Force of youth
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Force of youth

Born into poverty in Iran, this young power broker doesn't countenance failure, writes Deborah Snow.

'Do you want me to tell you a bit about myself?' Sam Dastyari offers, getting straight down to business within seconds of being seated at our table for two at est., in George Street.

"Crash or crash through" ... Sam Dastyari will not shy from a fight.

"Crash or crash through" ... Sam Dastyari will not shy from a fight.Credit:Kate Geraghty

For a fleeting moment, the trim figure striding towards the table had incongruously reminded me of a young Nicolas Sarkozy. Then again, the sharp suit, immaculately styled hair, bold tie and white shirt lie in direct succession to those earlier style mavens of the NSW Labor Right, Paul Keating and Laurie Brereton.

It's a far cry from the impoverished fishing village in the north of Iran, where Sam Dastyari spent the first five years of his life.

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The uber-punctual 27-year-old is five minutes early. Fortunately, so is the Herald (which, for the record, chose the venue over the lunchtime din of Chinatown he'd proposed).

Dastyari is the latest wunderkind to emerge from the NSW Labor machine, sporting the classic pedigree of leadership of the Sydney University ALP club and presidency of Young Labor.

He took over the reins as state secretary in March last year and is still picking up the shards of a party which he describes as having undergone ''annihilation'' at the last state election. Federal Labor is hardly faring any better.

''Bring out your dead'' is the gloomy cry from ALP elders such as Senator John Faulkner who recently likened Labor to the sinking Titanic. But Dastyari doesn't buy the doom and gloom.

Drawing on the economics jargon he picked up at university, he talks of sending the right ''price signals'' to the party as being fundamental to his job.

''What I mean by the term 'price signals' is the direction the organisation chooses to go in, sending a really powerful message to the movement as a whole.''

So here he is arguing that the whole Henny-Penny ''sky is falling in'' mindset is already so yesterday.

''There is a real generational shift within the organisation,'' says Dastyari earnestly. ''There is a group of people who will argue that the party is over, that it's dead. But I reject that completely, and my generation rejects that. There is a bunch of young Turks who are quite eager … [to fight] the massive challenges ahead to reform our organisation.''

What will start to turn things round, he argues, are rule changes that would give non-members a say in who Labor puts into parliament - changes he wants to drive through the party's annual conference in two weeks' time.

The idea is modelled on US-style primaries. If Dastyari prevails, community members sympathetic to but not officially enrolled with the party would get a 50 per cent say in some preselections.

''This is really unpopular stuff within the Labor party, right?'' he says. ''It is about completely opening the show up. What happened in NSW in the last few years is that we stopped talking to the community, we became a completely introspective organisation and as a result, we failed to harness any new views and became a party that was simply talking to itself. To those who argue inside our party, 'keep looking in, get the internal process right', I say we alone don't have the answers, we have to engage with the community.''

Dastyari is braced for ''the fight of my life'' between now and the conference but it may get more torrid than he has allowed for.

The day we lunch, he says he has driven his reform package through the dominant Right faction, to which he belongs, and that his left-wing lieutenant, John Graham, is also ''very supportive of a lot of it''.

Subsequently Graham comes out swinging against the changes unless they are accompanied by a raft of other things the Left wants, including more power for rank and file members. It's not irrelevant that Dastyari's reforms would weaken the Left's hold on inner-city branches.

But if Dastyari is rattled at the prospect of a fight, he's not showing it. ''What did Gough used to say? Crash or crash through.''

''I took the leadership of the party on a platform that we needed to have some level of radical change. I was told by everybody in this show that we weren't going to be able to change the make-up of the NSW Right in the parliamentary party … And one of the first things I engaged in was a clean-out of the state parliamentary party,'' he says, defiantly.

He declares he will stay in the job at least eight years to bed down the reforms.

In the meantime, there are plenty of other things going on in the young powerbroker's life.

