Likely NSW Labor leader is the worst choice possible
The man most likely to lead the NSW Labor Opposition is the man least equipped to bring the party together after the richly-deserved caning it endured on Saturday.
Former sparky John Robertson is a likeable knockabout who comes across as the embodiment of old-style Labor values. The fact that he is a decent person does not alter the fact that he’s been pivotal in some of the most politically indecent acts the state of News South Wales has ever seen, starting with the unprecedented dumping of a party leader, shortly after he’d been returned by the voters in a gutsy and unlikely election victory.
Whatever old-style Labor values he claims to represent were rendered transparent by this act of bastardry and the subsequent chaos it unleashed.
The dumping of Morris Iemma and the chaotic shift to Nathan Rees and then Kristina Keneally epitomised the shambles the NSW Labor Government had become. It fuelled the 17 per cent swing the Liberals received on Saturday, the greatest political shift of the past 60 years.
As the former head of the NSW union movement, and a chief architect of Iemma’s demise after the former premier attempted to privatise the power industry, it seems bizarre that a person such as John Robertson who was so completely intertwined in Labor’s shockingly unpopular factional manoeuvrings will now swan into the party’s leadership, comically promising to be an agent of change.
The number of party wise-heads who are on the record against the idea of John Robertson’s leadership is vast.
Morris Iemma has directly ascribed the collapse in Labor’s blue-collar base to the tactics used by Robertson and others in the party machine.
Former Carr Government Minister Rodney Cavalier has predicted that if Robertson gets the leadership Labor risks being out of office for 20 years.
After Iemma was rolled, Paul Keating wrote John Robertson a letter saying: “If the Labor Party’s stocks ever get so low as to require your services in its parliamentary leadership, it will itself have no future.”
Former State treasurer and privatisation advocate Michael Costa said on Sunday that Robertson “has neither the political intellect nor the political courage to be a credible alternate premier.”
Writing in the same newspaper, former premier Bob Carr yesterday revisited the 2008 privatisation stoush at ALP state conference and Robertson’s role therein:
In a display of wilfulness and obstinacy, the opponents of electricity privatisation staged a public brawl. It presented a hideous visage to the electorate…On this occasion, the party tore up the script that had given Labor these years of ascendancy and ritually humiliated Iemma and then replaced him, the first time in NSW Labor history a premier had been executed. Contemplating this turbulence, the electorate started deserting the party.
If John Robertson was a book, you’d leave it on the shelf with these sorts of recommendations.
It’s quite a roll call, and it’s too substantial and sophisticated to be written off as sour grapes on the part of privatisation advocates. Yet despite the result on Saturday, the shattered remnants of the parliamentary party looks set to fall in behind the one person in Caucus most closely associated with the conduct which brought them to this dark place.
Of the few remaining parliamentary members of this obscure political outfit known as the NSW Labor Party, more than half are women. On current forecasts, two of them are women who appear to have registered remarkable victories. The only glimmer of light from this mess for the ALP was the performance of Education Minister Verity Firth in Balmain and Deputy Premier Carmel Tebbutt in Marrickville.
Firth has handled herself with bravery and dignity since her husband, political chief of staff Matthew Chesher, was arrested earlier this year buying an ecstasy tablet. Although clearly no fault of her own, that episode provided a low-rent footnote to the scandals which had beset the NSW ALP this past term. Under siege in her inner-west seat from the Greens candidate, popular Leichhardt Mayor Jamie Parker, Firth considered walking away from politics earlier this year. She fought on, and appears to have won.
Firth is not regarded as a leadership contender but Carmel Tebbutt is, having resisted several past attempts to cajole her into the top job. Her reasons for not running are the same now as they have ever been – quality of life and family. She’s married to federal minister Anthony Albanese and they have a young son, and the demands of both parents being in highly demanding public jobs is obviously significant.
It is a tremendous pity that Tebbutt cannot be convinced to enter the fray. She is about the only person in this comical Caucus who transcended all the muck and self-interest and half-wittery which passed for government over the past four years.
And this is the problem which bedevils NSW Labor. There are so few people in the Caucus who could break with the past, and those who are there don’t want the job or wouldn’t get the job anyway.
If Barry O’Farrell was the Stephen Bradbury of politics, skating into power when all around him had fallen, I don’t know what that makes John Robertson. He is certainly O’Farrell’s preferred candidate for the Labor leadership. Not just because so many people in the ALP regard him as a disgrace for destroying a democratically-elected premier.
He’s also the man who, in opposing a power sale which could have injected many billions of dollars into the state’s infrastructure, played a decisive role as a cloth-capped union hack in damaging the quality of life for everyone in NSW who uses a road, a school or hospital.
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