A Lesser Evil But Not a Good Government


For 30 years, the NSW Labor Party has taken advantage of progressive and social democratic voters by advancing a flimsy, contemptuous argument in favour of its re-election. ‘Even the worst Labor Government,’ they tut-tut, ‘is better than the best Liberal Government.’

This is essentially the message behind Morris Iemma’s campaign slogan, ‘More to do but heading in the right direction.’

They have peddled what journalist John Pilger calls the doctrine of ‘lesser evilism,’ and what have we got for it?

The Wran/Unsworth Governments, between 1976 and 1988, took some impressive steps on environmental protection, especially along the pristine North Coast. But on Wran’s watch corruption festered in the police force and even the Cabinet, with Corrective Services Minister Rex Jackson eventually going to jail.

The Carr Government extended that environmental record, creating hundreds of new national parks. Carr also raised primary school literacy standards. Both are worthy accomplishments, but they hardly constitute a comprehensive social democratic program deserving of perpetual support.

Both Governments snuggled up to the big end of town, especially the property developers, with their six-figure donations to the ALP. In 2005-2006, Labor took at least $650,000 from property moguls. Unfortunately for the citizens who live under NSW Labor, the rest of its record is a shambles.

If you live in the city, public transport and urban amenities are complete disasters. Bus, train and ferry travel is criminally expensive for the quality and frequency of the service you receive and you cannot move for the road traffic, which turns drivers white-knuckled with frustration. A Federal Department of Transport study has found that the cost of traffic congestion to Australia will reach $30 billion in 2015 and the Iemma Government’s solution is to widen arterial roads to accommodate more vehicles but shun proposals for light rail.

If you live in the regions, such as the North Coast and Newcastle, trains have been axed or remain under threat. The Iemma Government’s much-ballyhooed Far North Coast Regional Strategy is barely credible, with only the vaguest reference to ‘investigating possibilities’ for extending rail services.

Last July, one of the country’s leading educationalists, the former Dean of Education at Melbourne University, Brian Caldwell, said ‘hundreds’ of public schools across NSW and Victoria were in such poor condition they should be ‘bulldozed.’ Victoria’s Premier Steve Bracks responded within weeks with a $1.9 billion, 10-year, capital works program. Iemma’s commitment is barely one quarter the size.

Iemma’s Government which is 12 years, not 12 months, old is persisting with an environmentally damaging desalination plant, rather than embracing full-scale water recycling, storm-water harvesting and grey water systems. On energy we will get more carbon-belching, coal-fired power stations instead of solar initiatives.

Thanks to Alan Moir

The Premier’s answer to this litany of problems is two-fold to plead for more time and then wave around his ‘Ten Year Plan’, a fuzzy document representative of the public relations spin that has sustained this Government for more than a decade. The tepid NSW Opposition missed a golden opportunity to point out the obvious: of course the State needs a 10-year plan to fix 12 years of lost opportunity.

But beyond the obvious policy failures, there is a deeper question for progressives how long do we have to endure third-rate provincial politicians betraying core Labor values? Must we keep re-electing mediocrities simply because ‘the Libs are worse’?

Quite frankly, I’m sick of hearing it sick of trundling along to the polling booth every four years with a sense of resignation that NSW Labor is the least bad option.

First, we must consider what’s at stake in this election. In the wake of the High Court’s decision on the Howard Government’s industrial relations legislation, which broadened Commonwealth powers, the distinguished legal scholar Ron McCallum observed that the States were ‘looking more and more like municipal governments.’ Power is being nationalised. No matter what Iemma tells you, his Government cannot protect you from the tentacles of the WorkChoices legislation. The only way to escape these draconian laws is to oust the Howard Government at the Federal election later this year. Iemma is holding out false hope.

Second, we must consider the personnel. Is it worth putting up with the people at the top of NSW Labor, with all their arrogance and deception? How can the public sector unions which I generally support campaign against the Coalition’s phased cut of 20,000 jobs but endorse a Government in which Michael Costa is Treasurer?

Costa will tell you job cuts are not Labor policy, but he has never denied telling union representatives that he believed NSW had 20 per cent more public servants than it needed.

This election has echoes of the 1984 US presidential debate between Republican incumbent Ronald Reagan and Democratic challenger Walter Mondale. In a moment of clarifying candour, Mondale said: ‘ Mr Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.’

Of course the Iemma Government will shed public sector jobs but, unlike Liberal leader Peter Debnam, neither the Premier nor his Treasurer will admit it before the election.

Finally, we must consider the bigger prize. For as long as Labor remains in power in NSW, embarrassing the Party, John Howard will be able to argue that Australia needs a Federal Coalition Government to balance the ‘wall to wall’ State Labor Governments. Progressive voters need to ask whether, in an age of centralised government, it is worth preserving a poorly performing State administration presiding over an increasingly limited range of services, which could drag down the chances of Federal Labor in the election that really matters.

I believe democracy if not the top end of town would be best served by a hung Parliament in NSW, in which community-based Independents ensure accountability and restrain the hand of a Coalition Government, while a Centre-Left majority comprising Labor, the Greens and the new Climate Change Coalition keeps a check on power in the Upper House.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.