Reform? What NSW Reform?


It’s been a busy week in NSW politics.

James Packer’s Sydney casino was given the go ahead. The NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption warned that new planning laws were open to corruption. The NSW Game Council, which was to manage shooting in national parks, was abolished because of “conflicts of interest”. And the Federal Government announced an anti-corruption intervention into the NSW ALP.

The NSW Government’s announcement yesterday that a secret “independent” evaluation had approved Packer’s high roller “6 star” hotel development at Barangaroo on Sydney Harbour, rather than a competing bid by Echo Entertainment’s Sydney’s Star Casino, was predictable. Although there had been no public or independent economic analysis, Premier Barry O’Farrell supported the bid almost as soon as it was announced in February last year.

Packer’s win was an anticlimax after the carefully managed public relations media campaigns promoting the gambling tycoon’s decision to “give Sydney a present”. Although Sydney will be repeatedly told a steady flow of rich Chinese and interstate gamblers is good for the city’s businesses, many will agree with Greens Gambling Spokesperson, Legislative Councillor John Kaye, who said yesterday that “the decision was made without tender, without public input and without any concern for the windfall opportunities it will bestow on organised crime and money launderers”.

The impression that “mates” are still organising favours for their rich friends is reinforced by the unrivalled team of Liberal, Labor, business and media supporters and employees amassed by Packer. Team Packer, which New Matilda reported on last year, includes the former Liberal Minister for Communications Helen Coonan, former Labor Senator Mark Arbib and former NSW ALP Secretary Karl Bitar. They join other Packer hangers-on including Labor Right doyen Graham Richardson and Peter Barron, the father-in-law of the current NSW ALP Secretary Sam Dastyari, who is now leading the charge to reform the NSW ALP announced yesterday.

The next step for O’Farrell and Packer is to pass legislation to allow Sydney to have more than one casino. The NSW ALP, which is desperate to sidestep its reputation for secret deals for mates, is in the hot seat.

It looks like the NSW ALP leader John Robertson will cooperate with O’Farrell in passing the legislation rather than backing the Greens, who oppose the new casino. Influential people in Labor circles have been deeply involved in Packer’s long campaign. Indeed a favourable Labor government decision was predicted as far back as 2007. At that stage, Peter Barron was lobbying for Packer, who was rumoured to be eyeing off a site in inner Sydney. The then Premier Morris Iemma decided not to proceed with a second casino.

Last February, Robertson was critical of O’Farrell for being slow to back the new Packer proposal. The then Federal Minister for Tourism Martin Ferguson also backed the deal. The shadow minister Luke Foley and Robertson also both said the party will support the casino legislation, so long as poker machines are not included.

While this provides some public cover, it is scarcely convincing. If you can change the single casino law, you can change the minor details later. Let's not forget that Adelaide’s casino began with only 89 gambling tables, but soon included increasing numbers of poker machines. With competition from expanding Asian operations — including from his own shared businesses in Macau and the Philippines — there is no guarantee that Chinese gamblers will continue to flow, especially if the Chinese government were ever to decide to expand mainland gambling. If business slows, there will be pressure to expand the casino, especially to shore up the predicted gambling taxes. With control over casinos in Perth, Melbourne, and a base in Sydney and possibly one in Queensland, Packer will be in a strong bargaining position with the states.

So far the community has been completely excluded from the decision which also reinforces the belief that the “fix was in” from the start. This is also not at all unusual in NSW; concerns about the notorious Part 3A legislation and covert mining deals helped sweep Labor from office in 2011. But instead of bringing the community into decision making as promised, the Liberal government is now in the process of drafting legislation that will exclude the community even further.

Apart from allowing residents’ input into broad “strategic” regional plans, citizens will be prevented from objecting to property development proposals. Discretion in the hands of decision makers and property developers breeds corruption, which is why the Independent Commission Against Corruption took the trouble to write a submission to the government warning of corruption that might result from the proposed changes to planning laws – all while it continues with the lengthy and costly task of dealing with the legacy of the corrupt ministers in the NSW Labor government.

