficiency and injustice, an intellectual, he is also in many respects conservative and working class through and through. The Labor Council has produced a line of secretaries since King who could mix it on the work floor and in the board room. Few could match, however, Costa’s grasp of business and strategic nous as well as his feel for getting a message across plainly, often bluntly.
I thought I had first heard of Costa in the mid-1980s as a dissident Leftie, challenging Bernie Willingale for control of the AFULE (the train drivers’ union). Willingale had led a disastrous six-week strike against NSW Transport Minister Barrie Unsworth in 1985/86. The union members were ready for a change. The then tough talking Transport Minister created an environment that would lead to the emergence of fresh blood. Costa was elected President of the Union, attended Labor Council meetings and made an impact.
Once after a meeting of State Rail Unions, which I chaired in 1986 or 1987, I thought I had to know this person better. I took him to meet John MacBean, the then Labor Council Secretary. I imagined that Costa might have the potential to do damage or to do good. I wasn’t sure. I asked if he was an ALP member. He wasn’t. I took him to meet John Della Bosca, then the ALP Assistant Secretary. Before going into the ALP office he asked “You remember I was once in the party, don’t you?” I wondered why he would ask. To my embarrassment he explained I had expelled him, years ago. I had forgotten. I hadn’t met him at the time he was expelled, sight unseen. Later, I looked up my records. Sure enough, in 1979 I had put in an expulsion charge because he wrote for Direct Action, the official journal of the Socialist Workers’ Party. It appeared from one article in that publication, that Michael was a Youth Organiser of the SWP. In part, this put his working experience in various blue-collar jobs, including a long stint at Garden Island, in a more nuanced perspective.
Ironically, in 1979 it was Peter Costello, then claiming to be an ALP supporter, who called me to complain about this “mad Trot” he had debated at Wollongong University. I had a soft spot for Trotskyists, however odious might be their political perspective. At least most were fiercely anti-Stalinist. Most grew up. Could Michael transform himself into a social democratic, a practical union leader? I thought then (in 1986) that it was worth a punt. A decade later, he wasn’t the same person I had expelled. To cut a long story short, before I was elected Secretary in 1989, and after my various discussions with Peter Sams who strongly backed him, Michael was on the ticket to be an Organiser of the Labor Council of NSW.
Every Secretary begins their term, however hard fought, with goodwill capital. Thereafter, they spend it. If they are any good, they’ll renew and deepen support. I tried to foster a debate about the future of the union movement. This was unsettling for some erstwhile supporters. In the Labor Council, in the first phase of my leadership as Secretary, Costa and Mark Duffy, who was a Research and Workers’ Compensation Officer, were feisty and demanding. We needed to assess a number of challenges. The anti-left, ideological hold which kept the Right intact was unravelling.
The year after the collapse of the Berlin Wall saw the rapid collapse of most of the European communist regimes. The proud, anti-communist tradition would become irrelevant. More significantly, the role of unions and industrial relations strategies were the major priorities.
Some unions saw the Labor Council as too adventurist on enterprise bargaining and defending the case for enterprise unions. Early in my term it almost ended over a leaked private Labor Council Officers’ strategy paper. (Later the ideas were published in Costa’s and Duffy’s The Bonsai Economy Australian Labor in the Nineties). A howling crescendo of abuse followed. The Metal Workers called for their sackings. It was madness. Reading the stuff years later it’s hard to know what the fuss was about. At the time, I would have resigned if Costa’s resignation was forced. Most affiliates privately wondered whether he should go. Both Bill Kelty and Bob Hawke called to ask what was going on. The overwhelming majority of Labor Council delegates supported the principle that dismissal would be a mistake. In the end, despite Duffy’s departure, an important, if wounding victory occurred for thinking aloud in private.
Privately, I learnt a lot from Costa. His reading in economics was more extensive than mine. I read the classic economists as well as von Hayek and the liberal, free trade economists. How to think about a Labor approach to market reform was an urgent priority. The election of the Greiner government in 1988 required the Labor Council to probe for weaknesses in the government on the legislative and workers’ compensation fronts especially, and strike a sensible balance between reform and opposition. Costa played a key role in that evolving strategy.
Costa helped make happen difficult things. For example, as joint head of Chifley Financial Services, in battling for better management of the Council’s businesses. When Barrie Unsworth became Head of Radio Station 2KY and began to turn around the Station’s fortunes, I posted Costa to be there for two reasons. I thought his business and financial acumen could be well applied. Second, because I hoped Barrie would mentor him. If they clicked and worked as a team, Costa would then be recharged and stay the distance. I gambled on that.
