Siege Recommendation: NSW ALP Leader Robertson A Dead Man Walking

REVELATIONS NSW opposition leader John Robertson signed a letter on behalf of Sydney siege perpetrator Man Haron Monis signals the end of his tenure as ALP leader; the latest instalment in a political career punctuated by gaffes and serious judgement errors, it dictates that it is no longer tenable for Robertson to even fulfil the function of a sacrificial lamb offered up for slaughter at an imminent state election Labor is certain to lose.

Whether it likes it or not, NSW Labor is going to be led into the coming state election by a fresh face, with current leader John Robertson now too thoroughly discredited to even serve as a sacrificial lamb to the (certain) slaughter at the hands of a resurgent Coalition government and its popular new Premier, Mike Baird.

The revelation he signed a letter back in 2011 on behalf of a constituent — who, it just happens, was the same man who holed up in the Lindt Cafe in Martin Place last week with 17 hostages, killing two of them before being shot dead by Police — at best confirms perennial questions that have swirled around the soundness of his judgement, and at worst, show him unfit to be elected as Premier of New South Wales, to serve in a community leadership role in any capacity or, indeed, to be entrusted with any public responsibility at all.

I caution, at the outset, that any temptation to jingoism in this case should be avoided at all costs; after all, the wounds — physical and emotional — of what happened in Sydney last week remain brutally raw. There is no way when he signed the letter three years ago that Robertson could have known he was signing off on a reference for an eventual terrorist.

Yet even so, it should have been entirely possible for Robertson — or his staff — to establish that “Man Haron Monis” was the same Man Haron Monis who had been charged over the sending of offensive letters to the relatives of dead soldiers’ relatives two years earlier; that case had been the focus of intense public scrutiny.

And it is also reasonable to expect that Mr Robertson — or his staff — would or should have also known of the charges Man Haron Monis faced over the brutal sexual assault of a young woman shortly after his arrival in Australia; it needs to be remembered that whilst the general public may remain unaware of such matters before the Courts, the offices of elected representatives are uniquely placed to obtain such information discreetly, to use it expeditiously, and as leader of the NSW ALP it is inexcusable that Robertson failed to do so.

The pretext for the letter Robertson signed might seem to some reasonable enough: a letter on behalf of a constituent to the Department of Family and Community Services seeking permission for him to see his children, who lived with his estranged wife (over whose murder, incidentally, Monis was facing charges as an accessory when he began his siege last week), on Fathers’ Day.

But even then — as Robertson acknowledged to the media today, when this story broke — his office was aware that Monis was the subject of an AVO at that time, and this alone should have been enough for astute personnel in the competent discharge of their responsibilities to at least check into the background of their constituent before simply signing reference letters on his behalf.

As we now know, this did not happen.

This event compounds a long line of gaffes by Robertson — only ever elected to lead NSW Labor on account of its heavily depleted ranks following the 2011 state election massacre — and it signals the point at which he is simply too much of a liability for the party to be able to afford to carry him with it into another election campaign.

Even if the result of that election is that Labor is certain to lose.

Readers will remember, of course, that Robertson was already a dead man walking over revelations last year that he had self-adjudicated over a $3 million bribe he was offered that it “wasn’t serious” enough to officially report it — and in the present environment of zero tolerance of official corruption, this snafu was impossible to justify.

He won a reprieve firstly after Labor harnessed apathy toward do-nothing Premier Barry O’Farrell and anger over a first-term MP quitting to win the by-election in Miranda with a swing approaching 30%; he was subsequently earmarked for replacement again, until former Premier Nathan Rees was forced to announce his retirement after it was revealed he had engaged in an affair with a constituent, and that the constituent matter he was dealing with at the time of the illicit affair also intersected with his responsibilities as a shadow minister.

It seemed the accident-prone Robertson might make it to the March state election, especially prior to O’Farrell’s involuntary departure over an undeclared gift of a bottle of wine: in some polls, Robbo had Labor within shouting distance of the government, even leading in one shock (rogue) Newspoll late last year.

Ever since O’Farrell was replaced by a better candidate, of course, the Coalition’s re-election prospects have been assured; Baird will not win the 65% of the two-party vote O’Farrell did, riding the wave of public disgust over Labor corruption and incompetence into the Premier’s office as he did four years ago.

But it now appears certain that Baird will not only win handsomely, but handsomely enough to set the government up for a third term after 2019 if it simply does what it was elected to do in the first place, and provides sound governance for its next four-year term.

