NSW election: New beginnings at Sussex Street?

At long last, after all the slightly nutsy talk in the media about “recall elections” and what seems now like an endless litany of scandals, the people of New South Wales have spoken. Save for at the margins, what they had to say wasn’t surprising, but that’s because the performance of the government induced them to scribble down their rightful invective on speech cards several years ago. It is difficult to recall an election campaign in recent Australian political history that has been quite so one-sided, quite so predictable. The obvious conclusion to the election hung heavily in the air during the campaign, with the major players saying their pieces to camera knowingly, like trainers before a horse race agreeably fixed in advance.

Following on from Kim’s initial round-up then, what next, for NSW Labor? Rank and file supporters of the party in New South Wales have been repeatedly slapped around the head by the state parliamentary party during the course of the last few years. We’ve been left on a hiding to nothing, often vainly defending the practically indefensible. Despite the fact that a number of good, hard-working MPs have been unfairly swept away in the carnage, it’s hard not to feel a sense of closure and relief in the election aftermath, as if the gloriously democratic detox that has long been needed has finally arrived. The people’s doctor has arrived in Sussex Street clutching a kit bag full of tennis ball-sized suppositories, and although what has ensued hurts, bloody hell, they sure are needed.

Let’s first consider the state of play. Yes, Labor has been routed in the Legislative Assembly, and stands to hold just 21 of the chamber’s 93 seats at best – around 22% of the house. The good news is that some very talented people have been retained: Linda Burney is safe, and at this stage it seems relatively likely that both Carmel Tebbutt and Verity Firth will keep their seats for the party. John Robertson is a somewhat polarising figure, but there is little doubt that he the kind of person capable of cutting through in his attacks on the O’Farrell Government. Nathan Rees and Kristina Keneally, despite their strong association with the problems of the last four years, are clearly capable political operators and the electorate holds no great personal disdain for either of them.

The question of who will lead the party will no doubt dominate the media shortly (it is likely to be Robbo), but strangely enough I don’t think who leads is particularly important. What is important is that the party makes an honest and open effort to reflect on the mistakes that it has made during the last eight years, perhaps through a public consultation process, involving both rank and file members and indeed the general public. The image that many people have of Sussex Street at the moment is a kind of malignant kleptocracy; this image needs to be smashed and remade through a transparent program of reform. If not now, with plenty of time to play with and nothing to lose by embarking on a period of controversial change, then when?

Former Assistant General Secretary Luke Foley MLC and Bob Hawke have already indicated a worthwhile starting point for consideration: the 2010 ALP National Review Report delivered by Bob Carr, Steve Bracks, and John Faulkner. The NSW branch’s very young, worryingly malleable General Secretary, Sam Dastyari, has already hinted that the reform of the party structure in New South Wales is needed, including the factions. All three are on the money, but need to go in quick and hard on internal reform: building a united policy front can wait. Contrary to what Tony Burke has suggested, policy doesn’t matter a fig right now. It is irrelevant. If NSW Labor wants to have any hope at all at even being competitive in 2015, it needs to first make a fist of the hard internal reforms that are long overdue, while the wounds inflicted by the electorate are still fresh and the polls don’t matter.

More broadly, what I would like to see is the party actively asking for the public’s involvement in setting in train its internal reform program. This physician is clearly incapable of healing itself alone. Whoever is eventually anointed as Opposition Leader should extend a hand to the people who have just rejected them, and humbly ask for their help in reforming the party, in rehabilitating a party organisation that is spluttering and wheezing under the myriad pressures being brought to bear on mass political parties in the 21st Century. The membership “amnesty” suggested by Dastyari is hardly going to bring anybody back: the party clearly needs to reach out to new people. It sounds incongruous and unlikely, but as part of a program of “new beginnings”, I think the time could well be ripe for a party membership drive, perhaps with reduced-price memberships and more of an emphasis on having the sorts of candid “by-the-barbie” interactions that this party desperately needs to start having more of with ordinary folks.

