THE UNDESERVING STATE
Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite
Joseph Marie de Maistre, 15 August 1811
Joseph Marie de Maistre, 15 August 1811
Whether or not every country has the government it deserves, there is little doubt that the people of the state of New South Wales must have done something truly, badly awful to deserve their government – something really appalling, and not just once or for a short period, but repeatedly, and for a very long time.
What could it be that has made NSW so undeserving of good government? It clearly isn’t the fault of just one political leader – these have been rotated almost routinely. In a little over three years we have had three Premiers and as many leaders of the Opposition. And it can’t be just one party, or we would have replaced it with the clear alternative.
While NSW has had a Labor government now for over 13 years, the story cannot be told from one side of politics alone. Sure, the party of reform and progress – the party born of a communitarian movement for the betterment of ordinary working folk – has become a macabre corporate parody, subsumed by its internal interests as the only will to power.
But even in opposition, the Tories - the high church coalition of metropolitan individualism and agrarian socialism - have done little more than highlight to the electors the paucity of real choice in NSW. Lacking Labor’s unrepresentative union domination, the NSW coalition makes do with religious activists, business failures and local non-entities.
Both sides are also staffed these days pretty much by career hacks; the only distinction being that Labor has more 25 year olds to draw upon from the union well; before they transfer their meagre gifts to a safe seat or the corporate sector. Yet this can’t be the whole story – the reservoir of talent in NSW politics has rarely been ocean deep.
It can’t even be solely the composition of the NSW Parliament (although this must be part of the story), as we electors had an opportunity to change it dramatically in the last election held only 18 months ago, and we did not take it. So no, there must be a more profound and complex explanation for our undeserving state.
Why are we so unmeritorious, here, now, in 2008? Even taking into account Sydney’s rampant housing costs, we pay our politicians a living wage. If they make it through two terms, they get a fine fat pension. Sure, some of them are jailed, or join Macquarie Bank.
But not all Ministers of the Crown dance around Parliamentary offices in their underpants, with all the panache of Homer Simpson, acting as if their political fundraising from property developers for years has, pari passu, given them title over the joint. Plenty of them go on and do useful work in the community after they’ve left politics.
We’ve got all the usual good governance things, too, like a bicameral Parliament. The government of the day doesn’t control the Legislative Council, so it can function as a house of review. It can, and does, initiate Parliamentary inquiries, which publish reports, and things happen. There is some consequential change, isn’t there?
We’ve got preferential voting and fixed terms, so the Treasury benches don’t get the referee’s whistle to call the end of one match and the start of the next. And we’ve got an anti-corruption commission, an Ombudsman, and more Commissions of Inquiry than you could poke a sharp beak at. So all the bent politicians are now ex-politicians, right?
Is it that we are simply dim or slow? No, I don’t think that’s right or fair. NSW isn’t South Australia or Queensland, after all. And while we may have come in part from convict and trooper stock, we’ve been so well hybridised with indigenous and exotic breeds that now we wear our blended heritage like a stylish tattoo: as a skin deep fashion statement.
So what has the wealthiest, most populous state in one of the modern world’s great success stories – a peaceable, roughly fair, freeish kind of democracy, with admittedly too much sun and barely enough fresh water – done to deserve its government? Wasn’t a history of faltering, lowbrow mediocrity enough? Why this abject and utter disaster?
Is it perhaps because we are all gone mad, or become the victims of post-modernist ennui? No, it can’t be this either, because we should have seen the pattern of disease spreading across state and even international boundaries. And we haven’t – the world may be a stage, but in no other company have we seen the play quite so poorly cast.
There is something peculiar as well as widespread about the political pathology of NSW. Of course, some of the story is just the Rum Rebellion retold – a political virus mutating, ‘flu-like, across the 19th and 20th centuries and into the 21st. Our addiction to grog, gambling and property deals – and their revenues - has hardly changed in two hundred years.
