The state of play in NSW politics - chaos and murky waters

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Tim Badrick looks at the new state of NSW politics and sees chaos for Labor and dangers for the Liberals.

Any politician who wishes to inherit the public administration nightmare which Barry O`Farrell has in NSW would have to have rocks in their head. Setting up the stockmarket in Cuba or finding rocking horse manure might be harder, but what he and the NSW Liberals have been lumbered with demands big decision-making which is bound to compete against the groundswell of populism and anti-Labor sentiment which got the party elected for the first time since 1995. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has announced that she is most willing to work constructively with the ‘moderate’ O'Farrell, and put party politics aside enough to be able to re-construct NSW both physically and psychologically.

NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell - a lot to think about

Physically, in terms of the run down infrastructure, understaffed police force, much needed upgrades to schools and roads and everything else that Carr and company put on the backburner over the past 16 years and no-one in the Labor Party bothered attending to. Psychologically, in terms of healing people's faith in the NSW political system and restoring their confidence in the integrity of their elected members, no matter which side of the political fence with which they normally identify.

Whilst I am sure Gillard’s proclamation to work constructively with the O’Farrell government to restore NSW to its former glory is essentially well intended, there is obviously a degree of self-interest for Labor Party involvement in a newly found bipartisan objectivity. The NSW Labor right factions have always had a crucial covert influence over the operation of the party at a federal level — they make and break the careers of state and federal Labor members and they decide if and when a member of a left faction like Gillard ascends higher up the chain of command than one of their own. For decades, the factions of Labor in NSW have been so powerful and influential at a federal level, that essentially the right factions constitute a break away party — almost as though the left wingers in the party are an opposition within their own party. Gillard has probably been helped in most ways by the destruction of Labor in NSW, because the old right wing guard from Sydney – that has always controlled the numbers and factional representation in Canberra – has suddenly been obliterated
by the predicted carnage which took place at the state election.

New NSW Opposition Leader John Robertson - little chance of victory at the next election

On the other side of the coin, Gillard’s government is hanging on by a thread with the support of the two NSW federal independent MP’s, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, whose popular support is nose-diving more and more all the time within their electorates. If a federal election were held today, it is almost a certainty that Windsor would lose to the Nationals and Oakeshott would, at the very least, go very close to losing his seat. This is hardly going to enhance the political stocks and confidence of Labor in a state which they must perform well in to have any chance of winning the next federal election.

Barry O’Farrell is in the box seat, he knows he’s got at least 8 years in the top job barring a monumental stuff up from his government in the first term, the main thing that O`Farrell must do is learn from the mistakes of other ‘re-generative’ Liberal Governments like Nick Greiner’s in the late 80’s and Jeff Kennett’s in the 90’s. The Liberal ethos is naturally more inclined to be more pro-business and less government regulation; to a point that’s fine, but as a few Liberal leaders have proven over the years, deregulating the commercial sector further and trimming back the public service will only work long term if some government regulation of private enterprise is maintained, particularly in the banking and retail supermarket sector. O’Farrell has the job of holding onto a legion of Labor supporters who took a punt on him in the absence of a respectable Labor administration in NSW, he has already created many super ministries within his cabinet, which could be a two-edged electoral sword for him if he isn’t careful. One side of the sword will be to his favour, having super ministries puts the onus back on the frontbenchers to perform or get out, O’Farrell has already made it clear he will have no mercy for any couch potatoes.

The other side of the sword which O’Farrell will have to watch doesn’t cut him sooner or later is the potential for super ministries to induce centralisation and a more unwanted bureaucratic approach to policy formulation and delivery — the very situation responsible for making both the Keneally and Bligh Labor Governments top heavy in bureaucratic deadwood. Super ministries can work provided they don’t get weighed down with biro pilots and grossly overpaid bureaucrats whose services are needed more when MP’s who have been given too much responsibility have bitten off more than they can chew.

NSW Labor right now couldn’t organise a dog fight, as long as O’Farrell can organise a chook raffle he should remain a winner.  
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