In short, there has never been a better time for reform and renewal within the NSW branch of the Labor Party. A rebranding of Sussex Street is only going to work if the product being sold to the people over the next four years is fundamentally different; more of the same “faceless men”, big party miasma just won’t cut it with people anymore.

ELSEWHERE: Shaun Carney rather optimistically heralds the end of “Richo-style” politics and Eddie Obeid has a retrograde crack at defending the indefensible.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

The news that isn’t news in Ryde

Given the dearth of healthy political debate in New South Wales at the moment, I don’t think it is really fair to describe next Saturday as “Super Saturday” as Lisa Carty does in the Sydney Morning Herald today. Sure, we have four by-elections happening in the state next weekend (triggered by the migration of Rob Oakeshott to federal politics and the resignations of Morris Iemma, Reba Meagher and John Watkins), but they are happening in a distorted political environment in which the media is gorging itself on whimsy rather than reality. Nathan Rees has received scarcely anything but a headkicking from the media since becoming Premier, and in such an environment it is patently obvious how by-elections are going to trend for the government.

Labor is tipped to cling grimly to both Cabramatta and Lakemba and indeed it should do so, although such is the environment that just about anything might well prove possible. In Port Macquarie Labor are not fielding a candidate, and the NSW Nationals have a fight on their hands to win the seat from a slew of independents.

In some ways I think Ryde is the most predictable seat of the lot. Lisa Carty reports the following breathlessly in the SMH:

In a stunning result for the Liberals and their candidate, Victor Dominello, The Sun-Herald/Taverner poll of 500 voters in the state seat of Ryde tips a swing of more than 20 per cent against Labor.

Pollster Philip Mitchell-Taverner said the shift in sentiment away from Labor and towards the Liberals was “extraordinary”.

For mine this is far from an “extraordinary” polling result. Let’s consider the following factors for a moment:

1) The toxic media environment that Nathan Rees finds himself in as head of a deeply unpopular and self-destructive government that has just vomited out its previous Premier and Treasurer.

2) The retirement of popular (and credible!) local member John Watkins.

3) The downward trend in two-party preferred vote that Labor received at the last election. Since the 2003 poll Labor’s 2PP vote has dropped by 5.4%, even without consideration of the factors mentioned above.

4) The demographics in Ryde, an electorate which borders Epping, Ku-ring-gai, and Lane Cove, some of the most blue ribbon Liberal seats in the state.

5) The fact that this is a by-election and voters have the luxury of being able to “send the government a message” by either lodging a protest vote or opting not to optionally preference Labor. It does not have to worry about the potential consequences of the NSW Coalition gaining control of the government in this poll.

In short, this is not an extraordinary polling result, and indeed I doubt whether there are too many people in even the NSW Labor Party let alone outside it who think a government victory is likely in Ryde this coming Saturday. It is virtually a dead rubber thanks to the prevailing conditions. The poor Labor candidate Nicole Campbell has nothing short of a mammoth task on her hands… I hope she wears some protective mental gear when the voters trot outside with their baseball bats on Saturday morning!

Nathan Rees in Hansard

Comparisons have already been drawn by some commentators between the elevation of Morris Iemma to the premiership of New South Wales in August 2005 and the unexpected rise of Nathan Rees to the same position this week. If anything though, it is arguable that the rise of Rees has been even less of a rational leadership transition than that of his predecessor. Prior to his gaining the premiership, Morris Iemma did have nearing fifteen years of parliamentary experience behind him, including a relatively high profile stint in the Health portfolio. Rees, by comparison, has served less than two years in parliament and despite the touch of (welcome!) colour in his early job history, he can certainly be regarded as an apparatchik premier. For the majority of the last fifteen years he has worked as a political staffer.

The Murdoch press (as expected) is running a typically unreasonable line about the emergence of Rees which seems to imply that New South Wales will soon explode in a ball of uncontrollable flames. Realistically the only reasonable perspective, of course, is to welcome the departure of Iemma, Costa and Watkins as the breath of fresh air that it represents, and to wait and see if the new leadership team cuts the mustard. Given that they have had only a couple of days in the job, any more aggressive attacks on the Rees/Tebbutt team can be dismissed as the vainglorious acts of political expediency that they are.