And so we have seen with every year a government more and more dependent on tax revenues – and hitherto, political donations – from precisely these three industries. Indeed, so ugly did this get that one of the last desperate steps of our most recent erstwhile Premier was to introduce public funding of parties’ election campaigns.
Thus, instead of banning spending on high cost political advertising, our taxes will in the future pay for the pleasure of us watching and listening to our political protagonists mislead, dissemble, prevaricate, diminish, exaggerate and distort any factoid, impression or opinion in pursuit of our tick at the polling booth.
But again, important as this is, it cannot be the whole truth of the matter. Other jurisdictions are beholden in part to corporate largesse while funding their campaigns from the public purse, yet some at least manage to conduct their politics in the public interest. Look at Quebec, or Belgium.
Perhaps there is a clue not in the government of NSW precisely, but in its relationship with other Australian governments. Australia is reputed to be the most over-governed country in the western world. Perhaps governmental competition is the real problem.
By way of explaining why so many Australians work in the media overseas, it is said (particularly by Americans) that in Australia there are too many journalists chasing too little news. Maybe Australian politics is like that, too. Maybe there are too many politicians, with too little talent, trying to do too much to too few.
There is something to be said for this assay of our federal system. And it is surely tougher for politicians in the states than in the Commonwealth (or the succubus territories). Resources are not only stretched across the levels of government, powers are fundamentally distorted to the disadvantage of the sovereign states, and particularly NSW.
This is so not only because of vertical fiscal imbalance – the Commonwealth has the bulk of the revenue raising powers; the states the preponderance of the basic (and costly) government responsibilities – but also because of the incessant judicial trend to prefer the Commonwealth over the states in constitutional disputes about their respective powers.
In short, more and more, the Commonwealth is where the action is. Or, more accurately, while the clout lies with the Commonwealth, the hard work remains with the states. This is particularly galling for NSW. The joke not so long ago was, NSW would be in favour of uniformity, so long as all the other the Australian states were uniform with NSW.
Now, the biggest state continues to receive a disproportionately low amount of taxation revenue, but suffers a diminished political influence. While it is perhaps not quite as bad as Bob Carr once joked, that the job of Premier is becoming little more than the Mayor of NSW, it is certainly a less appealing place for an ambitious political operative.
There is no doubt that NSW is attracting less capable political talent. It ranks now down with the pack of mainland states – Victoria and Queensland, and to an extent even SA and WA. And on a per capita basis, NSW may not perform as well as most of the others. Its political talent is trickling elsewhere, and the only elsewhere in Australia is Canberra.
* * *
What is my evidence for this drought of political talent? Careful analysis over many years, coupled with my own professional experience. While not a political functionary, I have worked long enough, and close enough, to see some of the talent in NSW at play, particularly over the last five years. And it has not been an edifying experience.
I have met and advised the last two Premiers, and seen at close call the work of their predecessor and a number of their Ministers. I have worked at various levels with many ministerial advisors in NSW politics. And I’ve socialised with more current and former ministerial staffers than I care to recall. The NSW Parliament and Governor Macquarie Tower are not strangers to me.
So lets talk specifics: Morris Iemma and Barry O’Farrell; Nathan Rees, Carmel Tebbutt and John Della Bosca. We have heard it said that Morris Iemma is quite a personable man, almost decent. And he might well be. He is certainly unremarkable enough to be nice.
When I first had dealings with Iemma and his staff, in 2003, he was the Health Minister. Bob Carr was Premier, and the health system was going through one of its serial bouts of morbidity – this time the symptomatic eruptions were over Campbelltown and Camden Hospitals. Other bureaucrats and I were brought in to manage the crisis. For nine months.
My first impression of Iemma, at a tour of Campbelltown Hospital conducted in a strained attempt to assuage the ropey staff (particularly the nurses), was of a compact introvert – like a quiet but wary pet perhaps, or a loyal retainer with a keen eye. There were, at the time, also rumours of Bob Carr leaving politics (accurate, if premature, as it turned out).