Robertson’s problem is that there have been too many instances of highly questionable judgement emanating from his office since he became leader, and in the allusion to the corruption and incompetence and sleaze that characterised 16 years of tepid Labor government in New South Wales, this latest furore is the one that will hurt him.

I include, for the interest of readers, a couple of the articles for today’s Daily Telegraph in Sydney here and here.

Anger over what transpired last week aside, there is simply too much evidence that Robertson is unfit to be entrusted with the responsibility of public servitude in the wake of the emergence of his letter in support of Monis.

Labor, to its credit, is said to be canvassing a leadership change that —  incredibly, given the date — could occur, quite literally, tomorrow.

It clearly is fed up with the foibles of its leader, and acutely aware that whilst their party is not going to win the election next year, it is increasingly unlikely to win any additional seats either if it goes to that election with Robertson at the helm.

Ordinarily, of course, a leadership change five minutes before an election is a recipe for disaster. So poor has Robertson’s standing grown after the past week’s events, however, any change of leader can only improve his party’s prospects.

Whichever way you cut it and however the Labor leadership moves play out — in short, whether Robertson quits in favour of former minister Michael Daley or whether Daley has to throw down the gauntlet in a leadership challenge to blast him out — the NSW Labor leader is finished, and if he doesn’t realise as much then he is probably the only person in NSW who doesn’t.

John Robertson is now a dead man walking. The sooner his colleagues put him out of his misery, the better.


Premier Of NSW: The More Things Change…

NEW SOUTH WALES — by sunset today — will have its sixth Premier in nine years; whilst this column has enthusiastically endorsed Treasurer Mike Baird to take on the top job, it is to be hoped that whatever decision is made by NSW’s Liberal MPs signals the injection of some stability into the upper reaches of government in the Premier State. Pulling on the ballot to favour one candidate over another is not a good sign.

First things first: I want to clear up something that has been the subject of several telephone calls since I posted on the resignation of Barry O’Farrell yesterday.

It seems some readers have misinterpreted my remarks as having accused O’Farrell of corruption; this is simply untrue, although in the fracas that exploded around the issue yesterday I think it’s probably fair to say a lot of insinuations and accusations have been flung about injudiciously in many places and forums, and there is a need for some perspective.

O’Farrell has resigned, in short, because he misled/falsely testified/lied to (take your pick) a corruption inquiry that he had been called as a witness to, not because he was corrupt. There is a world of difference.

The reason this has rendered his position as Premier untenable is twofold: firstly (and despite suggestions to the contrary from some of his misty-eyed colleagues yesterday), giving false testimony to ICAC — on a scale of relative equivalents — ranks somewhere near misleading Parliament in terms of the gravity of the deed; it is, however inadvertent or well-intentioned, a serious act that runs counter to the very notions of honesty, openness and probity that a body such as ICAC exists to facilitate in the first place.

Secondly — and intertwined with the first point — is the political damage that would surely follow O’Farrell had he attempted to tough it out and remain in office: having campaigned incessantly from opposition on a platform to clean up New South Wales and root out corruption and other forms of malpractice, the fact he misled ICAC would have weakened his authority, perhaps fatally; damaged the public standing of the office of Premier of New South Wales; and potentially compromised the ongoing campaign to clean up the murky and often sordid mire that passed for government in NSW under the ALP.

All of that, mind, is before we even consider the really political stuff: already, opposition leader John Robertson is making public overtures about “an invitation” to the new Premier to “join him in cleaning up NSW together;” for a man who has admitted failing to report a $3 million bribe offer — presumably to protect a “maaate” by using his (questionable) judgement in the matter instead — Robertson seems to have too much to say all of a sudden by holding himself out as some shining beacon of squeaky clean governance.

Just imagine what he and some of his less-than-saintly cohorts would do to O’Farrell if he continued in office. It would be a crucifixion, a ritual slaughter, a bloodbath. Labor would emerge with blood on its hands but the Liberals would fare worse. The public would react with revulsion, as it would be entitled to do. The opportunistic Clive Palmer would swoop at next year’s election, picking up undeserved parliamentary sinecures like a vulture does carrion. None of this will occur now O’Farrell has (rightly) pulled the pin.

I do agree that it’s a bit ridiculous that a bottle of wine — no matter how expensive — has brought a state Premier down. Yet standards are standards, and under a system of responsible Cabinet government (in the real sense of the word) O’Farrell has taken the only appropriate course open to him, and fallen on his sword. To have done otherwise would be to render himself no better in stature or deed than the crooks in the ALP he rightly fought so hard to jettison from the government benches.