Given that I know about as much about Nathan Rees as the average person (e.g. nothing), I thought it might be worth while having a bit of a look through his contributions to the Hansard over the last couple of years to try and get a feel for where he stands. There are a few excerpts and thoughts over the fold.

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World Youth Day: heralding a new dawn for Barangaroo?

And what or who is Barangaroo? Barangaroo, of course, was the wife of the famous Aboriginal Australian Bennelong, and is now also the name of the “East Darling Harbour” foreshore development planned by the Iemma Labor Government. One only really needs to consider the “before” and “after” images online here to fully appreciate the unprecedented opportunities that this site offers the city and people of Sydney. It is assuredly quite rare that a city of Sydney’s size and prominence has the opportunity to reinvent such a large sector of land so close to the heart of the city.

While I know at least one person who is relieved to be out of the country for Sydney’s World Youth Day celebrations, personally I am a little disappointed to be missing out on all the hullabaloo. In particular, it would have been nice to have been part of the first major civil usage of the Barangaroo site following the demolition of the site’s storage sheds, which completed in April 2008. This is a site which, fingers crossed, will change for the infinitely better over the coming decades. It will be nice to observe things develop to the point where Sydney inherits a new drawcard for residents and tourists alike, and we all have something just a little more to be proud about.

ELSEWHERE: The State Government’s detailed concept plan is available online here. Some of the World Youth Day pictures online at the SMH are quite spectacular and give a certain flavour of the Barangaroo that is to come for Sydney.

The beginning of the end for Iemma?

I am on the other side of the world, but even I can scent a whiff of change in the air for NSW Labor. Setting aside for a moment the disturbing and unacceptable schism between the parliamentary leadership and the rest of the party in relation to electricity privatisation, it would have to be a rare punter indeed who believes that the Iemma Government is doing a stellar job of managing the state. Reiterating this perception, Tim Dick has a frankly unsurprising report in the SMH today noting that a Griffith University study has found that the NSW State Government is the most unpopular government in the country. If that wasn’t enough, Andrew Clenell and Alexandra Smith report that a leadership challenge is imminent, backed by party general secretary Karl Bitar, who has fallen out with Iemma and Treasurer Michael Costa over the electricity privatisation issue.

What I think is important at this juncture is for NSW Labor to do some seriously constructive navel-gazing. It’s all very well to talk about changing leaders, but what is really required is a culture shift in the way the party interacts with the electorate and indeed conducts its affairs. It’s arguable that such a shift can only really happen if the parliamentary leadership changes, and on that basis, in the absence of any serious prospects of improvements otherwise, I would support a change in the leadership at this point. Despite his professed loyalty to the Premier, his factional handicap as a member of the Left and his close association (as Deputy Premier) with the current leadership team, I am inclined to think that John Watkins is the right man to take the party forward.

Let’s put the last fifteen months in perspective. The Iemma Government won a fairly strong election victory in March 2007 over an Opposition that was rendered incredible and unelectable by its then leader, Peter Debnam. Thanks to Debnam’s weak leadership and somewhat flawed personage, the government honestly did not encounter the tough electoral challenge it might have expected after four years of decidedly so-so governance. From what I can gather, Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell has not exactly been blazing the trail in the job since obtaining it a month after the election, but nor has he been doing that badly either. I think most voters would agree with me when I suggest that he is a credible alternative leader, even if he is not doing a very inspiring job. This spells trouble for NSW Labor in 2011 unless people’s impressions of the government change for the better and change fairly rapidly.

As a party member, I do feel that Morris Iemma really has tried his heart out to put things right over the past couple of years, thrown into the lion’s den as he was after Bob Carr’s abrupt resignation. Although I tend to disagree with Michael Costa’s views more frequently than I agree with them, I do believe he wants to do the best he can for the party. However, particularly in light of the electricity privatisation debacle, with the party wrenched apart in a recklessly destructive fashion, I don’t think it has been good enough. For many punters, I am sure it has not even been close to good enough. For the good of the party and indeed the state, I think both Premier Morris Iemma and Treasurer Michael Costa should stand aside and let a new leadership team try and steer the government in a fresh direction.

