Last Man Standing Gets Top Job


The new Premier is 40-year-old Nathan Rees, the Water and Emergency Services Minister who entered parliament in March 2007 as the MP for Toongabbie in western Sydney.

He has the Herculean task of rebuilding Labor’s electoral fortunes in time for the March 2011 state election when the ALP will have served 16 years in office.

Because there was no natural successor from the right-wing Centre Unity faction, the Caucus has lifted Rees from the "soft left" into the premiership. His deputy is Carmel Tebbutt, a former education minister and proven vote-catcher who is married to the Federal Transport, Infrastructure and Local Government Minister, Anthony Albanese, of the "hard left".

The partnership between Rees and Tebbutt is unique in the annals of Labor politics in NSW: both are from the Left faction, marking a break in the traditional right-wing grip on the premiership.

Iemma’s premiership started to unravel the moment he decided to reject the decision of the NSW ALP conference in May to oppose privatisation of the State’s power industry by a massive seven-to-one majority.

Iemma, backed by his attack dog Michael Costa, decided to take on the party and the trade unions and bully recalcitrant backbenchers into line. They undertook the high-risk strategy with the unanimous backing of the Sydney media, which only served to infuriate the opponents of privatisation.

Iemma failed to grasp the basic principles of political survival which are that no politician is bigger than the party and the party conference is the supreme policy-making body, not the Cabinet or the Caucus.

Extraordinarily, the Premier’s strategy was to rely on Barry’s O’Farrell’s Coalition – Labor’s natural enemies in the Liberal and National parties – to secure passage of the enabling legislation through parliament.

When they dramatically recalled parliament for a special session on 28 August, Iemma and Costa hoped that they could "wedge" O’Farrell into supporting the power sell-off Bills.

But the Coalition’s joint party room unanimously decided that Labor’s legislation did not meet their "public interest" test and the project was dead as a dodo.

It also meant the end of Iemma and Costa – but that took another week to become a reality.

In quick succession, Watkins resigned as Deputy premier on Wednesday because he was worn out and disillusioned; on Thursday night Iemma sacked Costa after leaders of all factions told him that any Cabinet reshuffle would only be acceptable if it was Costa-free; and on Friday morning the Centre Right Caucus dumped Iemma after refusing to accept the Cabinet changes he was seeking.

It was then only a formality for the full Caucus to meet and elect the only candidate left standing – Nathan Rees – who worked for premiers Carr and Iemma, deputy premier Andrew Refshauge and planning minister Craig Knowles before entering parliament 18 months ago.

By the time his premiership had run out of gas, Iemma had lost the confidence of his own party, a majority of his ministers and backbenchers, the business community, the unions and the media.

In Iemma’s defence it must be said that former premier Bob Carr delivered him a guano sandwich when he walked away in 2005. As a result, Iemma has had to contend with the accumulated shortcomings in public transport and public health, and the Cross City Tunnel and Lane Cove Tunnel fiascos.

Then there have been the scandals in Wollongong City Council and within RailCorp, the jailing of aboriginal affairs minister Milton Orkopoulos on under age sex and drugs charges, the public row between senior backbench rivals Paul Gibson and Phil Koperberg involving alleged domestic violence, the conviction and subsequent acquittal of backbencher Steven Chaytor on assault charges and the suspension of Cabinet heavyweight John Della Bosca over "Iguanagate".

Surrounded by lightweights and incompetents, Iemma was never able to establish his authority and failed to lay out an agenda that was either comprehensible or believable.

His successor Nathan Rees has the task of turning around the SS Iemma. His success will depend on taking some decisive action, including: An undertaking that full-scale privatisation of electricity is dead and buried; immediate steps to end the split between the government and the NSW Labor Party; a reshuffle that gets rid of the dead wood, the incompetent and the sleaze; a plan of action to improve public transport in Sydney; a hospital and education reform program undertaken in cooperation with the Commonwealth.

By choosing Rees, Labor has not only thrown the generation and clean-skin switches, it has also opted for someone with vehement "Westy" credentials.

He worked as a "garbo" to help pay his way through university and his first job was as a council gardener. He belongs to Labor’s meritocracy and his emergence will enliven the ALP’s NSW branch which has been under the dead hand of the Sussex Street bureaucracy for too long.

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