The nobility of public life, in a sea of squalor
There are more former ministers in the NSW Government than there are ministers. Fourteen of them to be exact.
One of them is in Long Bay for plying youths with heroin and having sex with them in his parliamentary office.
The other 13 aren’t bad people. They’re just guilty of a combination of hubris, sloth, incompetence and stupidity, and stand as examples of what can happen when a government has been in power for so long that it can’t remember what it was originally there for.
Exhibit A in the stupid category, the latest entrant to the ranks of the disgraced and discarded, is the former Ports Minister Paul McLeay. The son of the factional hack Leo McLeay, young Paul somehow got it into his head that the management of Sydney’s waterways required him to while away the hours in his ministerial office looking at pornographic websites and gambling online.
He wasn’t doing anything illegal. He was just being really dumb, especially as the parliamentary web server stipulates on start-up that users agree not to access explicit or gambling-related content.
Given his parentage we should perhaps be grateful that he didn’t seek compensation from the taxpayers for any gambling losses he incurred.
There are several droll jokes doing the rounds in Labor circles about the McLeay case. One involves Kristina Keneally’s claim that it’s not the kind of behaviour she would expect from a NSW minister. Why? Another goes to Labor’s obsession with high-speed broadband.
Only the most airheaded optimist could survey the political landscape in NSW and take a glass half full approach to the often squalid spectacle standing before them.
But there was a yin-yang moment on Macquarie Street on Wednesday, the day on which the punter McLeay was punted, which will hopefully serve as a reminder as to what politics can be about and should be about.
I wandered down to Macquarie Street at 5pm on Wednesday to hear the maiden speech by Upper House Labor MP Luke Foley. Foley is a cricket enthusiast who has written several excellent columns about the game for our website The Punch. Until he was sworn in as an MLC in June, he was the assistant secretary of the NSW ALP, a position he had held since 2003.
Foley was instrumental in the decision by former Premier Nathan Rees, who also hails from the Left, to take on the factions in his address to ALP State conference last year where he declared that henceforth the Premier and not the factions would determine the composition of Cabinet.
Within weeks of the speech the factions had rolled Rees and installed Kristina Keneally as Premier. Her first statement in the job was to declare that she wasn’t a puppet of the factions, a statement with which Eddie Obeid, Joe Tripodi and the other people who had conspired to put her there would have passionately agreed.
When Foley gave his maiden speech on Wednesday he was standing at the dispatch box just metres away from Eddie Obeid. There is a deadness in Eddie Obeid’s eyes. It comes from standing for nothing other than the retention of power. Obeid was one of the first to shake Foley’s hand at the conclusion of his speech. Had he listened to and comprehended its content he would instead have tendered his resignation.
“Today, political parties are much maligned,” Foley began. “I want to speak in their defence.”
“I have some experience of Labor’s remorseless internal politics. I’ve always felt that our members and supporters deserve a party machine worthy of Labor’s message. Political power is a means to an end; it should never be the end in itself. I reject the empty pursuit of power.”
After a federal election where the winner was nobody, where the informal vote surged, and in a state which is in the worst possible state under the management of people who can manage nothing other than improbable victories, the speech stood as a sincere exposition of the potential nobility of a life devoted to public service.
The added bonus is that Foley will go far in NSW Labor politics. It should only be days until another ministerial vacancy arises.
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