Why John Della Bosca should resign

NSW Education Minister John Della Bosca has lost his license after being caught speeding for a seventh time in his government car. The political news media is agog with commentary on the Rudd Government’s inaugural Federal Budget at the moment, and as a result, the media blowtorch has not been applied. It should be.

I suspect that I am not alone in subscribing to the admittedly romantic notion that our politicians should hold themselves to higher standards of behaviour than the people they represent. These people are meant to be our best and brightest, and have our best wishes at heart. They should, by definition, hold the law in deep respect and abide by it to the best of their ability, not just because of their own belief in its sanctity but to serve as an example to the wider community. It is for these reasons that I think Della Bosca, despite probably being one of the more talented ministers in the Iemma Government, should at the very least step down from cabinet and spend some time doing penance on the backbenches. This is obviously not a one-off error. One would have to infer that someone who has been caught speeding on seven separate occasions actually speeds quite a lot. It is clear that Della Bosca does not respect the state’s traffic rules and regulations as much as he should as an elected representative of the people and proxy custodian of law in New South Wales.

There are good political reasons for Della Bosca to resign as well. The Iemma Government desperately needs to turn around what are some fairly deep set public perceptions about its levels of transparency and probity. Of course the government will be further damaged regardless of whether Della Bosca resigns, but by stepping down, the minister could reclaim a certain sense of honour and dignity for himself and for the government. If he remains in his current position, the average punter is going to get the wrong message about speeding and acquire an even more critical view of the Iemma Government that many voters already do. The government really can not afford to keep tossing logs like this one onto the bonfire of what quite possibly could be its electoral demise in 2012.

You have to hand it to the NSW State Opposition

Despite the fact that the NSW ALP has been tearing itself to pieces over the last week on electricity privatisation, it still does not seem that the Opposition can take a trick. Brian Robins reports for the SMH today that the former Opposition Leader Peter Debnam has resigned from the shadow ministry, reportedly in protest at the Opposition’s decision to support the controversial privatisation. Because Debnam still holds that neither the government nor the opposition have an election mandate for the sell-off, it would seem he feels that his position as the Opposition infrastructure and energy spokesperson has been critically undermined.

The sell-off is an interesting policy issue for the NSW Liberals because it is plain for all to see that they are desperate to capture the sort of wave of public interest and support that enveloped Kevin Rudd and Federal Labor in the year leading up to last year’s federal poll. The Howard Government may well have been on the nose, but the Federal Opposition did a fairly good job of outlining some positive reasons to vote for a change in government. In contrast, the NSW Opposition is there, but that is about all it is. As much as some punters may be sick of Morris Iemma and NSW Labor, there is no evidence yet of any groundswell of enthusiasm for the only credible alternative. At this rate, there is little danger of that changing. Barry O’Farrell is marching his troops right along side those of the government on this fairly thorny issue, with the end result no doubt being that punters can’t really distinguish between column A and column B.

Large privatisation plans do by their very nature arouse strong emotions in people. There are likely great numbers of people out there in the electorate who would strongly support the NSW Liberals if they elected to oppose the privatisation. By supporting the privatisation, the Opposition is probably being true to its principles, but I am not sure it is playing the politics of this potential goldmine as well as it could. Peter Debnam was wrong about a number of things during his stint as Opposition Leader, but he alludes to something worth latching onto when he suggests that neither NSW Labor or the NSW Liberals have a clear electoral mandate for privatising the state’s electricity industry.

Perhaps a more nuanced stance for the Opposition to take would be to announce its own plans for privatising the industry, but to promise voters that it would not proceed with the privatisation until it received an electoral mandate at the next state poll. By taking such a stance the Liberals would stay true to both their principles and the electorate and be one up on the government. As it stands, they are foolishly portraying themselves as the Iemma Government’s complicit accomplices on this issue. Everyday people who oppose the privatisation have been shut out of the debate completely.