Graham Richardson's legacy


Comment by Max Lane

Senator Graham Richardson, 44, is retiring from politics, probably to enter business. This is symbolic of the likely new niche that parliament will have in the career paths of those who enter the service of big business in Australia. First, a research or administrative position in a trade union or in the ALP machine, then parliament for a few years and then into business. In fact, Bob Hawke has set a bit of a precedent.

An enormous amount of hype surrounds Richardson's resignation. He himself continues to use his media contacts and skills to cultivate the myth: the plain-speaking, bluff, jocular but number-crunching figure, concerned for the environment.

But Graham Richardson's real legacy is the legacy of the ALP government: more than 1 million unemployed, real wages down 30%, schools closed and other public services squeezed, huge waiting lists for hospitals, foreign policies that include the war against Bougainville, the betrayal of East Timor and the sabotage of the Cambodian economy and political system.

But then "Richo" — such a disarmingly matey nickname — would claim his little enlightened personal contributions, especially in the environmental area. His main claim to fame is usually argued to be the World Heritage listing for Daintree and protected status for Kakadu. But these were victories of the activists in the environmental movement, whose struggle had forced the Hawke government during Barry Cohen's time as environmental minister to start on the track to adopting these policies.

"Richo's" special contribution was to turn these victories of the environmental movement into a means to co-opt the leadership of the environmental peak bodies. He was the mastermind of the political manoeuvring of the ALP government which has made the environmental movement an increasingly ineffective force in Australian politics. The fact that the government has taken no real action on reducing greenhouse gases or CFCs, that uranium is still mined, that forests are still chipped, that there is no effective policing of industrial waste management — environmental disasters continue to a significant extent because of Richardson.

The real measure of his environmental contributions is not the individual act of conservation here or there but what his political manoeuvring has meant for the environmental movement and the environment: it has meant continuing disaster.

He never cared about this. He was a master in seeming to care, the art of the career hypocrite. Ditto for health. The whole direction of policy under the ALP has been towards a two-tier health system: a well financed one for the rich and an increasingly dilapidated one for the rest of us.

Richardson was a proponent of further institutionalising the two-tier system by forcing higher income people into private insurance. If the rich lose any vested interest in the public health sector, you can be sure that the squeeze on public health and hospitals will become even greater.

To have 11% unemployment, to have tens of thousands of young people unproductive and unfulfilled, to have older people being thrown on the scrap heap, to have no real government environmental campaigns and for the public health system to be getting worse instead of better: these are all evidence of criminal neglect for which "Richo" could be judged an accessory before, during and after the fact.

There is one more "contribution" for which Richardson can be held responsible along with the rest of his party's leadership: the gutting of what little internal democracy existed inside the ALP. Richardson was one of the key figures who completed the transformation of the ALP from a mass party, with some actual activists, into a united font of factional machines which decide everything and members have less and less say on anything. That's why there are fewer and fewer members.

Ironically, this may be one of the real contributions to Australian society that the history books will claim for Graham Richardson: that he helped separate the ALP from its mass base and weakened its ability to fight off a challenge from a real workers' movement when it re-emerges to fill the vacuum.

For that at least, thank you, "Richo".