And whilst I have been scathing in my assessment of what O’Farrell has done with his time in the Premier’s office, that criticism is by no means personal: there are far, far worse blokes in politics than Barry O’Farrell, and the reality is that circumstance has conspired — if I can safely use that word — to terminate his tenure, which I believe needed to be ended in the interests of both the state of New South Wales and the Liberal Party, and at a time when no other mechanism to do so was apparent.

About the worst thing you can say of O’Farrell personally out of this episode is that he’s been a bit of a dickhead. He’s paid the price for it, too.

All of that aside, NSW will have a new Premier this afternoon, and not next week as initially reported; it seems that forces around O’Farrell (if not O’Farrell himself) have pulled the party meeting forward by a week in a move that appears designed to favour the lead candidate of the party’s moderate wing, Transport minister Gladys Berejiklian.

It doesn’t augur well, and it sends a typical but poor signal moving forward.

Berejiklian and O’Farrell are close, with the former spoken of in some quarters as the heir apparent; certainly those whose only concern is to see a woman elevated will be cock-a-hoop. But I don’t think, on balance, that she is the best candidate for the role.

Whilst a number of names have been bandied about in the media, this really is a two-horse race; unlike Berejiklian, Treasurer Mike Baird draws support from both the moderate and conservative wings of the party and thus — from a factional perspective — represents a more balanced candidate around whom the party can coalesce and regroup.

It would be naive to think such things do not occur, but lining a factional ally up behind O’Farrell to take over from him — especially in view of the difficulties NSW has posed for Tony Abbott — hardly amounts to the most constructive approach to co-operation with the federal government.

And whilst both ministers have been solid performers, it is difficult to argue that Baird hasn’t been the better of the two: he has made a very reasonable fist of a portfolio that was an absolute debacle when he took it on, and with Treasury at the heart of any government it has fallen to Baird to breathe life into the sleeping giant that is the NSW economy: an enterprise he has handled well, and which is increasingly showing signs of bearing fruit.

Whoever wins tomorrow (and I want to be careful to avoid spending too much time endorsing Baird — assuming, that is, that he even stands), the first objective of the new leader must be to restore some stability to government.

With nine Premiers in 25 years — including whoever becomes the ninth today — there’s obviously a real problem here; it’s been fun to joke about the “NSW disease” and the “revolving door of leadership” under the ALP, but that door spins a little further this afternoon when Liberal MPs vote on who next gets to walk through it.

Former Premier Kristina Keneally, meanwhile, has been briefing journalists in the past day or so to the effect that ICAC will uncover far more evidence of wrongdoing than it already has, and that more public figures in NSW will be dragged into the mire; and it does bear noting that three backbench Liberals based on the NSW Central Coast are also awaiting their day in the star chamber at ICAC to face allegations of official misconduct of their own.

The more things change, the more they stay the same; it is to be hoped — fervently — that no matter who emerges as NSW Premier this afternoon, that unhappy cycle can be disrupted, if not indeed broken altogether.



Expensive Beano: O’Farrell Quits Over Wine Lie

NEW SOUTH WALES Premier Barry O’Farrell has resigned this morning, caught out over incorrect testimony he gave to an ICAC corruption scandal; as others have learned before him to their detriment, ICAC plays no favourites. Whilst the high standards it enforces are responsible for O’Farrell’s demise as Premier, the NSW Liberals now have the opportunity to replace him with someone who will work more constructively with the Abbott government.

If NSW’s politicians have learned nothing else about ICAC in the 20+ years it has been operating, it is that it sets an unimpeachably high standard for that state’s public figures to adhere to; there are those who will complain that the bar is set too high, but — to be very blunt about it — that’s what it’s there for.

I was going to post on this last night, believing as I did when the story broke yesterday that Barry O’Farrell was finished as Premier of New South Wales: called to ICAC as a witness in the same Australian Water Holdings (AWH) investigation that has claimed the scalp of federal Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinis — temporarily, at least — O’Farrell was confronted with what seemed incontrovertible evidence that he received an expensive gift from one of the central figures in the AWH inquiry that he failed to declare and yesterday flatly denied being given.

The $3,000 bottle of 1959 Penfolds Grange Hermitage wine — apparently selected to correspond with the year of O’Farrell’s birth — from Liberal Party donor and AWH boss Nick Di Girolamo, sent supposedly as a no-strings-attached congratulatory token after O’Farrell’s election win in 2011, is the kind of thing that contemporary politicians should treat with wariness and probity at the best of times, and not least in the climate of increasing disclosure that is required of public figures: especially in NSW.

