Forget Della — What's Really Wrong With NSW?


This article was meant to be about the multiple failures of the NSW Government to adequately plan for basic infrastructure in Australia’s largest state and capital city.

The problem with writing a story about the NSW Government, however, is that events always seem to run ahead of the criticism. Just when you think things couldn’t possibly get any worse for the New South Wales ALP … they get worse. 

After more than a week of damaging media speculation that incumbent Premier Nathan Rees — a man who has never actually faced voters as leader of the country’s most populous state — would be replaced, now one of the front-runners to succeed him has resigned in a sex scandal.

You’ve got to love NSW Labor. In Victoria, ministers risk their lives on ambitious solo mountain climbs. In NSW, ministers risk their careers in seedy extra-marital affairs.

NSW Labor has already tried the bait-and-switch move with the premiership twice in a government that is now 14 years old. After Bob Carr pulled the pin in Labor’s last term, nice guy Morris Iemma was elevated to the leadership, where he unexpectedly defeated the Liberal’s hapless Peter Debnam in the last NSW election. But Iemma never really enjoyed the full support of his cabinet and party organisation, and was eventually rolled on the issue of electricity privatisation. Iemma quit in frustration, followed by his volatile treasurer Michael Costa. So for the last year NSW voters have been governed by 40-something man of the Left, Nathan Rees.

But Rees is trailing badly in the polls and so speculation has continued to mount that the ALP apparatchiks are mobilising to remove him. Last week, the Sydney papers were full of reports claiming that Rees would be replaced by Planning Minister Kristina Keneally, a woman most voters have never heard of (even worse, she has an American accent after growing up and studying in the United States).

The other front-runner was supposed to be long-time Labor power-broker John Della Bosca, the Health Minister and husband of the notorious NSW federal parliamentarian Belinda Neal (of "Iguana-gate" fame). We can now scratch "Della" off the list, but there are bound to be other politicians putting up their hands. It seems to be the nature of politics in NSW Labor, a tangled web of political alliances and brokered deals, fueled by ambition and soured by ingrained hatreds and resentments.

No wonder the NSW Government can’t get the trains to run on time. As Jason Whittaker writes in today, Sydney’s abominable traffic is a testament to decades of car-centric planning non-decisions that have entrenched the decline of a once-extensive public transport network. Extensions to Sydney’s rail and bus network have been announced over and over during the long years of Labor’s reign, only to be quietly shelved. After a few years, the same proposals get re-announced in modified form, only to be shelved again.

Recently the Sydney Morning Herald‘s transport reporter, Andrew West, tallied up the number of announced-then-cancelled rail projects in greater Sydney. "In just the past 15 years," West reported, "at least $28 billion in rail infrastructure was promised by state governments but never delivered. Thirteen [of these]projects alone would have extended the rail service by more than 1000 kilometres of track and provided dozens of new stations in areas forced to depend more and more on the family car." If even half of them had gone ahead as proposed, for instance a rail service to Sydney’s north-western Hills district, the NSW capital would be a markedly better place to live in today.

The result is that Sydney’s existing public transport network is grinding to a halt. Simple efficiencies, like integrated ticketing, which other cities take for granted are totally absent. On a recent visit to the Emerald City, I stayed in Hunter’s Hill, where the buses to the city regularly run late by 15 or 20 minutes along Ryde and Gladesville Roads. Bus tickets don’t work on trains or on Sydney’s boutique, one-line-only light rail service, or vice-versa. Trains and buses were regularly overcrowded.

It takes real leadership to plan and build major public transport infrastructure like bridges and rail lines — but other states seem to be able to do it. Western Australia’s Labor government, for instance, managed to build the Perth to Mandurah rail line in only three and a half years during a mining boom.

Part of the problem is that big transport projects cost money — lots of it. And NSW has precious little of the folding stuff to go around. Like all the states, NSW suffers from a bad case of the "vertical fiscal imbalance", the phrase used by economists and bureaucrats to describe Australia’s creaky federal arrangements. While Canberra raises most of the taxes, the states spend most of the dollars, delivering things like public hospitals, state schools, emergency services and public transport. The result is that the NSW budget in any particular year is nearly all committed to paying public servants and delivering basic services. This was why Morris Iemma wanted to privatise the electricity generators.

The lack of cash has been exacerbated by NSW’s unwillingness to borrow money. Desperate to retain its AAA credit rating, a succession of NSW treasurers have refused to borrow the money required to build decent infrastructure for the state. In contrast, Queensland under Anna Bligh and Andrew Fraser decided to borrow large amounts of cash to keep rolling out the infrastructure. The state lost its AAA rating, but the citizens of the state will still get new hospitals, schools and busways. Perhaps it’s a strategy NSW should consider.

The state also suffers from a bloated and substantially under-performing public sector. NSW’s public hospitals, for instance, are stressed and cost more to run for comparable health performance than Victoria’s, as a range of health experts and public enquiries have found. To take another example, NSW’s draconian youth detention policy costs far more and delivers far worse outcomes than Victoria’s more lenient system, as a recent 4 Corners episode reported.

Another one of NSW’s biggest problems is the Roads and Traffic Authority. Like the roads departments in other states, this super bureaucracy has an entrenched stranglehold on the planning and delivery of NSW’s transport policies. The Director-General of NSW’s new Transport and Planning super-bureaucracy is Les Wielinga, a former RTA boss, and the chronic influence of the RTA can even be seen in Sydney’s light rail planning, where the RTA mysteriously has a seat on a key committee, despite having nothing to do with light rail (while the actual operator of Sydney’s light rail system, Metro Transport Sydney, is not on the committee). As in Victoria, the result of these "institutional captures" has been that a pro-roads and car-centric approach has dominated Sydney and NSW’s transport policies.

And now of course, in the wake of Della Bosca’s departure, NSW’s $15 billion dollar health system needs yet another new minister. "Let’s get through this morning and this afternoon" was one of Nathan Rees lines at his press conference today. It shows you how far the decision-making horizon has contracted in NSW.

So bad has NSW Labor performed in government in the last decade that some have even raised the idea of a California-style "recall" option, allowing voters to sack their government before the next poll. But a glance at the current troubles of California shows the perils that activist clauses in a state constitution can generate. And no-one expects Nathan Rees to resign and call an election either.

The stark reality is that Sydney and NSW’s problems cannot be solved easily and quickly. If they could, Bob Carr, who loved nothing more than a good media announcement, would have already done it. What NSW now requires is sustained and committed public sector reform aimed at good governance, long-term planning and sensible, sustainable infrastructure investment.

Nathan Rees can’t deliver that. But can Barry O’Farrell? Can anyone?

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.