Few will mourn the political death of David Feeney, the amnesiac Labor backbencher who has now fallen to Section 44. Feeney’s career in the House of Representatives produced only two moments of heroic distinction.
First, during the 2016 federal election, when Labor was aggressively campaigning around housing affordability and negative gearing, it emerged that Feeney forgot that he owned a $2.3 million investment property. When pressed, he also forgot that it was negatively geared.
Now, his follow-up act: throughout the prolonged turmoil of the citizenship debacle, Feeney forgot that he was a dual citizen. When reminded, Feeney reassured everyone that he possessed paperwork that would clear his name – he just forgot what he’d done with it.
Feeney once showed skill as a very successful campaign organiser. He led a couple of significant electoral victories for the ALP, and would have expected eventual reward for services rendered under the patronage system of that party.
And, indeed, after being elected a senator, he was parachuted into the northern Melbourne seat of Batman, once one of the safest Labor electorates in Australia.
Suitably for a man with such expectations, Feeney became habituated to a degree of political forgetfulness. An ally of the right wing Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association leadership – until recently, one of the most powerful pro-discrimination sub-factions within the ALP – Feeney voted against marriage equality in the parliament about a dozen times.
It was only some time after the retirement of arch-reactionary Joe de Bruyn from the SDA’s leadership that Feeney suddenly remembered his passionate support for social equality and sexual freedom.
After years of holding back social progress and voting for homophobic discrimination, Feeney switched his position just in time to celebrate the 71.2 percent yes vote in his own electorate.
This mysterious cognitive disorder was not unique to Feeney. It afflicted everyone from Julia Gillard to Penny Wong, only for them all to undergo an incredible simultaneous awakening suitable for study by Oliver Sacks.
Feeney had another awakening, just before his political life support was turned off. As his once safe Labor seat became a Labor-Greens marginal, Feeney suddenly remembered a lifelong love of the Great Barrier Reef, and a passionate hatred of carbon pollution.
The day before he gave up and resigned from parliament, Feeney spent the day telling anyone who would listen that he wanted to spend his career fighting against the Adani coal mine in Queensland.
It’s a curious political vocation for a right wing Melbourne Labor hack, but perhaps related to the fact that in the 2016 federal election, Feeney’s primary vote trailed the Greens’ Alex Bhathal; he scraped into office only due to Liberal preferences.
But even his new progressive-green political persona couldn’t save Feeney from the ultimate judgment once he had committed the capital crime of Labor right politics: fucking up his paperwork.
What is Feeney’s legacy? As an individual, very little. His electorate office has for years served as a spawning ground for morally deformed right wing Labor students, who mimic his right wing attitudes and sudden changes of belief. They are the only ones who mourn his departure.
Feeneyism will live on, though. He fought for the election of unprincipled Laborites – himself above all – who did nothing to advance social progress, and usually held it back. To win the approbation of the powerful, they back social conservatism and discrimination, cuts to vital services and crooked arrangements between bosses and senior union officials to hold down workers’ wages.
Under pressure from public opinion, and in competition with the Greens, they occasionally posture as advocates of the downtrodden, as long as they can “forget” their multi-million dollar property investments during an election campaign.
But once they’re back in parliament, it’s back to business as usual.
Feeney is no different in that respect from Shorten – also a social conservative, and a member of the economic elite whose style of trade unionism is responsible for the economic inequality he now decries.
Now that Batman is headed for a by-election, Shorten is suddenly harbouring doubts about the Adani coal mine. And Feeney’s memory trouble is already afflicting the woman who wishes to succeed him. ACTU president Ged Kearney, nominated as the Labor candidate, has already managed to forget her heartfelt opposition to Labor’s inhuman refugee policies.
Feeney is gone, and will soon be forgotten, like a $2.3 million negatively geared house. But his ALP will endure.