At the very least, it should have been declared on the register of pecuniary interests that all MPs are meant to keep up to date; had O’Farrell done so, he would not be in the situation he finds himself this morning.

Instead, O’Farrell claimed to have never sighted the gift, stating that he had not received it at home and alluding to poor security at his house — apparently suggesting that had the gift been delivered, it might have been stolen whilst he and his family spent the Easter weekend on the Gold Coast. The fact this cock-and-bull defence was even attempted flew in the face of  ICAC confronting him with evidence of the purchase of the wine as well as its delivery to his (then) home in Roseville, along with evidence of subsequent telephone contact between O’Farrell and Di Girolamo.

O’Farrell’s fate was sealed when a handwritten “thank you” note, from O’Farrell to Di Girolamo, was tabled at ICAC this morning.

The thank you note from Barry O'Farrell to Nick Di Girolamo

This is a clear, incontrovertible and open-and-shut case of an elected figure caught lying to a corruption probe, and the only alternative to O’Farrell resigning voluntarily would have been for his Liberal colleagues to blast him out in a vote of a special meeting of the parliamentary party. He has at least had the decency to spare them that unpleasant task.

O’Farrell still maintains he never wilfully misled ICAC; that is for others to judge, but I would suggest that at the very least the episode shows a distinct lack of attention to detail, or to the requirements of disclosure expected of every elected figure in the country, or to even prepare adequately for an appearance at ICAC for which he must have been given some inkling as to what he would be asked about. He has exhibited dishonesty and incompetence. Resignation was the only practical course of action open to him.

This is now the second time a Liberal Premier in NSW has been brought undone by an ICAC inquiry, but — unlike Nick Greiner in 1992 — O’Farrell is unable to suggest he wasn’t warned, or that he was unaware ICAC would do anything other than uncover what Malcolm Turnbull likes to call “the unvarnished truth” of the matter.

The irony is that Greiner was forced out by political pressure just days before ICAC, ultimately, cleared him of any case to answer. The O’Farrell case, whilst less serious than the inducement allegations faced by Greiner in 1992, is straightforward by comparison.

It is a matter of record that this column unequivocally withdrew its support for O’Farrell’s tenure as Premier of New South Wales earlier this year; I stand by that assessment and I think that, on balance, history will record O’Farrell as an underperformer (despite the magnitude of his election win that any competent Liberal leader would have secured) who failed to make the most of his opportunities or, on occasions, to do very much at all.

Indeed, it often seemed his greatest interest was the pursuit of factional rivalries, a key manifestation of which has been the repeated apparent determination of his government to poke Prime Minister Tony Abbott in the eye as hard as possible over issues such as the Gillard government’s Gonski reforms and the recently approved new airport at Badgerys Creek..

This was not — and is not — in the best interests of NSW or its people.

If there is any good that can come from the events of the past couple of days, it is that the NSW Liberals elect a new leader who will get on with governing in the best interests of the state rather than indulging in and perpetuating internecine internal factional intrigues.

To this end, we suggest Treasurer Mike Baird represents the best prospect available to the Liberal Party at the present time, and offer our support should he opt to stand for election to the party’s leadership.

Whichever way you look at it, the AWH investigation, from an overall perspective, is painting an increasingly complex and widespread picture of misconduct that spans business, politics, and — apparently — both sides of politics at that; as unpleasant as these matters are, I am in full support of anything that stamps out wrongdoing in public life, and support ICAC to the hilt as it goes about its distasteful business.

I’ll keep an eye on this as it develops, and post again later if circumstances warrant it.


We Called It First: Nathan Rees To Leave NSW Politics

THE MAN WHO might have led NSW Labor out of the wilderness in 2019 is instead to leave politics, his two-term political career in tatters, in the wake of a highly inappropriate affair with a constituent and on the run from an extremely unfavourable electoral redistribution that made his western Sydney electorate unwinnable. Rees deserves a fresh start, but should ponder the smoking ruins of a career hastened in its demise by his own actions.

It’s hard to believe almost six months have passed since the highly inappropriate affair between Nathan Rees — then NSW’s shadow minister for Police and Emergency Services — and a constituent he advised on matters pertaining to his shadow portfolio first became public; I said at the time that the affair had cruelled Rees’ career permanently, and that he should resign from Parliament (or be expelled from it if he refused to so so) as his political career was, in effect, finished.

Now, it seems, he is going.

