Better Than the Other Lot?

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There is little to be said in support of the NSW Labor Government. It is inept, incompetent, indecisive, unprincipled, rudderless, gutless and shameless. Even its most ardent fans are reduced to answering critics with the old whimper: "Well, at least they are better than the other lot." Are they really?

That proposition cannot be tested until March 2011, when the next State election is held. At that point Labor will have been in office for 16 years straight and will be asking voters for another four-year term. It will be a huge ask – and if the current chaotic trajectory of the Government is anything to go by, it will be almost impossible to achieve.

I say "almost" because nothing is ever set in concrete in politics; becasue the right-wing leadership of the NSW ALP is the most fluid, elastic and opportunist organism in the Australian political firmament; and because the State Liberal Party has a penchant for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

While Iemma’s 2007 election slogan promised "More to do but heading in the right direction", voters have been horrified to discover that things in NSW aren’t getting better, they are becoming worse. The catch-up isn’t working. Virtually everything the Government touches turns into a disaster; it just can’t take a trick.

No surprises that a Sun-Herald poll published in February this year found that 70 per cent of people said they had lost confidence in the Iemma Government. And who can blame them?

To my mind, the sad reality of Morris Iemma’s premiership became blindingly clear on 18 March 2008, when he tried to break the cycle of bad news, scandals and mishaps with an announcement to grab the media agenda and public attention: a $12.5 billion metro underground rail link from St James Station in the city to Rouse Hill in the city’s north-west. All to be completed by 2017.

And do you know what happened? No one believed him. People just shook their heads in disbelief and went about their daily lives.

Such is the sorry state of politics in NSW – a long era of broken promises, blizzards of press releases and reannounced announcements – that the public has simply stopped listening.

Much of this is to do with longevity. Labor has been in office for 13 years, and in the natural course of things it is starting to show wear and tear. The brakes aren’t working, it needs a new clutch, the diff is whining and there are exhaust fumes billowing out of its rear end.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

But on top of these mechanical problems there are political, cultural and social ones which are even more disastrous. This isn’t a government in the old or traditional sense. It is a ruling clique that survives on cronyism. The overriding purpose of the clique, indeed its raison d’être, is to win elections.

But having broken into the tuckshop and seized all the cream buns, the clique has no idea what to do other than eat everything off the shelves and keep intruders out. That’s been the history of NSW politics for the past decade or more.

The hapless Iemma’s difficulties began on day one. His most competent minister, Marrickville MP Carmel Tebbutt, announced she would not serve in the Cabinet because she wished to devote time to her young family. Her departure from the ministry was a heavy loss.

Then followed the fiasco of Blacktown MP Paul Gibson, who was a minister for a few days and was then ignominiously dropped following a police investigation (which cleared him) and the standing down of his bitter rival, Phil Koperberg, who was Environment Minister until another police inquiry (which cleared him too) and then illness took him off to the backbenches.

Then there has been the long-running scandal of former Aboriginal Affairs Minister Milton Orkopoulos who has been convicted of 28 charges, including eight counts of having homosexual intercourse with a minor, 13 counts of supplying cannabis, four counts of supplying heroin and three counts of indecent assault on a minor.

Yet another minister, Ports and Waterways Minister Joe Tripodi, was in hot water with the Independent Commission Against Corruption but, for the third time in recent years, received a clean bill of health from the watchdog.

Other ministers – such as Treasurer Michael Costa, Health Minister Reba Meagher, Planning Minister Frank Sartor, Transport Minister John Watkins, Police Minister David Campbell and Gaming and Racing Minister Graham West – have helped fill the media with negative publicity, the occasional bit of slapstick and much hilarious bumbling.

At last count, Iemma’s in-tray contained the following issues/scandals: the hotly opposed plan to privatise parts of the State-owned power industry; former Justice James Wood’s inquiry into the dysfunctional Department of Community Services (DOCS); Peter Garling SC’s inquiry into the chronic mismanagement of the Health Department; the financial implosion of the much trumpeted Lane Cove Tunnel; the looming legal battle between the Government and the promoters of the failed T Card plan for Sydney transport; the wash-up from the Wollongong City Council’s sex-for-planning scandal; the third-world status of the handling facilities at Port Botany, Port Kembla and Newcastle; and the still-to-be-announced plans for Aboriginal housing, health and education.

