The World's Longest Running Puppet Show


"You’ve got to pity the poor voters of NSW," opined the editors of the Australian Financial Review in 2005, "they think they elect their government."

The fiction has now been exposed to all. A small group of utterly unaccountable men run the NSW Labor Party, and, through it, they control the government of the most populous and important state in the federation. Now they have removed a sitting Premier, a politician who didn’t even face voters as his party’s leader, and installed another, equally untested puppet in his place.

How do we know this? The now former premier of NSW told us so. In his final speech before being ousted by the "malign and disloyal" Right faction of his own party, Nathan Rees let fly with an astonishing speech, improbably honest and heartbreakingly sad.

Sad for democracy, that is, because there doesn’t seem to be much of that left in New South Wales. It’s hard to believe Morris Iemma’s election as premier occurred only two and a half years ago.

Iemma at least won an electoral mandate as premier of the premier state; voters hardly knew the name of his two successors at the time of their ascension. Iemma chose to leave after being unable to force through his plans for electricity privatisation against party opposition; now Rees has been executed for standing up to the factional barons that control the crown.

No-one seriously believes the current leader, Kristina Keneally, has been elected for her merits as a leader or politician.

She has spent six years in parliament and has achieved relatively little in that time, spending barely two years on the front bench. Her most recent role, as Planning Minister, placed her right in the smelliest quarter of the Labor government; she famously admitted not knowing which developers her most senior bureaucrat had met. Nor has Keneally had any ministerial experience in the central agencies of government, like Treasury or Finance, or in any of the big line departments which deliver services, like Health, Education or Transport.

No, Keneally is the new Premier of New South Wales because the key power-brokers in Labor’s "Centre Unity" faction have placed her there. As Rees said yesterday, "should I not be Premier by the end of this day, let there be no doubt in the community’s mind, no doubt, that any challenger will be a puppet of Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi." He wasn’t, and Keneally is.

The power that Obeid and Tripodi wield qualifies as a perversion — even as a corruption — of democracy. These tremendously unpopular figures have no real support in the electorate, having risen to office by stacking ALP branches in safe seats. Tripodi has consistently been linked to scandal, while Obeid has made millions in the notoriously gray area of property development. He once sold a house to the New South Wales government for a handsome profit the day after he bought it.

The power of these men was subject to rigorous public scrutiny more than four years ago, after the departure of Bob Carr, by noted Australian political analyst Peter Botsman, a man with considerable personal networks in the NSW ALP. As Botsman wrote at the time, "this group is increasingly made up of people who have never been popularly elected to represent the Labor Party but have come to their positions by fiat of the Labor administrative machine. Many have never faced a democratic ballot. Many have simply used their positions as party bureaucrats and administrators to win automatic passage into Parliament. Many have become unchallengeable as ministers and members of Parliament through administrative rulings of the party’s head office. Many are wives, girlfriends, friends or loyalists of people who have administrative power within the NSW Labor Party machine."

For a time it looked as though Nathan Rees would fight and defeat the factional warlords. At the recent NSW Labor state conference he audaciously sought and gained party approval to pick his own ministry and ban donations from developers; as a result, Tripodi was sacked. But it was a Pyrrhic victory: with Tripodi on the backbench, the Right moved quickly to use its dominant numbers to unseat the Premier.

Now all that Botsman and others predicted has come to pass.

New South Wales has its fourth premier in four years, a laughably inexperienced candidate who appears to have no real policy agenda and even less popular support. In her first interview, she said she would have "a focus on jobs and economic investment as NSW leads the nation out of its economic downturn," which is nothing more than a platitude. New South Wales finances are stretched to breaking point: without raising new taxes, selling more assets or borrowing more money, NSW cannot meaningfully invest in infrastructure or job creation programs. In any case, the record of this government in delivering major projects since the Olympics is threadbare at best.

In a telling comment on the state of the NSW Government, many links on the official Premier’s website are no longer working — today, at least, visitors to the Media Releases page are being redirected to the NSW Government "State of Opportunity" homepage.

Helpfully, Fairfax has put up Rees’ valedictory speech for all to see. The impression that is left is one of a government run by bureaucrats on auto-pilot — whose leaders divide the spoils of power among themselves.

New South Wales now appears to be every bit as dysfunctional as the 1980s Bjelke-Petersen administration in Queensland. At least in the 1980s in Queensland, politicians like Bjelke-Petersen and Russ Hinze enjoyed a measure of popularity. Who in NSW would vote for this lot right now?

The only remedy for the current impasse is an election in which the entire corrupt edifice of NSW Labor will be swept away. But that election is still more than a year away; in the meantime, Australia’s largest state will continue to drift from one crisis to another. Will Keneally even survive to contest that election? You wouldn’t bet on it after yesterday’s tawdry palace coup.

Opposition leader Barry O’Farrell was correct when he argued that Nathan Rees should have called an election to give voters a say. But that was never going to happen. In an interesting twist, the best comment of the day was from Kevin Rudd in Washington, who said simply that "the people of New South Wales expect good government. It’s time to end the games." Rudd and his key strategists like Karl Bitar and Mark Arbib must now be seriously concerned at the damage the New South Wales party is doing to federal Labor’s vote.

In fact, the games won’t end until federal Labor, and Rudd himself, takes on the poisonous influence of Tripodi and Obeid, acts to end branch-stacking, and cleans up the party in NSW. Rees attempted it and spectacularly failed. Obeid and Tripodi are now in complete control.

In the end, therefore, it is up to the voters of NSW to throw out this government. When they finally do so, it won’t be a moment too soon.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.