NSW: from shonkiness and sloth to visionless inertia
“Some day someone will write the full story of Australian roguery, from the rum racketeers of the First Fleet to the beer racketeers of the Second World War, from land swindlers to mine swindlers…the dramatis personae will be well assorted – red-coated English officers and wide-hatted Australian squatters, Tories and Socialists, knights and nobodies, politicians, policemen, aldermen; racing men and brewers; and every State will provide a scene or two, though, unquestionably, New South Wales will steal the show.”
This is the introduction from Cyril Pearl’s Wild Men of Sydney, the rollicking account of late 19th century NSW politics through the lives of Upper House MPs John Norton, Patrick Crick and William Willis, three men who were drunk on power and often just plain drunk. It’s one of those enduring books which helps tell the story of a city. It was written in 1958 about events from the 1880s and 1890s.
To this day, it captures the language of Sydney, the culture of government and business, the sense of entitlement which colours the conduct of so many MPs in this State. The fact that we have an American woman as Premier has done nothing to change this culture.
It’s a culture which revolves around a strong sense of mateship formalised through a robust factional system, the profanity-laden denunciation of opponents internal and external, covert deal-making with threats to ostracise or destroy anyone who challenges or exposes the deal. The funniest thing Kristina Keneally has said since becoming Premier was on the very first day. “I’m nobody’s puppet, I’m nobody’s girl.” Of course she is, and to suggest so wasn’t sexism but a blandly accurate description of how a factional brawl had made her the third premier in as many years.
On the eve of her pending demise, even before a ballot has been cast, there are those in her group who want her to force Peter Garrett aside at the next federal election in the seat of Kingsford Smith which overlaps her State seat of Heffron. If you can change premiers twice without having an election, it probably doesn’t occur to these people that going to the polls seeking four more years on Macquarie St is a touch disingenuous if you’re thinking about securing three years in Canberra.
Little has been done over the years to change the political culture of Sydney. There have been no brave premiers who have tried to reinvent the way things get done. Nick Greiner tried to tackle to bloated and unexamined public service, and deliver more transparency by introducing an ICAC which would ultimately cost him power.
Bob Carr had two very brave moments; the first was the Police Royal Commission (the coppers having long been the apex of the culture described above), and his staring down of the unions over workers compensation. But he did nothing about the perverting influence of property developers and hoteliers on the party, and consequently on policy.
If the Greens win Balmain it will be in part the result of the continuing Meritonisation of the foreshores, much of which happened on his watch. As to the question - how can anyone afford to live on the foreshore anyway? – many of the happy residents were probably senior types at the various infrastructure firms around town who were lucky enough to win government contracts for projects which brought questionable benefits to taxpayers, and a bonanza to those who won them.
Come Saturday week Barry O’Farrell will be Premier and my tip, based on the culture of this State and, particularly, city, is that we’re in for four years of pea-hearted inertia.
There is nothing remotely brave about Barry O’Farrell. The only real application he has shown as leader involved losing a few kilos. There has been little renewal of his team – half of his frontbenchers were in Parliament when Bob Carr was elected Premier in 1995. Some of the most senior members of his team are the most long-serving and this doesn’t reflect a reassuring depth of talent and experience, rather an inability to recruit.
The factions are still run by old stagers such as the small-l liberal Michael Photios, and the vitriol which emanates from the capital-c conservatives over religious hardliners such as David Clarke suggests that, in government, O’Farrell will struggle to maintain discipline.
Right now though every member of the Liberal Party knows that all they have to do is keep their heads down and they will romp it in. The magnitude of their victory will be amplified by the fact that they should have won in 2007 but didn’t, for the simple reason that they were a rabble with no policies. They look less of a rabble now. Policy-wise they remain a mystery as O’Farrell has made himself such a small target that he has avoided big ideas.
A crueller analyst would say he’s ignored big ideas because he doesn’t have any. If he does, he is keeping them to himself. I don’t know anyone who could identify the one big thing an O’Farrell Government would do, other than not be a NSW Labor Government, which of itself is enough of a promise to make any sensible person vote Liberal on Saturday.
What happens after that, though, will fail to inspire. There’s a model for the O’Farrell Government already and it’s the late and unlamented government of Dean Brown, the Liberal leader who reduced Labor to a pathetic 10 seats in the then 47-seat South Australian Parliament after the $3 billion State Bank collapse in 1993.
Brown squandered his prodigious majority and did nothing other than change the state slogan, bungle an outsourced information technology project, then lose the leadership that same term to his factional rival John Olsen.
Proportionally, O’Farrell’s win will be of a similar magnitude and may set him up nicely for a few years of drift before he also gets knocked off.
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