The Unmistakable Smell Of Decay


It’s just four months since Nathan Rees became NSW Premier, but the Labor hacks in Sussex Street HQ are getting restless over the constantly poor opinion polls for his Government. In a weirdly compelling display of habitual self-belief, they are carrying on as if they think an against-the-odds election win in March 2011 is actually possible, or could come about through anything they might do, when clearly it would take an act of God to save them now.

There are rumours that Rees could face a leadership challenge, possibly from Frank Sartor, reflecting the childish hope that with a new ribbon on the NSW ALP turd the opinion polls will magically turn around and the masses will feel that after 14 long years, it’s time to give Labor another chance.

It’s certainly true that Nathan Rees has so far failed to make a positive impact, partly through the behaviour of his fellow MPs, partly through the general difficulty of connecting with an electorate which is bursting with reasons to hate NSW Labor, and partly through a November ’08 mini-budget which effectively strangled the fiscal life out of the NSW economy.

Just as the mini-budget intended, NSW has so far kept holy that most sacred cow of state politics — the AAA rating. Unfortunately, while they may see it as essential, the ALP won’t automatically be re-elected based on Moody’s credit approval.

Getting Labor (and NSW in general) out of this mess was always going to take something special. Reversing years of government and voter apathy, infrastructural decay and departmental corruption will probably take many more years, even with good leadership. But Rees is looking less the intuitive, dynamic politician we hoped for and more like your stock-standard, an-answer-for-nearly-everything Sydney real estate agent. Frank Sartor of course, would be even worse.

The latest shiny addition to "turn things around", care of Labor HQ, is Sam Dastyari. Rees already has plenty of media spin doctors but this one is meant to bring Rees "into the Unions fold" and is of a piece with today’s awarding of a front bench portfolio to former unions boss John "Robbo" Robertson.

Meanwhile, Joe Tripodi and Eric Roozendaal have apparently had a falling out and aren’t talking to each other. Neither, it seems, are their respective offices (Finance and Treasury), which are withholding information from each other. This kind of behaviour would be unimpressive if the economy was roaring along and Hyde Park Fountain was spouting chocolate milk, but in the current climate it’s just another reason why the people of NSW want these petty, tribal fools gone.

Facing all of this, you can well imagine that Rees might be busy, but apparently he’s now "too busy" to deal with the latest NSW hospitals crisis. Rees has used this line previously, when he was too busy being Premier to find out where $1 billion dollars went in the budget. Not a good look. That $1 billion would probably come in handy to pay some outstanding debts of NSW hospitals in the bush. They’re running out of credit with suppliers for things like food, medical equipment and incidentals like wages for doctors.

There’s some financial relief thanks to a welcome shot of new money for education, with Julia Gillard pumping an extra $719 million of federal funding into NSW schools under a new national agreement. But even there the story is largely bad. With the economic turndown, there may be a large shift of students moving from the private to public system, and although families will save a lot of cash by taking kids out of private schools, for parents there may be a few surprises.

2008 saw public school teachers take industrial action over salaries on no fewer than five occasions. Sources within the teachers union have advised that a deal with the Education Department is on the table for a 4 per cent salary increase (instead of the 2.5 per cent proposed earlier) for public school teachers, but this does not cover TAFE staff. The NSW Teachers Federation cancelled a 48 hour strike this week but will not reach an agreement without the inclusion of TAFE. Thus the threat of industrial action continues into the 2009 school year.

Also, the Department of Education ran newspaper ads this week informing parents and students that school resumes Tuesday 3 February. Not quite. School started Wednesday 28 January. Discoveriong the error, Education Director-General Michael Coutts-Trotter said that, "My breakfast turned to ashes this morning when I read them." Did it really? I just can’t believe him anymore.

Education Minister Verity Firth offers little consolation or hope. When she became Minister, she frankly admitted her own shock upon discovering that the majority of state school funding came from — get this — the state. Such is the state of NSW, if you could buy stocks in naivety, there would be no financial crisis.

(Speaking of naivety, if anyone actually took seriously the Government’s announcement about possibly building a tunnel near the Spit Bridge, then I’d like to hear from you. I own that particular bridge, and a couple of other famous Sydney landmarks, and I’m looking to sell them all cheap.)

Apart from suggesting Sartor (a former Planning Minister) as a possible replacement for Rees, sources within the ALP are talking about John Robertson. Also on the alledged succession list is current Planning Minister, Kristina Kenneally (see a pattern?) or new Minister for Roads, Michael Daley, credited for covering Randwick with roundabouts.

Miranda Devine has identified Frank Sartor as the best chance for NSW and the Labor Party. Her endorsement may itself be the kiss of death he so richly deserves, but in her words "It is time to bring in the kamikaze." A good point perhaps, since whoever is leading Labor and NSW as Premier in early 2011 will need a dash of good old kamikaze spirit. Also, letting Sartor fall on the sword of the same short term politics that NSW Labor has loved for so long might be a fitting way for this regime to die. But does anyone really think the people of NSW deserve another minute — let alone another two years — of this kind of suicidal rule?

I think can see a way out of this problem. Approximately 10 of the many despairing Labor backbenchers should cross the floor, declare their distaste and revulsion for the factions, arrogance and failure of NSW Labor, and let a double-dissolution get the 2011 election underway early.

I’m disgusted I had to even suggest it, but it’s for the best.

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.