Speculation spread, as it will among staffers and public servants, about the probable and possible contenders to replace Carr, who was seen as a smart issues manager and quick to resolve political problems, but empty of policy commitment. Talk turned to Iemma. All of us, including a future Health Chief Executive, laughed and said, No way, he hasn’t got it.
And so it turned out. Morris Iemma didn’t have it. He really was fit only to be the help. But the Centre Unity faction of the Parliamentary ALP chose him to be Premier, and so he was. For three years he led NSW, without the capacity to do so. Even as a dud Premier, he won an election. So what does this say about the political competition in our undeserving state?
I first saw Fatty O’Barrell (as he was known) in action in 1992 as the Chief of Staff to Bruce Baird – the then urbane if vapid NSW Transport Minister. It was the last days of the Greiner Government. O’Farrell might have been a bit XXXL, and the beard was to a taste acquired only by women named Rosemary, but he was considered an impressively astute operator.
I expected him to do well. After all, once John Brogden’s mental health imploded at the time of Iemma’s elevation, there wasn’t exactly a whole football team of competition on the opposition benches. But somewhere along the way from apparatchik to protagonist, Barry lost his bottle. Did his courage diet away, I wondered, or did he shave it off?
O’Farrell now reminds me of the lion in The Wizard of Oz – he sort of looks the part, except he’s a bit soft around the edges. His paws are clawless; he holds his tail up like he’s worried he’s going to trip over it; his growl just isn’t convincing – he doesn’t seem to be frightening anyone except, perhaps, himself. Maybe he should grow back the beard.
So, no real challenge there yet, but I guess the final visit to the Wizard won’t come until the election in March 2011. In the meantime, we have the newly inserted Nathan Rees.
I’ve met Mr Rees only once, a few years ago in the then Premier’s office. Perhaps he was having a hard day. But I am not at this time in a position to disconfirm the hypothesis that he’s an arrogant bully – a saner, leaner, hirsute version of Michael Costa, as yet un-sacked.
Maybe Nathan has matured. Maybe he will grow into the job. But it worries me (and here I could be showing my age) that at 40 he doesn’t seem to have done much with his life. I shouldn’t be blunt Nathan, but being a union official and political advisor are not enough.
Passions for cycling and literature are meritorious, of course, and honest labour in Granville with the Council Garbage Service no doubt rounds out one’s life experience. Still, I worry about Nathan’s excessively earnest efforts to demonstrate his sleeves-rolled-up Westieness. Like Rees, I grew up in Northmead: there is nothing intrinsically worthy about it. There is little to be ashamed of in being middle class, Nathan. Get over it. Move on.
Actually, I quietly suspect that Rees spent his childhood not in Northmead, but in Pymble – perhaps as the son of an executive in an American chemical company, his mother in reality the proprietor of a trio of florist shops. I can see Nathan, at seventeen, repudiating his days in the Gordon Junior Rugby Club, lured by the socialist romance of humping bins.
So, if Rees doesn’t end up cutting it as NSW Premier, who could? There are in fact now only two members of the NSW Cabinet with any proven ability – Deputy Premier Carmel Tebbutt, from the left, and John Della Bosca, the formerly rotund born-again cyclist of the right - both of whom have just returned to the front bench. Of the rest, who could say?
Perhaps the talent has flowed elsewhere. If this is right, we should detect in Canberra a flood of gifted politicians and staffers pouring in from NSW. So lets examine the evidence. The coalition first: John Howard; Malcolm Turnbull; Brendan Nelson; Tony Abbott; Joe Hockey. All blokes, but not a bad haul if we include the immediate past Prime Minister.
As well as the current Leader of the Opposition, we have the now former leader and - at least in his own mind - a potential leader, as well as an amusing fat guy. But still, whatever your politics, these fellows aren’t duds. The thesis is holding up so far: Not much Tory talent in Macquarie Street might mean more in Canberra.
