Shellacked: The Message is Loud and Clear


For inexplicable reasons, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and the Federal Labor Party have been congratulating themselves on the appointment of Karl Bitar as the new National Secretary of the ALP.

After losing the war-weary Tim Gartrell last month, the right-wing Centre Unity faction moved with uncommon speed to hand the job to Bitar, a virtual unknown in Canberra.

Indeed, Bitar has only been General Secretary of the NSW ALP for nine months and now he is running the whole federal organisation.

He replaced Mark Arbib, his close friend and political mentor, who is now a senator with the healthy ambition of winning a place in Rudd’s Cabinet as well as a factional role of the kind previously played by Graham Richardson and Robert Ray.

The left faction, led by Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese, green-lighted Bitar’s appointment as well.

As he assumes his new Canberra role, this is an appropriate time to examine what Bitar has left behind in NSW.

Premier Morris Iemma, Deputy Premier John Watkins, Treasurer Michael Costa and Health Minister Reba Meagher have all ended their political careers in one of the country’s great political bloodbaths.

Planning Minister Frank Sartor, the former Sydney Lord Mayor and "star" recruit, has been consigned to the backbenches where he is plotting his next career move.

The new helmsman on the bridge of the Titanic is 40-year-old Nathan Rees and his navigators are Treasurer Eric Roozendaal, a former ALP state secretary who treated the party like a fundraising vacuum cleaner, and Finance Minister Joe Tripodi who has the most unpopular public profile of any MP in the Government.

Meanwhile, the Director-General of the Premiers and Cabinet Department, Robyn Kruk, has left the sinking ship, mid-way through the preparation of the emergency mini-budget to be released on November 11.

A search is underway to find a public servant with the courage and the work ethic to take on managing the flagging NSW economy and its demoralised public service.

There’s a sea-change down at the Sussex Street headquarters of the ALP as well.

Bitar has been succeeded as General Secretary by Matthew Thistlewaite, a former Australian Workers Union organiser with no experience of electioneering, campaign strategy or marginal seat polling.

And at Unions NSW, aka the NSW Labor Council, secretary John Robertson has been lured to the NSW Legislative Council to replace Costa. It means that the union movement is now searching for someone to succeed Robertson, one of its most effective leaders for decades.

In short, the NSW ALP, the unions, the Cabinet and the state bureaucracy have all undergone a dramatic makeover in just a few short weeks.

Over the weekend that Bitar made good his escape to Canberra, the voters turned on the NSW Government with baseball bats creating record-breaking anti-Labor swings that, if repeated at the March 2011 election, would see its number halved in parliament and Premier Barry O’Farrell’s Coalition in supreme command.

This electoral debacle coincided with federal polling that showed Kevin Rudd’s approval rating has soared by 10 per cent to 71 per cent after giving the banks and finance houses a $10 billion guarantee on all customer deposits for three years.

Superficially, it looks as though Bitar has landed on his feet in the federal office just as the NSW branch has imploded and is beyond repair. Certainly that’s what The Sydney Morning Herald told its readers yesterday, with front-page headlines saying: "We’re finished, says Labor", "State ALP faces electoral wipeout" and "Rudd has never been so popular".

In recent weeks I’ve been asked dozens of times whether Labor can be written off as a chance in the 2011 election. I won’t do it for several reasons:

1. Two and a half years is a very long time in politics;

2. The resilience of the ALP and its campaigning skills, once motivated, are formidable;

3. Nathan Rees is showing qualities of becoming a trusted, credible and respected leader;

4. At its fringes, the NSW Liberal Party is dysfunctional with religious nutters. In partnership with a National Party which is saturated with climate change skepticism, law and order craziness and philistine views on culture and education, the Coalition seems incapable of capturing the middle ground.

Another sign that the ALP shouldn’t be written off is the selection of Unions NSW’s John Robertson to replace Costa in the Upper House. In his seven heady years running the trade union movement Robertson led the Labor for Refugees campaign to overturn Federal Labor’s disgraceful asylum seekers’ policy at the 2002 annual conference and he spearheaded the slaughter of the power privatisation plan at this year’s conference.

He was the principal architect of the Your Rights At Work campaign which fought against Howard’s anti-union Work Choices laws in communities across NSW and contributed mightily towards Kevin Rudd’s victory last November.

It remains to be seen whether the 45-year-old former electrician can grow out of the narrow sectionalism of his trade union background and become a politician of depth and breadth.

Nevertheless, for the first time in recent memory, the ALP’s Sussex Street machine seems to have chosen a parliamentarian of substance and ability: it marks a surprising break from the usual boneheads, party hacks and hackettes chosen by the machine.

If it conducts a clean out of the Macquarie Street stables and pre-selects candidates of Robertson’s calibre, then Rees’s "red hot go" may start to have some "go".


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