After my failed attempt to go to the Senate, Costa urged me to stay and fight. His judgment was sounder than mine when I suddenly decided to run for the Senate in 1994. He told me to pull out early. I didn’t. I wanted to leave. I hadn’t prepared the ground with affiliates. The AWU, a traditional ally, was offside supporting another candidate. With the Prime Minister and the triumvirate of Della Bosca, McLeay and Hutchins opposed to me, with numerous leaks to the press, I was a goner. No one in my position should lose so badly. I misread the political landscape. Michael’s loyalty was intense, dedicated and appreciated. I feared, however, that unless I made a rapid departure, that the Labor Council officers’ power base would be eroded. That would mean that Costa could fail to be elected. He wasn’t then, in 1994, everyone’s favourite to become Assistant Secretary. He succeeded because of Peter Sam’s insistence that the Secretary choose his Deputy and that Michael was the best person for the job. That long simmering battle between principally many of the same people played itself out, one more time, with the election of John Robertson as Secretary upon Michael’s departure.
The transformation of the Council’s base was the hardest part of Michael’s achievement, with some parts of the traditional base dismayed at bringing into the office Lefties and centre-leaning union leaders. To do otherwise, however, was death. Michael continued what Peter Sams and I began, but would have found very hard to further implement. The Right could not have survived a continuation of factional divisions and ways of behaving that were more relevant to the Cold War period. In achieving that transformation, Michael was in a tradition of Labor Council Secretaries adapting to the times; and shaping the coalition that could stand behind them. So, in this respect, he built on a past tradition and ethos which, if meaningful, never stops still.
Let me explain the point.
A lot of people don’t know what they mean when they refer to the NSW Right. It’s always been a coalition, and has evolved over time. Coalition building is always a dynamic process. In the early 1940s, when the Labor Council leadership decisively beat the communist left, the Labor Council was anti-communist, laborist and focused on working to elect a Labor government. This coincided with the rise of Grouper influence and sharp distinctions between Left and Right. The Split added a new element of bitterness and competition.
The impact of the Split was contained by the Right leadership of the Council electing to be less active in the party and more neutral on the larger political issues. Absurdly enough, at a weekly Labor Council meeting in 1955 the Labor Council President even ruled that discussing politics was out of order. The laborist tradition, however, consolidated with a sustained period of NSW Labor governments in the 1950s and 1960s. In the latter 1960s, the New Right gradually emerged and became more aggressive in advancing their interests. That was the period when John Ducker emerged as undisputed leader with his able supporters, Barrie Unsworth and John MacBean. The Labor Council Officers developed a reputation as progressive, imaginative leaders. In the late 1960s and 1970s, they supported Whitlam and Wran and the emergence of a modern ALP.
In Unsworth’s time as secretary (1979 to 1984), the Labor Council courted white collar unions; the Bank Employees, the nurses, the insurance union and many others all affiliated. A centrist, a non-Right leader of the Bank Employees, Dawson Petie, later Secretary of the Queensland Trades Hall Council, became a Labor Council Vice President. This was the beginning of building a new coalition that could last.
Lest this note appear too uncritical, I have heard some sharp things said against Michael. For example, I gather that there was a decline in joke-telling at Labor Council meetings, from about say the mid-1990s. He must bear some responsibility for that loss.
For Michael, the past 12 years at the Labor Council have been intense, rewarding, exhausting, lonely, the best years of his life. There’s a paradox at the heart of the man. Sometimes there’s a keen tension between his conflicting beliefs and outlooks. Many of us have wondered if his abrasive, sometimes extreme couldn’t-care-a-less-what-you-think perspective might cause him to go up in flames. Those tensions, the paradox, seem however to be one of this strengths.
The first migrant Secretary – his Greek Cypriot background set him apart from the six immediate predecessors, the first four of whom were converts to Catholicism and the following two also adherents to that faith. He wasn’t the first Secretary to have once been expelled from the ALP. But he was the first ex-Trot. He broke many traditions, sold 2KY and radically shifted the Council’s power base.
Not a bad act. We have not seen anything like it. One day soon, I suspect a similar observation might be passed on his role as a minister in a NSW Labor government.
When I resigned as Labor Council secretary in 1994, my dearest wish was that Michael Costa become Assistant Secretary of the Labor Council and therefore a future successor.
From 1994 to 2001, in those roles, he did a very good job.
As a minister, he was effective, combative, and razor sharp in his analysis. Too combative and too razor sharp in his critique of some colleagues. He was never political enough. Politics requires persuading a majority in any given room to go with you. If at first you do not succeed…
Bernie Riordan once told me that when I was Labor Council Secretary, I brought the best out of Costa. A consequence of my not being in parliament, he thought, was that there was no-one there who through force of intellect could discipline him and temper his natural instinct to shock and awe. Maybe. I am not sure. That the movement and NSW ALP Right would take a bazooka, point the weapon at themselves, and blow their brains out, as ultimately happened with the leadership turmoil and privatisation debacle under Iemma, was once unthinkable. How do you hold your raw emotions in the face of that?