In NSW politics winning is more important than policy
If you were to choose one place which symbolised the challenges facing the city of Sydney, it would be hard to go past the permanent disaster area that is the Kingsford Smith Airport.
With a continuing argument about whether the damn thing should even be there at all, Sydney Airport, like the city itself, is a disorganised work in progress, the subject of upgrades which no sooner finish than another one begins. It’s a stressful place. It’s expensive. It consistently ranks last in surveys of national airports, principally because it has been designed and redesigned without its human users in mind.
It is six months since NSW Labor was deservedly pummelled at the ballot box ushering in what was billed as a new era of accountability and renewal under the Coalition Government of Premier Barry O’Farrell. The one thing which has changed is an end to the constant procession of low-rent ministerial scandals which made the tail end of Labor’s rule seem like the last days of Rome. But in terms of the more pressing policy challenge of getting some life and direction into the place, it has been a bleakly disappointing start.
Politics in NSW has been ruined by a culture whereby staying in power has become an end in itself, or certainly much more important than doing anything bold or ambitious in a policy sense. It’s the exact opposite of what the city actually needs to get itself back on track. As Sydney grew throughout the 1980s and 1990s there was a need to rethink how it operated and to spend more money than was allocated on infrastructure. It didn’t happen then and it isn’t happening now.
If ever there was a politician with a mandate it is Barry O’Farrell yet he campaigned and is now governing with such a remarkable degree of timidity that his landslide win is in danger of being squandered.
O’Farrell’s level of enthusiasm and political judgment were deservedly criticised last week with his unusual decision to brush the relaunch of Sydney’s Casino following a $960 million upgrade. Whether you like gambling or not Star is a massive tourist drawcard, a big employer and a huge taxpayer. A bit like the airport, it has historically been another example of Sydney getting things wrong. Jeff Kennett once described it as an RSL on steroids. Not only was it tacky, but it didn’t even face the right way, angled away from the water. You would think that an investment of almost $1 billion would be something the Premier might want to endorse publicly with his presence but while Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe managed to get along, O’Farrell was double-booked (as was the Lord Mayor Clover Moore).
O’Farrell’s no-show suggested a weird level of ambivalence towards his key role as a booster for the city. The more alarming development, six months into his term, is the criticism he is facing over his sluggish approach to making savings and generating new funds for infrastructure.
He has been damned with faint praise by his infrastructure chief, the reformist ex-Liberal Premier Nick Greiner, who has described O’Farrell as taking “a more measured approach” in his approach to government.
“Barry’s Barry, he’s not Nick, he’s not Jeff [Kennett],” Greiner said. ``I think you have to allow the government to develop its own persona…and sure, the private sector and maybe people like me will occasionally be impatient about it.’’
It was hardly a glowing endorsement by a man who achieved more in his first 100 days as premier than O’Farrell will achieve on current forecasts in his first term.
The most obvious and easy opportunity O’Farrell has to rev up the state is to flog off every corner of the power industry and use the estimated $50 billion windfall to invest in the city.
O’Farrell is the victim of his own political timidity on this issue. He painted himself into a corner with two decisions, the first of which was expedient, the second of which lacked courage. He stunned and angered many Liberals (including former prime minister John Howard) when he broke with long-standing party policy to oppose Morris Iemma’s power sale to pile more pressure on his premiership. Ahead of this year’s state election he ran a mile from the question of a full power sale. Now his hands are tied with an interminable independent inquiry into the merits of the sale, even though anyone with a modicum of economic understanding can identify the billions it would generate, even with provisions to ensure that consumers aren’t stiffed by higher pricing.
The silliest thing about it all is that Labor was so on the nose ahead of this year’s poll that O’Farrell could have promised to do whatever he liked and would have still won a 20-seat majority. Instead we are stuck with lacklustre government which desperately lacks ambition and a city whose underperformance continues to mirror that of the people who run it.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…