TO THE victor go the spoils. For Mark Victor Arbib, a brief but breathtaking political career was built riding victories he helped engineer, or by vanquishing former allies whose usefulness had expired.
Although he spent six years as a senator, and four of them as a minister, Arbib was the essential backroom political manipulator, employing skills and clout honed in the cut-throat murkiness of Labor's Sussex Street headquarters.
Like many of his predecessors as ALP general secretary in New South Wales, he was important more for his fix on numbers than his grasp of policy. He was the political operative of almost legendary status, understanding exquisitely how to make the powerful and the inconsequential fall into line in the name of party interest, all the while with an eye to sectional advantage.
"I hope all members see this gesture as a way for the party to go forward," he said yesterday, of his retirement from politics. Portraying his departure as a selfless act to help his guardian Julia Gillard repair the fissures running through Labor, Arbib conceded he had been an instrument of division.
That goes with his history. His rise followed that of Joe Tripodi, a one-time friend who engineered a right-wing takeover of NSW Young Labor (where Arbib presided in 1995) and who went on to pull the strings at Sussex Street. Arbib took the reins at NSW Labor nine years later (in 2004), made an ally of the Left, and began dealing his general secretary cards in power plays extending from Macquarie Street to Canberra.
Arbib was made a minister by Kevin Rudd, whom he had helped to overthrow Kim Beazley as Labor leader in 2006 by delivering NSW Right numbers. His price for such vital help, opponents argue, was almost unique access to Rudd PM, much to the annoyance of those excluded.
Arbib reportedly pushed hardest of a ministerial clique including Gillard and Wayne Swan to get Rudd to dump his emissions trading scheme, and then went about knifing Rudd as one of Gillard's "faceless men" in June 2010.
Yesterday, Arbib, the father of two young daughters, cited family pressure in pulling the plug on politics. For all the whispers about concealed motives for going, family reasons seems the most plausible explanation.
His shift from enmity towards the Left was acknowledged yesterday by NSW Left leader Anthony Albanese.
"Mark is someone who has always put the interests of Labor before his own interests," said Albanese, who applauded Arbib as "a formidable campaign strategist".