It was not just the idiosyncratic prose that kept reminding me of David Sachet's brilliant portrayal of Inspector Poirot ("a minister most diligent"). It was not just the soaring piles of unsubstantiated assertions which made me feel giddy at times. The book jacket suggests that Cavalier is something of an historian, but this work is anything but a rigorous examination of known facts. Cavalier makes swingeing asides at people he doesn't like, while urging us to believe that a parade of forgettable characters (Iemma, Rees, Robertson et al) are somehow much more than they seem to be, and are popularly, believed to be. I am impressed that Nathan Rees can quote slabs of the Great Gatsby (it's one of my favourites) but I'm not sure this is really a skill required for the role of NSW Premier. I also grew quickly bored with Cavalier's efforts to portray recent NSW ALP conferences, and their attendant leadership crises, as great pieces of dramatic theatre. It all seems horribly tedious and tawdry. He fails in this effort to escalate the ordinary to something Shakespearean, not least because his prose is not up to it, but also because he is biased - and great drama requires great tension, a sense that we can see both sides of the argument at once. In Cavalier's version of the saga, from the start, the forces in favour of privatisation are wrong, and evil betrayers of the sacred PLEDGE.
When it comes to the PLEDGE, Cavalier adopts an ethical position straight out of gangland. MPs are created (made?) by the party and they are, therefore, owned by the party. Efforts by various Ministers to argue that their election to Parliament by the people counts for something, and that this gives them greater obligations, are simply dismissed by Cavalier as ludicrous. In reality, political parties can endorse parliamentary candidates but they cannot control them. When they seek to control them, the consequence is disastrous.
In addition, of course, and even though he hardly does anything to consider the weight of argument, Cavalier being an old leftie is anti-privatisation. He gives it away because anti privatisation speakers are always making telling points and the pro-privatisation case is always belittled in his description of what passes for debate at ALP conferences.
Cavalier hates unions. He hates the fact that unions dominate the ALP organisation. But he misses the point that this only really matters when the party seeks to dictate to MPs. He is utterly dismissive of anyone who thinks unions should be affiliated to the ALP. Yet, he argues (with a straight face) that Iemma, rather than defying Conference, should have led a charge to make unions irrelevant in the ALP. He does acknowledge that Iemma would have been destroyed in the attempt.
Cavalier claims that something called the 'political class' (largely union officials, political staffers and wannabes) has taken over the ALP and that (now that unions are irrelevant in his view) the way to liberation and revival is to kick unions out of the party they created. Many of the points he makes about the political class etc are old hat and have been dealt with in the literature on political parties for several decades. Cavalier seems to hold a 'field of dreams' hope that if unions are kicked out then the members will come flocking back. Maybe a comparison to the American Indian Ghost Dance cult of a century ago is more apposite here.
Cavalier knows that unions created the ALP, in a real sense it is their party, always was, always will be. If Cavalier wants a party 'free' of union domination why doesn't he do the honest thing and set up another party without the "Labor" brand. But he knows that would not work. Unions have real problems, they face crises of relevance, they over-reached on electricity privatisation. But the ALP is still in a real sense their party. You can't just wish away a century of history. Especially, when there doesn't seem to be anything to replace "Labor" with. Cavalier ties himself up in knots on this stuff of whose party it is really and never resolves the contradictions in his own position.
Unsurprisingly, because it ill-suits his purpose, Cavalier makes only two brief, and dismissive, mentions of the unions campaign against Howard's Work Choices and their highly significant contribution to the election of the Rudd Government.
It is Cavalier's unwillingness to confront inconvenient facts and to work through contradictions that is ultimately the biggest problem with this book. That and a lack of any sense of how Labor's current difficulties might be resolved.
(Update 17.4.2011 - I wrote a piece on the unions-ALP relationship for ABC Unleashed, published on thursday. The text is available here. I also wrote a paper for last year's Australian Political Science Association on the unions-ALP relationship using some of the research for my phd (due for submission in August). That paper is available here.)