He shares his Concord home with his wife, Helen, two large dogs, three cats (named Lenin, Trotsky and Chairman Mao) and the latest arrival, six-week-old daughter Hannah. The dogs have the less exotic monikers of Sasha and Lulu because ''I didn't get to name them''.

He is still running an average of 70 kilometres a week and working 12-hour days at Labor's Sussex Street headquarters.

To those who say he's too young for the job, he replies, ''I think the flipside of youth is energy''.

Dastyari courted Helen when she was working for then premier Morris Iemma in 2008 - a kind of ''forbidden love'' he calls it, with the romance developing against the stormy backdrop of the bitter split between the party's head office and the premier over electricity privatisation.

Helen's father, Peter Barron, is the Labor guru who once advised both Neville Wran and Bob Hawke before transferring his services to the Packer empire. Dastyari is circumspect about his father-in-law though he says ''Peter believes you've got to be bold in politics''.

He is even more reluctant to discuss the legendary Labor fixer and luncher Graham Richardson who, like Dastyari, was only 26 when he held the secretary's job (making him and Dastyari equal youngest to hold the post) - though it's patently obvious he doesn't share the former powerbroker's weakness for rich food and drink. Lunch is alcohol-free and Dastyari only picks at his snapper.

He's even more reticent on the subject of the two men who held the secretary's job before him, the now-senator Mark Arbib and Karl Bitar, both partially blamed for the string of political assassinations which saw the dispatch of Iemma, Nathan Rees and Kevin Rudd.

All Dastyari will say of that now is: ''I think the culture of short-term leadership has probably come to an end in the Labor party … In hindsight that culture should never have been allowed to develop.''

He blames the recent mayhem in Labor ranks on the breakdown of what he calls the ''McKell model'' underpinning NSW Labor - the delicate balance between the rank and file members, unions and the parliamentary wing.

''Part of the principle of the McKell model was that no one ever took it to breaking point. But in 2008 they did. If you want to know who was responsible, we all are. There are no virgins in the ALP forest. It's a collective organisation - there is collective guilt and collective responsibility. I'm one of the few non-Catholic secretaries, and that is probably the most Catholic thing I have ever said.''

Dastyari's story is a typical migrant narrative in many ways. His parents, Naser and Ella, were studying civil engineering in Tehran when they fell victim to an Islamist crackdown and were hounded back to the northern Iranian village of Sari, where he was born.

The family migrated to Sydney when he was five and his parents knuckled down working lower-status jobs. Naser drove a taxi and later opened a Michel's patisserie in the Hills district. Young Sam worked behind the counter.

His sister Azadeh later shone as a Fulbright scholar and now lectures in law in Melbourne, where she is a passionate refugee advocate.

Dastyari dislikes comparisons with the leader of the online advocacy group GetUp!, Simon Sheikh, who is a similar age to him and of migrant stock. GetUp!, claims Dastyari, are ''undemocratic'' and faddish.

''We have a bigger responsibility than that,'' he says.

Dastyari's political awakening came at 15 with the republic referendum campaign of 1999 when he worked hard for the ''yes'' case. Being subject to the British monarch was ''a very alien concept to ethnic communities'', he says.

His campaigning skills drew the attention of local Labor heavies who were trying to wrench control of the Hills branches from the Left. Fatally, they asked him to sign up his school mates - which left him controlling the numbers after six months.

Told who to support for the top jobs in the branch, he says he ''turned around and said 'bugger this, I'm going to run the branch and my mate is going to be number two' ''.

The revolt earned him a personal dressing down from then assistant branch secretary Bitar, who called him in to Sussex Street.

Dastyari turned up dressed in his school uniform.

''I pretty much told them to bugger off,'' he recalls. ''I think in politics, even at a young age, it's very, very important to demonstrate strength. No one is going to respect you if you just bend over when the first person tells you to.''

He's applying that maxim again as he limbers up for the conference.

''Look, a lot of the calls you are making are line-ball,'' he says. ''You have to make sure that you get it right more often than you get it wrong.''