Those who didn’t see my article at the time can access it here; I stand by what I said at the time and in some respects, those words have proven prescient.

The great irony — as I said at the time — is that present Labor leader John Robertson should be a dead man walking, given his acknowledgement of the fact he was offered a $3 million bribe (he declined it) but failed to report the matter to Police; by a combination of factors he stands every chance of leading the ALP to the next state election in NSW and possibly beyond, when Rees was viewed as his logical replacement, and perhaps even Labor’s next Premier.

There isn’t much to be done about a redistribution that turns your seat into one held safely, on paper, by your opponent, and even less to be done about it when your party holds so few seats in Parliament that a replacement can’t be found for you.

Yet for whatever successes and failures Rees takes away from Macquarie Street, he must also accept that the terminal blow to his career was inflicted by the affair he willingly engaged in that overlapped with what, in effect, was ministerial business: a total no-no for any politician in the kinds of governments we have in Australia.

Rees, in announcing his resignation, stoically claimed that it was time for “new challenges” and cited an involvement in politics — both in and outside Parliament — spanning some 20 years; we do wish him well in his private life.

He can rightly claim (as he has done) to have made some attempt to confront the corrupt culture that is endemic within the NSW ALP; he could have done more, and many would have done less.

But any legacy will forever be tainted by improper conduct of another kind altogether, and whilst Rees leaves the NSW Parliament on his own terms and in his own time, even the suggestion of sexual favours in return for rendering assistance to a constituent will be a blemish that will never entirely be erased from any objective consideration of his time in politics.



Shock Nielsen Poll: Labor Leading In NSW

FOR THE FIRST TIME in years, a reputable opinion poll has found the ALP ahead of the Coalition in NSW, with Nielsen finding Labor leading 51% to 49% after preferences; the results come with heavy caveats and must be interpreted with caution, but they reflect a horror start to the year for NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell, and appear to mirror the growing disenchantment with O’Farrell and his government that we have discussed several times now.

I have to say that whilst I’m not surprised to find opinion polls registering significant and increasing movement away from the NSW government and from Barry O’Farrell in particular, I didn’t think it would show up as an ALP lead anytime soon — and especially not this side of a state election that is now due in twelve months’ time.

And before we really get into the Nielsen numbers, I should make the observation that these are the first findings on state voting intention in NSW that Nielsen has posted since March last year: the (hefty) movements in its numbers have to be read with that consideration in mind, as more surveys in the intervening period may have produced a more gradual trend rather than the huge jump this one appears to record.

Even so, the Nielsen poll is a shocker for the NSW Coalition, whichever way you spin it, and one that will do little to shore up O’Farrell’s tenure as Liberal leader and Premier.

Nielsen finds (remembering, again, that it’s a year since its last poll) primary vote support for the Coalition down 12 points to 40%, with Labor rising by the same amount, to 35%. It sees the Greens sitting at 12% (+2%) and “Others” at 13% (-2%). After preferences, this equates to a 51-49 lead for Labor: a swing of 15.7% since the state election held in March 2011 and one which, if applied uniformly to the NSW pendulum, would see the ALP win 25 seats from the Coalition to fall a single seat short of a majority, although in such a scenario Labor would fancy its chances of reclaiming Balmain — from the Communist Party Greens — and with it, government.

Satisfaction with O’Farrell’s performance as Premier, measured by Nielsen, sits at 46% (-8%), with 40% (+5%) disapproving; by contrast, Labor leader John Robertson — for so long regarded as a dead man walking until the ALP’s stunning result in the Miranda by-election resuscitated his fortunes — records personal approval of 34% (+2), with his disapproval number sitting at 36% (-7). The Robertson numbers certainly aren’t Earth-shattering, but tellingly enough they aren’t far short of the average of the numbers O’Farrell recorded as opposition leader either.

As preferred Premier, Nielsen finds O’Farrell (50%, -12%) remaining ahead of Robertson (30%, +5%) in a solid but by no means overwhelming result that is certainly nowhere near as robust as other leaders facing first-term opposition leaders have scored.

Whilst my usual cautions about reading polls in isolation, waiting for trends to develop and so forth remain absolutely in effect, I think the Nielsen result is exceptional for the fact alone that it shows Labor ahead in a state it wasn’t expected to be sighted alive again in until at least 2019, and probably later.

That said, the “trend” can already be picked out to some extent: in the Miranda by-election, a subsequent Newspoll showing Coalition support in NSW starting to slip, and now this result from Nielsen. It will be interesting to see what the other survey companies find when next polling state voting intention in the Premier State.