A government with one or two of these issues on its agenda would be in trouble; having a whole logjam of them is catastrophic. The trouble is that they demand precious time and attention at the expense of governing; and they wear the Government down, placing it at the mercy of events rather than controlling them.

Iemma’s difficulties are magnified because of the sheer incompetence of his senior and higher-ranking public servants. Over the past 13 years, lazy Labor ministers have hired and promoted their friends and acquaintances and the people they like rather than ones they respect.

The result has been a public service that is politicised. Its bosses are largely Labor yes-men and women who spend their time in damage control on behalf of the minister. And because they owe their job to the minister – most wouldn’t survive in positions of similar responsibility in the private sector – they rarely, if ever, question the minister’s decision or Cabinet’s proposals. They have been reduced to Party functionaries who are mostly terrified of losing their jobs, their perks and their superannuation packages. The result is that decisions are postponed, inter-departmental committees proliferate, reviews are reviewed and paper is shuffled from one floor to the next.

No wonder the State bureaucracy has mushroomed to the point where it has become positively sclerotic. What it needs is a massive enema but there isn’t a minister with the courage to apply the hose.

Can the Labor Government get out of this mess? Perhaps a partial answer lies in recent history. Take, for example, former Premier Neville Wran’s decision that it was time the citizens of Western Sydney had hospitals of their own. Fed up with the monopoly of health care provided by the "royals" to the people of the eastern, northern and inner-city suburbs – Royal Prince Henry, Royal Prince Alfred, Royal North Shore etc – Wran ordered health care for the "westies", and he chose Laurie Brereton as his Health Minister to get it done.

Later, when he wanted the decrepit wharves and dilapidated, rat-ridden warehouses of Darling Harbour to be demolished and rebuilt as a tourist centre, he whistled up Brereton for the job. Premier’s Department head Gerry Gleeson created an institution called the Darling Harbour Authority, gave it sweeping legislative powers, and the site was transformed.

In more recent years, the Lausanne-based International Olympic Committee (IOC) became alarmed by the slow progress on Sydney’s Olympic sites for the 2000 Games and filed an adverse report with the Sydney Organising Committee (SOCOG).

The result was Olympics Minister Michael Knight became head of the Organising Committee and chose a general staff from the senior echelons of the public service and the private sector to complete the building program on time and on budget. In an effort of truly epic proportions, the Knight team – backed by then Treasurer Michael Egan – took the project by the throat and ramrodded it to completion.

After the Games, most of the honorable and selfless contributors to the "best ever" Olympics were cast aside and not offered permanent jobs in the public service. After they had departed to the private sector or early retirement, the drones and also-rans climbed back into the saddle and have been there ever since. (Almost the sole exception was the formidable Professor David Richmond who was resurrected by Iemma and appointed the State’s coordinator-general.)

The widely accepted wisdom is that Iemma has neither the mettle nor the interest to lead this kind of epoch-changing reform. They argue that Iemma will depart mid-year following the Roman Catholic Church’s World Youth Day and that Transport Minister John Watkins is being groomed to take over.

If Labor luvvies think that Watkins is their "Great White Hope" they are sadly mistaken. While he was impressive as Education Minister, his rating as Police Minister and Transport Minister has earned him the "Great White Dope" tag. He is increasingly consumed by a love affair with his own image, a vanity which all politicians should avoid like the plague.

In the election 12 months ago, Labor lost three seats and now has 52 MPs in the Legislative Assembly compared to the Coalition’s 35. What has been neglected in assessing Iemma’s victory is that the Coalition collected an anti-Government swing of almost 4 per cent and turned a raft of seats into marginals, making Labor’s lead look stronger than the reality.

In March 2009, the second anniversary of Iemma’s election victory will be celebrated, but will the Premier be present at the party? Who will lead Labor into the next State election? Does Labor have any hope of remaining in office beyond 2011? Will Prime Minister Kevin Rudd throw a lifeline to the NSW ALP with extra funding and a greater share of GST? Or will he decide that his Sydney comrades are so unpopular that they’re probably unelectable and cut them adrift?

These are tumultuous times in NSW politics.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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