What about the ALP? Well, here the proposition is promising but a little less certain. Who is there? Tanya Plibesek? Hmmm. Looks good, but time will tell. She’s 38. Will we still admire her political presence when she’s a more dowdy 48? I hope so.
Anthony Albanese? With a face only the aforementioned Ms Tebbutt could love, he’s a quirky performer. Not dissimilar to the tall ex-rock star with the shaved pate. Quirky. And quirky is fine as far as it goes, but good government it does not make.
How about Greg Combet? A Victorian import who could yet end up another Simon Crean. Tony Burke? Too early to say. Bob Debus, perhaps? Surely if one retires to federal politics, it is ordinarily only to the Senate.
Speaking of the Senate, there is John Faulkner and, now too, Mark Arbib, the immediate past General Secretary of the NSW ALP – a high-powered party fundraiser and (I kid you not) the son of a property developer - who was apparently influential in this latest rotation of undeserving Premiers.
Of these eight NSW Labor members, maybe four or five will endure as genuinely worthwhile political participants in Canberra. The evidence at this stage is inconclusive. Still, it’s way better than the situation back in NSW itself.
We established above that, in NSW as at September 2008, there are actually just two members of the Cabinet known to be worth paying: Carmel Tebbutt and John Della Bosca (as long as he agrees to separate from his current partner, who is clearly a bad influence).
While, in the Opposition there are, ummm...I just don’t know if there are any. Maybe Mike Baird (son of Bruce)? Youngish. Eager. Apparently personable. Reasonably articulate. Pru Goward perhaps? No, no, no. We have enough evidence now – Bob Carr; Peter Collins; the inane Maxine McKew - to support a law barring ex-journalists from seeking high office.
Greg Smith, perchance? No way. There is a touch of the Thomas Cromwell about this man. It’s not the sixteenth century. We do not encourage wars of religion here. We have an agnostic state, and a good thing too. We neither want nor need an ultra-conservative Christian lawyer leading us in NSW.
So, we are left with the NSW Labor Party, run from Sussex Street by its General Secretary and a union leader who holds the cards of just 30% of the workers in NSW, via two of the least pre-possessing creatures to emerge from the crevices of the right-wing Centre Unity faction in a generation. A faction that is now the oxymoronic symbol of the Party’s demise.
This is the real reason that NSW politics has so little talent: what intelligent, capable, self-respecting individual, with a genuine interest in public policy and the betterment of society, would subject themselves to the vile and corrosive world of politics not just inhabited by, but profoundly influenced by, Edward Moses Obeid and Joseph Guerino Tripodi?
And what alternatives are there for a centre leftish liberal in NSW? Does the disintegration of the Democrats presage the fate of the self-devouring ALP in NSW? Will Obeid and Tripodi, along with Karl Bitar, John Robinson and Nathan Rees, be the last men standing? What happens if they are? Where does one go? Not to the quasi-religious Greens, the party of Colonic Irrigationists: too Puritan; too communitarian; too brown rice and tofu.
What alternative could emerge in a state where administrative responsibility is borne by those without fiscal power; where the perquisites of office become the only inducement in the competition for positions; where the mechanisms of retention and control of decision making are quietly and insidiously corrupted by union control and corporate allure?
Ultimately, it seems, the only solution is a constitutional reconstruction – one that addresses the vertical political imbalance and recalibrates the powers and responsibilities of good governance between the Commonwealth and the other governments of the country, whatever they are: states; territories; or perchance, regions.
For this, though, we will need to search for leadership in the future not from current or ex-politicians of NSW, but from the Commonwealth. That’s where the merit lies. Unless a real Wizard turns up, it looks like another informal vote in March 2011.
We truly live in an undeserving state.
© ENRICO BRIK, SEPTEMBER 2008