Morris, the Minor Machine Man


Former NSW Premier Morris slipped into obscurity on Friday, when he resigned his seat of Lakemba in south-west Sydney, ending a three-year-and-three-month premiership of staggering incompetence that was plagued by scandal.

In fairness, Iemma’s troubles weren’t all self-made. He inherited a clapped out administration which had been snoozing along for a record-breaking 10 years under Bob Carr.

Carr’s premiership, loved by the media and the privileged commentating classes, the universities and the think tanks, was a mixture of dilettantism, theatricality, infrastructure eyewash and a set of slick management techniques which elevated style over substance.

During Carr’s years (1995—2005), public transport, public health and public education went backwards, and the likes of Iemma, Joe Tripodi, Reba Meagher, Michael Costa, Eric Roozendaal, Frank Sartor and Cherie Burton entered Parliament and the Cabinet.

These were the right-wing gauleiters of the Carr administration, handpicked by him to inherit his political legacy when he stepped down.

When the old trickster had run out of rabbits to pull out of his top hat, Carr slunk away from the scene of his political crimes to join Macquarie Bank on a highly lucrative package.

The ALP machine replaced him with Iemma and cleared the way for him by crunching up his chief rival Carl Scully.

The powerbrokers chose Iemma because he wasn’t known to the public at large and therefore wasn’t associated in the public’s mind with the steady build-up of failures of the Carr years.

They took an anonymous backroom apparatchik who had been politically mentored by former senator Graham Richardson and gave him a public image: family man (Carr had no children), sports loving (Carr couldn’t abide any form of sport) and presented him as people friendly with a human touch (Carr was bookish and remote).

For the purposes of the March 2007 state election, the extreme makeover worked. Iemma was marketed as Mr Nice Guy while Opposition Leader Peter Debnam was demonised as a ruthless silvertail from Vaucluse.

Labor and the unions even managed to lampoon Debnam’s years of service as an officer in the Royal Australian Navy, his track record in seeding new businesses in regional NSW and, of course, his 20-year habit of going for morning swims in his Speedos.

The Sydney Morning Herald‘s public intellectual David Marr rounded up the doubters with a pre-election profile in which he virtually turned Iemma into a modern-day Garibaldi, citing Iemma Snr’s years as a communist before migrating to Australia.

Soon after the election, the real Iemma began to emerge from behind the carefully constructed image. The unravelling is always brutal because high public office makes extraordinary demands on those who serve — their strengths and weaknesses quickly become apparent when the heat is turned up and they find themselves under the microscope.

No amount of spin doctoring could disguise the fact that Iemma wasn’t up to the job — he lacked the leadership and the decisive management skills to make it work. He rapidly started to look like a man out of his depth, earning himself the title "Mr Dilemma".

The game was well and truly over when he decided to defy the May 2008 NSW ALP conference after it voted overwhelmingly to oppose his plan to sell off the State’s power industry.

Even though he had the full-throated backing of the entire Sydney media and its motley of right-wing commentators, Iemma fell victim to one of the oldest rules of politics: no person, no matter how exalted they are, is bigger than the party — and Iemma wasn’t all that exalted. Once he decided to buck his own party and seek the support of the Coalition to vote for his privatisation project, Iemma’s premiership was dead.

It took just four months — from the fateful conference decision on May 3 to the cataclysmic caucus meeting on September 5 — for Iemma to go down in flames. He took with him Treasurer Michael Costa, Deputy Premier John Watkins, Health Minister Reba Meagher and Planning Minister Frank Sartor in what was arguably the biggest bloodbath in Labor history.

Now the ALP machine has plucked another cleanskin from obscurity — 40-year-old Nathan Rees — to rescue the party from an electoral massacre in March 2011. This time the powerbrokers have recruited Rees and Deputy Premier Carmel Tebbutt from the left-wing faction, a clear acknowledgement that the right’s hegemony over political power in NSW has been shattered for the first time in more than 100 years.

In his first post-premiership interview, Iemma belatedly criticised Treasurer Costa and his Ports Minister Joe Tripodi, the two MPs chiefly responsible for his downfall.

Because he grew up with these two in the trenches of the NSW ALP right-wing machine, it beggars belief that it has taken him all this time to work out that they are a pair of political mongrels.

When Tripodi refused to back Iemma’s reshuffled Cabinet two weeks ago, he ended the premier’s rule, forcing him to resign. "Joe looked after himself — that is well documented," Iemma told the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Andrew Clennell.

What’s just as well documented is the way Tripodi and his political co-conspirator Eddie Obeid suddenly withdrew their support from Carl Scully on the eve of the 2005 caucus meeting to replace Bob Carr. The result was that the frontrunner, Carl "Sparkles" Scully, was knifed and the Mark Arbib/Tripodi/Obeid axis anointed Iemma.

This time around the machine crunched up Watkins in its production line presses, and rolled out the shiny new Rees.

The great irony of Iemma’s relatively brief premiership is that the party gave him the job and the party took it away from him. Does it mean that those who live by the party also die by the party?

Certainly the ALP has given everything to Iemma since he left high school at Narwee in the 1970s. The ALP was his social circle, it gave him his first job as a Commonwealth Bank union official, it sent him to Canberra to work for Graham Richardson, provided him with a seat in State Parliament — Hurstville, later renamed Lakemba — then a place in the Cabinet and ultimately made him Numero Uno.

The ALP took the son of Italian immigrants from being an outsider and made him into a powerful insider. At the moment of his demise, he was trying to clean up the Cabinet by chucking out the dead wood and making it fit to regain public confidence.

It was tragic really — faithfully serving his party right to the very end, and now he’s looking for work.

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.