To me, this simply reinforces what I think is the negative effect of Barry O’Farrell’s leadership of the Liberal Party that I wrote about in January; if anything nothing has really changed, and if anything the pattern that saw O’Farrell start to drag his party’s vote downwards has continued apace since that time.

For example, his so-called “coward punch” laws — to deal with the spiralling problem of alcohol-fuelled violence in nightclub precincts in inner Sydney — have universally been decried as too little, too late; in any case, I saw during the week that a mass movement of drinkers toward suburban venues unaffected by the government’s early lockout laws appears to be taking place in response, and where the epicentre of the drinking population imbibes, the troublemakers will soon enough follow.

Across a raft of issues, I’ve noticed “unnamed sources” briefing the Sydney press to the effect that O’Farrell rarely — if ever — heeds expert advice or counsel, even when it is advice he commissioned himself: it’s a portrait suggestive of a leader who refuses to listen to anything other than his own views and prejudices, which is exactly as it is intended to be. The problem is that it’s a picture many who view it find to be reflective of their own opinions of O’Farrell.

Since my article in January, O’Farrell has maintained his vehement and at times almost childish refusal to contribute a cent from NSW revenues to either the soon-to-be-confirmed second Sydney airport at Badgerys Creek, or to any of the critical infrastructure it requires; it is difficult to think of a leader so obviously out of lockstep with a clear and growing majority of public sentiment in recent times, and not least in view of the direct contradiction such a stand makes of the federal government position — a government operated by the Liberal Party also.

Then again, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and O’Farrell aren’t exactly noted as factional bosom buddies within the party, so perhaps this is of no surprise. Even so — after decades of gutless politicians on all sides refusing to deal with the airport question — the opposition of the NSW government, directly spearheaded by O’Farrell personally, is petulant in the extreme.

But the suspension of three Liberal MPs a fortnight ago to face investigation by ICAC is likely a driver of this result as well; certainly, if the trio are cleared, one would expect any damage the NSW government might suffer in polling to be temporary, and thus reversed.

But for now at least, a distinct “pox on both your houses” attitude toward the NSW government is discernible, at least in Sydney; on balance, this is a far greater risk to the Coalition than to Labor, elected as it was to clean up the quagmire of corruption left behind by the last Labor government once and for all.

Should it turn out that both sides have their share of miscreant MPs who have been up to no good, the central pretext for electing the Coalition will have been shattered. In that eventuality, the Coalition will require tangible and substantial reasons to base its case for re-election upon, and as we’ve discussed — under O’Farrell’s leadership — it is growing increasingly difficult to ascertain how such a case might be made.

We will continue (as ever) to watch the goings-on in NSW, and discuss as need be. My feeling, however, is that this particular poll is no rogue, and merely builds on the warning signs that have been apparent — and growing in number — for quite some time.

Perhaps my previous comparison of O’Farrell’s government with Nick Greiner’s ahead of the 1991 election aren’t so far fetched. Perhaps O’Farrell’s leadership really will come under the harsh glare of his colleagues. I have called in the past for O’Farrell to be replaced as leader and Premier for the good of the Liberal Party. Nothing in these numbers suggests the call was made in error.


NSW: Liberal MPs Stood Aside, Appropriately, Pending ICAC Inquiry

NEWS FROM SYDNEY that three state Liberal MPs are to sit on the crossbench pending the outcome of investigations by ICAC is to be welcomed; conservatively aligned as this column is, we will not tolerate corruption in government, and any allegation of wrongdoing must be investigated frankly, fully and fearlessly. The development casts a poor light, were any further suggestion of it required, on the turbid way things are apparently done in NSW.

I am going to keep my remarks short and circumspect on this, for obvious reasons; the news that three Liberal MPs in NSW — former minister and Terrigal MP Chris Hartcher, Wyong MP Darren Webber, and the member for The Entrance, Chris Spence — are to be suspended from the parliamentary party pending a corruption inquiry by ICAC is to be welcomed.

If allegations against the trio are found to be baseless, they should resume their places in the Liberal Party; if shown to have engaged in criminal misconduct, they must be expelled from Parliament. This is as it should be.

To its credit, the NSW Liberals appear to be moving to suspend the three MPs quickly.

The development — which readers can see more about here — comes as ICAC announces further corruption investigations into disgraced Labor trio Eddie Obeid, Joe Tripodi and Tony Kelly.