There has been a tendency to portray the NSW government as only recently corrupt and prone to cozy deals. In fact, hidden deals are the norm in NSW politics, not usually resulting in the millions Eddie Obeid and his family were stacking away. As way back as the 1950s, the McKell Labor government was corrupt. This was followed by the Liberal government led by Bob Askin, whose successful election campaign in 1965 was directly funded by Frank Packer. The Askin government was notorious for deals with property developers and police corruption. A new Labor government led by Neville Wran and his successors followed, also notorious for systematic police corruption, judicial corruption and further deals for mates in the property industry.

The Greiner Liberal government was elected in 1988 on an anti-corruption platform and established the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption. But in 1992, Greiner, who strongly favoured private sector involvement in government, was forced to resign after a messy political deal designed to shore up votes for his minority government. He became a businessman until in May 2011 he was appointed as Chairman of Infrastructure NSW by the O'Farrell Government. He recently resigned saying that his work in developing a 20 year investment strategy, which discourages investment in rail in favour of road, was complete.

The problem with NSW politics is the networks that accommodate shifts in government. The NSW Game Council which was abolished yesterday is a good example.

The O’Farrell Government announced that the Game Council would be abolished after a scathing review found that it that found its position as “regulator, promoter and operator” of hunting activities in NSW was “inherently conflicted”, something that the Greens had consistently argued to the Labor government.

The Game Council was introduced in 2002 through a deal between then NSW Premier and now Foreign Minister Bob Carr, and the Shooters and Fishers Party’s John Tingle. In exchange for support in the Legislative Council the NSW Government funded policies favoured by the Shooters’ Party. In 2009, the then Greens MLC Lee Rhiannon called for the abolition of the council, warning that they were pushing for shooting in and commercialisation of national parks. Four years later, the Greens, environmental groups and grassroots opposition has forced the government to put on hold shooting in parks, although the government still plans to trial supervised shooting in national parks in November.

So what chance is there that the federal intervention to hasten reform in the NSW ALP can fundamentally change the NSW power game and a party whose rank and file members are dead on their feet?

Anti-corruption and moves to return to the “rule of law” must be welcomed. There are activists, such as those working for Labor for Refugees, who have dedicated their lives to “working within” the Labor party despite the fact it often adopts policies they deeply oppose. They will be hoping that, although Rudd’s announcement is really about short term voter perception in Western Sydney, it will lead to a fairer party and a rebuilding of the grassroots. They will also acknowledge that a renewed party would take years to grow.  

Those outside the party will be more sceptical. After all, Sam Dastyari is leading the process, and he's intimately connected to the NSW Right faction that has been the source of many problems. He has also worked for the Labor lobbyists Hawker Britton and was mentored by Mark Arbib. He did a stint in the office of ex-Premier Nathan Rees to look after the interests of the NSW Right wing branch.

He told the ABC yesterday that the ALP is “is changing, it is changed … the Labor Party is always changing”. It cannot be encouraging for the remnants of the weakened rank and file to hear that although an election date has not been announced, there may not be enough time to select the candidate to replace Peter Garrett, who resigned following the demise of Julia Gillard. Instead Senator Matt Thistletwaite will likely take Kingsford-Smith, and Labor fixer Graeme Wedderburn will replace him in the Senate. Dastyari himself is also looking forward to a seat, although he thinks he is too young at the moment.

There will be much debate about whether the proposed rule changes will go far enough and whether a 30 day intervention from the centre can generate a renewed party where power resides in the grassroots. At the moment the bureaucracy has been left intact. In today’s Financial Review, Labor reformer Rod Cavalier said that the changes would not “stop the rise to power of a figure like Mr Obeid”.

One of the proposals is to ban property developers from standing as candidates. This misses the point. It is the mates who do the bidding of those with special economic interests – gambling, mining, property development and so on – who are the problem, no matter which of the two major parties are in control in NSW.

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