Execution: How NSW Labor knocked off a Premier
Editor’s note: This is an extract from Rodney Cavalier’s forthcoming book Power Crisis, an explosive account of the self-destruction of the NSW Labor government, which has seen a turnover of four premiers in five years. Former NSW Education Minister Cavalier (once described by a left-wing Teachers Federation official as “the rudest, most pugnacious individual to hold office”), provides a warts and all account of the downfall of Premiers Iemma and Rees as well as the best analysis so far of how NSW Labor’s inexorable decline.
Nathan Rees began the final day of his leadership with a press conference.
He and his staff thought long and hard about what he might say. The line taken came of the instant; wrapping it in words took a while longer. Having decided against a studied silence, the contents of what Rees felt compelled to say will enjoy a long afterlife:
“I will not hand the government of New South Wales over to Obeid, Tripodi or Sartor. 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. That is the reality. That is the choice at stake today. The decision now lies in the hands of my Caucus colleagues.”
Word of his words spread rapidly. Many from the Right were livid he had so deliberately poisoned the chalice from which his successor would have to sip. There was shock at the audacity of it all. It was always unlikely such an assault would swing a vote, very likely the assault would confirm intentions.
Rees felt the better for saying what needed saying. He had convened a morning Cabinet in the Governor Macquarie Tower in the hope that distance from Parliament might encourage sober reflection. It was another occasion for straight talking from him.
The Right caucus met in the aftermath of the press conference. Its only business was the leadership. Not everyone agreed that Rees was terminal. In a caucus of 47 – one MP was absent – the opponents of the spill numbered 15. The spill motion was endorsed and, having been endorsed, was binding on all members of the Right. There was too much danger in an open contest against an incumbent premier.
Nominations were invited for the candidate that the Right would put forward. (Kristina) Keneally and (Frank) Sartor nominated. Sartor had cause to believe he would win – even unto the last moments he had pledges from those who would vote against him. Sartor had declined to commit to the return of Ian Macdonald, a condition of Eddie Obeid’s support.
Believing that the government could win the next election only with a credible Cabinet, Sartor effectively forfeited the leadership. Sartor won back his reputation in the Labor Party by losing the leadership.
Obeid and Tripodi were solid in their support of Keneally.
They needed to be. Keneally won 25–22.
No breathless hush on the Close that morning. The meeting of the Parliamentary Labor Party lacked majesty, a scurvy affair reflective of the work at hand. A spill was moved by the two Right wing ministers Rees had sacked. Consistent with the view that the leadership was private property returning to its owners, a motion of no confidence was introduced without speeches in support.
That is, the gravest measure in the law of organisation did not warrant an argument. The movers muttered: ‘The motion speaks for itself’.
Carmel Tebbutt spoke with immense power against its passage. Throughout the Rees premiership she had been mentioned as an alternative. Not once had she encouraged that course. Finally and selflessly she renounced her own prospects.
The spill passed. The second ballot proceeded. The first leadership ballot in the New South Wales parliamentary Labor Party in 36 years. Keneally stood against Rees and won 47–21.
It is worth noting that the Rees vote plus the Right votes against a spill would have constituted a majority. Such are the consequences of concentric binding. Rees had discovered, as had Iemma, that the majority group within the Right controlled the Caucus: 25 dictated to 70.
With the ballot announced, Rees stood in the leader’s place and pledged his loyalty. The result ended an experience akin to waiting for an axe to fall. He returned to his office where the staff had assembled in the conference room. All were present. He warned them not to be too nice or he would lose it. After the speeches, he departed the building to the Verandah Bar in Elizabeth Street.
He returned, in full possession of his senses, to start packing. Rees pondered that at no time did any of the plotters visit him for a discussion.
Morris Iemma departed the scene and did not thereafter make any public comment. He became seriously ill, for one fearful day within two hours of death. The grace of his departure from politics reminded people of his many good qualities.
Iemma could have been the most significant Labor leader of modern times if he had demanded the end of union control of his party. A Labor leader will one day take that position, likely perish in the trying, but the anomaly of union control will not long survive a sustained assault by a parliamentary leader who proclaims the need to return the party to its membership. Leaving intact the union protection racket, while demolishing the rights of affiliates to play a role in ALP policy, would have resulted in the worst of all worlds.
In 2010 Iemma became a Trustee of the Sydney Cricket Ground – the ninth Premier of New South Wales so honoured and the 15th party leader. Being a Trustee is compensation enough for anyone.
John Watkins watched his seat of Ryde fall to the Liberal Party in a landslide. After Ryde, no marginal Labor seat was beyond losing. Watkins gave sterling service to achieving public understanding of Alzheimer’s.
Michael Costa resigned from Parliament without sentiment.
Too young to collect a pension, he wrote a column in the Australian and otherwise let his views be known. He wrote very well, largely adhering to a focus on what had gone wrong with the ALP. Reba Meagher disappeared without political trace. Karl Bitar had an untroubled time as National Secretary. He came into his kingdom in the service of a federal parliamentary leader who was adept at learning the grabs that emerged from focus groups, equally adept at reciting those grabs word perfect as and when required. Bernie Riordan remained President, unchallenged.
John Robertson took on several portfolios. His quiet competence took him below the radar. The party expected Robertson to seek a seat in the Legislative Assembly in the fullness of time. Graham Wedderburn, denied the Senate, returned to the private sector.
Nathan Rees remained a Member of the Legislative Assembly. He did not seek Cabinet office. He will recontest his safe seat of Toongabbie in 2011, after which he can expect to play a major role in whatever the ALP has then become. After his volley on the morning of his fall, he did not make another statement critical of the Premier who had replaced him.
The fall of Nathan Rees had a collateral casualty in Matt Thistlethwaite, whose position in the party office had become untenable. The strikes against him were fatal: inability to admit to the truth of how long he had known of Rees’ plans for selecting the ministry; backing the loser for the Right’s endorsement to replace Rees. Unlike Iemma and Rees, who had lost the confidence of the General Secretary, the lack of trust between Thistlethwaite and the new Premier was going to be a problem for the General Secretary. The Right had no appetite for another killing pre-Christmas.
In mid-February 2010, the secretaries of the Right-wing unions took lunch in a private room in the Golden Century Chinese restaurant in Sussex Street, a gathering sufficiently intimate that all could be seated around the one circular table. Also invited were Matt Thistlethwaite and the assistant secretary, Sam Dastyari, age 27.
In the week preceding, Thistlethwaite had received an offer too good to refuse – number two spot on the ALP Senate ticket. It was an offer he had helped float. The offer came with the endorsement
of Mark Arbib and Bernie Riordan. The night before and that morning, Thistlethwaite talked the matter through with close colleagues and former mentors. At lunch Thistlethwaite announced his acceptance. Being placed in the Senate was unusual punishment. Now there was no spot for Wedderburn.
Electricity warrants consideration as a personality in its own right. The Plan B proposals for sale won the approval of the ALP and the government without any debate. No sale has taken place. Nor will a sale take place in the life of this government. The global financial crisis reduced the ranks of potential buyers. The plenitude of concessions won by the unions drove down the price of what assets were on offer. The prices exacted by the Kennett government in the 1990s look like windfalls today, on a par with the first prices for broadband spectrum. The fond hopes of Carr in 1997 and Iemma in 2007 were not within cooee of anything any longer out there.
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