I have opined in the past that NSW, under the long-term governance of the ALP, was rotten to the core, and I stand by that assessment: worse than anything that ever happened in Queensland under Joh Bjelke-Petersen is how I recall putting it, not that I seek to excuse anything that occurred on old Joh’s watch that shouldn’t have.

But if members of the Liberal Party — and its members of Parliament especially — are embroiled in the murky goings-on between government and business that have occurred in NSW in the past, it is fitting the culprits receive precisely the treatment currently being experienced by their alleged fellow miscreants from the ALP.

The one observation I would make at this early stage concerns the prospect flagged in the Tele article I’ve linked to of three by-elections Barry O’Farrell probably needs like a hole in the head if, at the end of the investigation process, any or all of the Liberals in question are forced to relinquish their seats.

Of the three, only Hartcher in Terrigal is securely seated, notwithstanding the tidal wave the Liberals surfed into government in 2011. Even then, with an eye on what happened to the Liberal Party in the Miranda by-election last year, even Terrigal (held at the state election by a comparable margin to Miranda) is a seat the Liberals really don’t need to be testing their fortunes over in the bubble atmosphere of a by-election.

In any case, I simply want to make clear that standing these MPs aside is the right, proper course of action to take. It contrasts with precedents in recent times set by the ALP, and somewhat ironically I note that former MP for Dobell, Craig Thomson — convicted yesterday of defrauding the Health Services Union out of thousands of dollars — only moved to the crossbench in federal Parliament when the political heat from allegations against him got that bit too hot for then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard to handle. It was hardly done out of any sense of duty or regard for propriety at that time.

This column has made no secret of its belief that a royal commission into the union movement is necessary, long overdue, and highly likely to uncover criminality (as I have put it previously) on a scale unprecedented in this country, and given accusations of bias I regularly cop from the Left it is important to make this point.

It cuts both ways, and if conservative MPs have been up to no good, they are just as deserving of having the proverbial book thrown at them as any of their union or ALP counterparts.

Even if the charges against these Liberals are found baseless, however — and in light of the thorn in the side of Prime Minister Tony Abbott the O’Farrell government seems determined to be — you have to wonder, putting yourself in Tony Abbott’s shoes, what crack in the footpath he walked on to deserve the grief that continues to emanate from NSW.

Forlorn as the hope might be, if any good is to come out of the procession of ICAC cases and potential prosecutions that may arise from them, it is the prospect that once and for all, the grubby nexus between business and government in NSW might be cleaned up once and for all.


Start Counting: NSW Liberals Must Replace Barry O’Farrell As Premier

MUCH AS IT PAINS ME to say so, members of the NSW parliamentary Liberal Party return from their summer break to confront an invidious choice; resting on a colossal majority and faced by an incompetent and corrupt Labor Party, its future should be guaranteed. Yet without real leadership — with some spine and some principle — the show could be over faster than anyone ever imagined. It is time to replace the Premier of News South Wales.

It’s hard for me to write this; as a lifelong Liberal voter and member of the Liberal Party since I was 18 — and even given the criticisms I dole out here from time to time — I pride myself on my loyalty to the Liberal Party; that loyalty, however, isn’t blind, and rather than seek to defend O’Farrell I’ve decided to add my voice to a growing number, behind closed doors, that are said to favour his removal from the leadership of the NSW state Liberal Party, and thus as Premier of NSW.

It didn’t have to be like this; the thumping win O’Farrell scored at the 2011 NSW state election could, and should, have set the Coalition up for several terms in government. Now, it is becoming abundantly clear that the tide is turning, and unless its flow is staunched, it could well take O’Farrell — and the government — with it.

Even before that election, the views of O’Farrell’s critics routinely found their way into the pages of the Sydney press; their consistent message was that he was mediocre, unlikely to perform as Premier, and (in something of an irony that will not be lost on those who know anything of him) dismissed as a lightweight.

And prior to the by-election in the state seat of Miranda, a general perception had begun to emerge that O’Farrell — and his government — were pedestrian at best, and a “do nothing” outfit at worst, even if some measures they had taken — in transport and planning, for instance — had managed to outrage what was left of the opposition.

Regular readers will have long since realised that I follow the politics of all of our Australian states very closely, even if the bulk of what we discuss here primarily concerns federal affairs.

The point at which I began to follow political proceedings in NSW like a hawk, however, came in April last year, when O’Farrell — in open defiance of his federal colleagues — became the first of the Liberal state Premiers to sign on to the so-called Gonski education reforms, providing a huge political boost for the embattled then-PM Julia Gillard, and providing Tony Abbott with an embarrassing political headache that the federal Coalition could well have done without approaching a federal election.

