Rees’ gutsy gamble rewrites the rules of Labor politics
UPDATE: Nathan Rees has sacked Joe Tripodi and Ian Macdonald from Cabinet.
In political terms the equivalent of a nuclear bomb has just gone off in Sydney. It has immediate ramifications for some of the most hated figures in the deeply unpopular NSW Government.
But it has massive national long-term implications, as it will determine whether Labor leaders have the right to choose their own ministry, rather than have their frontbench foisted upon them by the factions.
In a gutsy gamble, NSW Premier Nathan Rees has gone for the doomsday scenario revealed on The Punch some weeks ago by taking on the factions and winning rank-and-file party approval to form his own Cabinet by dumping unpopular or treacherous ministers. And Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard has just strongly backed Rees in her speech to the NSW ALP, and Kevin Rudd has done so in a press conference at APEC.
Rees played the party’s factional bosses off a break by almost casually announcing the proposed rule change at the end of his ALP conference speech on Saturday, and then immediately winning near-unanimous support from the floor.
The Caucus and the factions were caught unawares - there had been no consultation from Rees at all, obviously - and immediately began a round of frantic telephone calls and then a series of meetings in Chinatown at the usual factional nosheries just down from the conference at Sydney Entertainment Centre.
The most likely immediate casualties are the almost universally despised Finance Minister Joe Tripodi, and two loyalists to leadership pretender John Della Bosca, Primary Industries Minister Ian MacDonald and former Police Minister Tony Kelly.
If they go, Rees has finally stamped his authority on the party. But Rees himself may be the casualty here. The factions are desperately trying to convene a Caucus meeting for this week so they can knock Rees off, although the little question of plan b - who gets to be premier - has not been resolved.
This is the NSW part of the story. There is a much bigger national story which every Premier - and which Prime Minister Kevin Rudd - will be watching with more interest.
What Rees has done is to challenge with maximum force the stranglehold which factions wield over premiers in determining who gets the jobs.
The most demeaning and damaging moment in Rees’ career - to pick from a crowded field - came on his third day of premier when, upon announcing a Cabinet that included names such as the hated Tripodi, he meekly admitted that he had to go with the names he had been “given” by the factions.
It’s almost like that moment has been eating him away, and he’s now had a Jerry McGuire moment where he’s stood up in front of everyone and passionately argued for what he thinks is right.
Bob Carr long argued that Labor premiers and prime ministers should have the same authority as a US President in determining Cabinet, drawing on factional outsiders to assemble the best possible team, and put several noses out of joint in his second term when he fast-tracked union boss Michael Costa and former Sydney Lord Mayor straight into the ministry.
Mike Rann has offended factional sensibilities in SA by appointing and retaining National Party MP Karlene Maywald as his Water Minister - but that was the result of a complex deal with independents and minor parties to secure a knife-edge victory, rather than a point of principle.
Kevin Rudd’s frontbench would look quite different if it was selected wholly on merit, rather than the PM having his hands tied by juggling factional interests and working from an artificially limited list of names.
Whatever happens to Rees, the bloke will be regarded as something of an accidental hero by anyone has ever led the ALP.
And he will be regarded by the NSW Right as a political Frankenstein, who they picked from the Left Faction to roll a Right Faction Premier in Morris Iemma barely a year ago, only to stand back in horror as he starts smashing the place up.
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