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It did not have to be this bad

March 28, 2011

M7 Westlink aerial view

(An article from Bob Carr printed in today’s The Australian)

IT has taken political talent bordering on genius. The creativity of a master such as Disraeli or F. D. Roosevelt to deliver NSW Labor a defeat of this scale.

And I don’t mean Barry O’Farrell, although his political tactics are wholly vindicated and his occasional Liberal critics silenced. The genius was that of the Labor Party, in turning what could have been a swing-of-the-pendulum defeat into something far worse.

In March 2007 Morris Iemma was re-elected with 52 seats in an assembly of 93. It was possible to see him being returned in another four years. Fanciful? Only if you overlook the policy successes that got him 52.26 per cent of the two-party vote.

Successes symbolised by Australia’s longest urban road, the 42km Westlink M7 which carved one hour off a journey north to south through western Sydney, a prize-winning model of private-public partnership that quickly brought 5000 additional jobs into the region. Or a $100 million bus-rail interchange at Parramatta to feed commuters from new bus transit ways on to trains. Or rebuilt hospitals like Sutherland. In 2007 Iemma held seats thanks to a capital works budget bigger than all the other states combined, bigger than New York’s or California’s.

Then he made the silly mistake of wanting to make that huge infrastructure spend even bigger by selling the state’s electricity assets.

In 2007 this was surely not too big a request of a Labor Party which had seen the benefits to living standards of the reforms of the Hawke-Keating years.

A reasonable response of a union-based party might have been, “Yeah, mate, well, can’t really hold out against this one. Let’s allow a Labor government a great chunk of capital so it can push even harder with public sector expansion. Nurses and teachers will be the winners. And we’ll get guarantees for our members in the electricity sector.”

There were precedents – and, happily, they also point to policy success during Labor’s rule – the privatisation of Freightcorp in 2002 and of state-owned coal mines in 2001. Both benefited the budget and taxpayer. Both were supported by the unions because the private capital modernised the enterprises and shored up jobs.

Yet in a display of wilfulness and obstinacy, the opponents of electricity privatisation staged a public brawl at the 2008 ALP conference. It presented a hideous visage to the electorate. It was a symbolic repudiation of the McKell model, the style of NSW Labor since William McKell (premier 1941-47). McKell’s moderate ethos was based on middle course policies which gave the party support in the bush as well as the city. It was possible because the machine supported the parliamentary leadership, the premier of the day. This pattern prevailed under Joe Cahill, Neville Wran and me.

On this occasion, the party tore up the script that had given Labor these years of ascendancy and ritually humiliated Iemma and then replaced him, the first time in NSW Labor history a premier had been executed. Contemplating this turbulence, the electorate started deserting the party.

The party of McKell had forgotten that, before all else, you offer business-like cohesion. Without that image of stability it didn’t help that the NSW school curriculum was now being recognised as the country’s best. Or that there was a Titanic $950 million reconstruction of Royal North Shore hospital, the last of the great teaching hospitals to be rebuilt under the bursting public works budget. Or that the construction of rail clearways was delivering on-time running of 95 per cent on a public transport system carrying a higher proportion of commuters than that of any other capital city.

On top of the brawl over public ownership of power plants – plants that were becoming liabilities – the party could not make up its mind about leadership. A party in government tries three different leaders in three years, making it look like it’s in trouble.

An illustration by Bill Leak. Source: The Australian

Nathan Rees had the style of a potential leader but it was unfair to hoist him into the premier’s job with only a year in parliament and no experience in a major portfolio. Kristina Keneally was a remarkable political asset as she showed in her campaigning but needed time in, say, Health or Education.

OK, we have a scorching row over electricity privatisation and two quick changes of premier. Both demonstrate real political artistry. But the party’s collective genius was not exhausted. There comes a third ingredient: a cluster of ministerial scandals unlike anything seen in recent government experience. Demands for resignation may have been resisted in the cases of Della Bosca, Campbell or Stewart if the premier of the day had been longer in the job, less battered by crisis, an agitated media and bad polls. But, as resignation followed resignation, the public despaired and party support for the first time was exploring the 20s. Hard to climb out of a rift that deep.

The creativity of the party was not exhausted. After its first 10 years in which there was no resignation due to ministerial behaviour (a good run by the standards of Australian politics) the government was subject to the ultimate probity humiliation: being linked to vulgar influence-buying on Wollongong Council, which was appropriately given saturation media coverage and made the subject of an ICAC inquiry.

There was something seminal in this, a sea-change for a government that for more than a decade had never sustained an ICAC finding against it. Thereafter, whenever the names Tripodi and Obeid were thrust into the limelight the public got reminded of the worst of the state ALP. And (more of this collective political genius working at full steam) the two were in the news every week, portrayed as power brokers, backroom boys who made and unmade premiers.

Facing this horror the public was vowing to give the party the hiding of its life. As late as January the latest beat-up about Obeid was certain to get more space than, say, the success of the government in holding the state’s Triple A rating through the GFC, or the textbook privatisations of Waste Services and State Lotteries or the declaration of new national parks over the River Red Gums.

And the government was never given credit for the turnaround in the performance of police, transformed by reforms of the Royal Commission, driving down crime in all categories.

Policy successes are hard enough to sell. But when one part of your political team is seemingly working, with what looks like malign talent, to subsume it with woeful publicity, then a fourth term government is way behind.

But it never had to be this bad. The genius never should have been this pronounced.

It now remains to harness it for constructive purpose and party rebuilding.

5 Comments
  1. Daniel permalink
    March 28, 2011 10:48 am

    It was that bad Bob. And by the looks of it Labor has lost such faith that it has also dragged down the Greens too.

  2. Brian Everingham permalink
    March 28, 2011 1:31 pm

    The problems are deeper, Bob. The Party membership has shrunk to extremely low levels and many good people have left as their chance to influence decision making has waned. They are not now even required to letterbox, let alone debate with the expectation that motions will make any impact.

    Why, then, should they fight for a Party that appeared more and more to be in it as a career ladder for a few eager (and occasionally able) apparatchiks?

    I look forward to the promised approach from Dastyari.

  3. Peter Shephard permalink
    March 28, 2011 7:18 pm

    Privatisation of electricity was a no brainer. The moment Morris got butchered the party may as well have resigned on mass. Now the ALP is going to present John Robinson with the leadership. The man who opposed privatisation to ensure he would one day be party leader. Not for one moment did he care how much it destroyed the party and the rank and file swallowed his bull hook line and sinker.

    Now the Libs will sell electricity and more, spend the dollars and look like geniuses. Perhaps in 16 years the ALP may have a chance to shine again. Hopefully by then Mr. Robinson will be as dead and buried as the ALP in NSW is today.

    I will never support the party in this state while Mr. Robinson remains in parliament.

  4. lindsay allen permalink
    April 4, 2011 4:04 pm

    Why did Ms Keneally pursue policies (e.g. electricity privatisation) That guaranteed that Labor would lose? The Libs didn’t win. Labor lost. Someone had captured the former Leader’s thinking.

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