NSW Labor governed not wisely, but too well
Every man and his dog – and there are plenty of dogs involved in this story – has a reason the NSW Government went down so spectacularly at the weekend. But really there is only one: NSW Labor is simply excellent at what it does.
The NSW Right is – or at least was – such a supreme political and campaigning machine that it wins not only more often than the Liberals but more often than it should for its own good.
In the last 35 years in NSW Labor allowed only a hiccup of Liberal rule before it broke the back of the Greiner Government in 1991 after a truncated three-year term and then sent it to Coventry for 16 years at the next election.
And the fact is that, unless your surname is Marcos, 16 years is too long for any Government to be in power.
Former leaders have stormed the media castle with historical revisionism and pragmatic repositioning, showcasing the quintessential NSW Right tactic of waiting to see what happens and then taking credit for it.
In this case Paul Keating, Bob Carr, Morris Iemma and Michael Costa have taken the cudgel to new leader John Robertson and the party forces opposed to electricity privatisation as the principle cause of Labor’s demise.
With the utmost respect to these four great intellects, what utter horseshit.
There is no question that the sale of the state’s rusting, obsolete and dirty coal-fired generators was absolutely the sensible thing to do. It would have unloaded a hunk of creaking rustbuckets that were about to become a millstone around the neck of the taxpayer and delivered NSW billions of dollars to spend on vital transport infrastructure.
But Governments do not get elected for doing what is right, they get elected for doing what they can get away with. And the giant black hole in the arguments of Messrs Keating, Carr et al is that whatever its merits the privatisation was deeply opposed by the electorate and even more passionately by their own party.
There have also been howls of treason because ALP Conference nobbled a democratically elected Premier.
Again, what rot.
Iemma had no mandate whatsoever for privatising electricity. He did not mention it once during the 2007 campaign and then from out of nowhere made it his central legacy. If electricity privatisation had’ve been on the cards Labor would not have won 2007, let alone 2011.
Likewise it was not Robbo’s fault for opposing privatisation based on the virtually unanimous demands of his entire membership base and the party rank and file. Indeed the real treason would have been for him to betray them as their representative so as to prop up an already flagging Premier and a Treasurer who, despite his many charms, literally spat at conference delegates.
In truth the wheels were already falling off the Iemma Government. While it looks positively Rolls Royce compared to the administrations that were to come, the fact is that the dream team of Mike Kaiser and Eamonn Fitzpatrick had left the building and been replaced by a bunch of advisers who were green at best and laughably incompetent at worst.
At one point while I was in the gallery I remember asking a senior communications staffer to give me a list of things that would be able to go ahead thanks to the electricity sale or be at risk if it fell over. “For God’s sake, tell the public what they are getting for their money,” I said, in retrospect as much for his sake as mine.
This person, whom I won’t name out of pity, either couldn’t or wouldn’t do it. It was like a door to door salesman telling customers over and over again to give him 50 bucks but never revealing what he was selling.
The message should have been “Would you prefer this crappy old generator you never even knew you had or two brand new train lines?” Instead it was “We’re going to sell-off your assets even though we never told you about it – oh, and we’re going to keep all the money for an election slush fund.”
It was criminally incompetent communications management and from that moment on the Government was dead in the water.
If anything it was not opposition to the power sale that killed the Government, it was its botched attempt to do it in the first place.
Which brings us back to the NSW Right. The primary strength of this almighty political apparatus has never been its adherence to bold or reformist political ideology, as an uncharacteristically wistful Paul Keating suggested this week, but its ruthless and absolute discipline.
In fact the primary role of the Right has been to win elections with populist policies while quietly advancing the interests of its support base – which, thank heavens for small mercies, includes a lot of people who genuinely need support.
A key part of this is to efficiently kill off the more lunatic pursuits of the Left, while still allowing their bleeding heart ministers to dole out enough money to teachers, nurses, housos and immigrants so that if an alien lands on Earth it can tell the difference between them and the Liberals.
And another part of that discipline is not being caught with your pants down and your wang in your hands as so many MPs and ministers, overwhelmingly from the Right, were latterly prone to do.
So did people vote down Labor because Morris Iemma was denied the chance to sell a bunch of generators the public overwhelmingly wanted him to keep? Of course not.
People voted down Labor because Iemma could not control his party, his party could not control him and neither could control the orgy of MPs and ministers behaving like spoiled mini-Neros because the little brats never knew what it took to get power in the first place.
They are the inevitable effluent byproduct of an animal so tough, so wiley and so well built that it lived longer than it ought have.
In the inevitable navel-gazing that will follow this routing various voices will declare that the party lost its way because it lacked principle. Ironically this will be claimed by both sides of the electricity debate, thus proving the farce of the argument.
The fact is the only principle the NSW Right has consistently adhered to is “Win at all costs”. It believes, quite rightly, that other principles are pointless unless this first one is achieved. Unfortunately if you do win, though, you need something to do.
This is a party that stayed in power so long it ran out of ideas, and then money, and then the will to live.
If Labor had’ve lost in 2007 when it was supposed to, it would be odds on to return to power at the next election. As it stands now Labor will be out of power for at least three terms in NSW – as federal Labor was after 1996 – because of the toughness and dexterity of leaders like Carr and Keating, who maintained such leadership and discipline they each won an election they probably shouldn’t have.
But over the course of their departure – and the loss of the master enforcer Graham Richardson – in the mid-1990s to mid-2000s two things happened: Sussex St became infused with a parade of political carpetbaggers who swapped intellect and instinct for fundraising and focus groups and whose one trick up the sleeve was to knife leaders who dipped in the polls; and the Parliament became flush with inexperienced MPs thinly disguised as ministers and staffers who were literally just out of school.
The party simply ran out of talent.
And so Saturday’s wipeout is no great tragedy for Labor. Rather, like the Great Flood, it is a necessary and long overdue purging made necessary by their own hubris and wickedness.
Labor’s scandals were outrageous and their transport inertia was criminal and yet neither of these two prongs in the pitchfork would have gleamed as they did were it not for them holding power so long. They governed as Othello loved: Not too wisely, but too well.
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