It is well known that there is little love lost between Abbott and O’Farrell, a reality only partly attributable to their standing on the conservative and moderate wings of the Liberal Party respectively.

But Gonski was (and is) poor policy; as we have discussed here repeatedly, and simply stated, it amounts to little more than a bucket of billions of borrowed dollars for education funding with absolutely no accountability attached to it in terms of improvements in either educational outcomes or the standard of teaching, and will simply fund pay rises for teachers with few — if any — strings attached.

It is arguable that had O’Farrell not signed on, his Liberal counterpart in Victoria, Denis Napthine, would have declined to do so too; the result is that the country is stuck with what is a waste of tens of billions of dollars, and the addition to the commonwealth debt it represents: Abbott and his Education minister, Christopher Pyne, learned this to their detriment when they attempted to modify it.

We had a detailed look at the washout from the Miranda by-election in October, which the Liberals lost to Labor in a swing of almost 30% after preferences; as I said at the time, this was no protest against a first-term MP quitting 18 months early: it was a warning, and one that appears to have been ignored.

I contend the Miranda by-election represented a turning point, and not just because of the magnitude of the humiliation it wrought upon the NSW Liberals.

In the time since, we have witnessed the unbelievably crass spectacle of what can only be described as an attempt by O’Farrell’s government to torpedo the construction of a long-awaited and much-needed second airport in Sydney; the tantrum-like position that the federal government is free to build it, but that the state government will refuse to even contribute to road, rail and other infrastructure critical to the project’s success beggars belief, and smacks of another attempt to poke Abbott in the eye — just because it can.

It is perhaps indelicate to point out that for the past 30 years, a second Sydney airport has been a bullet state and federal governments of all colours have been too gutless to bite; now, finally, Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey are set to do so, generating thousands of jobs in western Sydney in the process. O’Farrell, by contrast, has indicated he will try to play the wrecker.

And as is the way of these things, once the sputtering evidence of a leadership that has run its course starts to emerge, the trickle often becomes a torrent.

Sydney is by no means alone among major Australian cities in experiencing problems with violence that stems from the ready availability of alcohol, illicit drugs, and the proliferation of all-night venues in which those so inclined can ingest both; it is, however, perhaps the most heavily afflicted by those problems, and its government the most vocal in its talking up of intended tough action to deal with them.

O’Farrell has reportedly raised the eyebrows of several of his MPs by failing to break his holidays to issue a statement of support to the family of 18-year-old Daniel Cross, who was allegedly murdered on New Year’s Eve in a random attack in King’s Cross.

Yet as The Australian is reporting today, he found time 18 months ago to send a “condolence letter” to the supporters of a radical Islamic cleric — who had been under ASIO surveillance — killed whilst fighting alongside rebels in Syria which, if true, shows an appalling lack of sensitivity and political judgement at best, and a truly reprehensible sense of moral perspective at worst.

These are just some of the markers that bring me to the conclusion that O’Farrell must be dumped. There are plenty of others.

And from a purely political perspective — and despite the massive election win three years ago — neither O’Farrell, who once served as state director of the NSW division of the Liberal Party, nor the division itself, could be regarded as particularly effective or adept.

With another state election a little more than a year away, the opposition certainly has its problems.

Its leader, John Robertson, would seem fatally compromised by his failure to disclose a bribe he was corruptly offered some years ago (which he refused, nonetheless, to accept), and his logical replacement — former Premier Nathan Rees — is now unelectable on account of an improper relationship he had with a constituent that compromised his role as a shadow minister.

And the procession of Labor figures through ICAC and the NSW court system isn’t doing very much for the party’s battered image, either.

But the O’Farrell government gives every appearance of coasting toward what it obviously sees as an easy election win; this is in spite of the fact that in the wake of the Miranda poll, its statewide numbers — which had hovered around the 60-40 mark since its election — began to slide in reputable polling, last sitting at 56-44 late last year.

And on the back of the warning the Miranda results represented, nothing changed; indeed, O’Farrell’s government has become, if anything, even more complacent.

It is worth remembering that of all the Liberal Party’s mainland divisions, it is NSW that has been the standout, chronic underperformer since the party was formed, holding office at the state level for just 21 of the 70 years during that period.

(Queensland’s Liberals never governed that state prior to the election of Campbell Newman in 2012, but they did sit in government as the junior coalition partner for a total of 28 years).

Additionally, the 2013 and 2010 performances in federal elections by the NSW Liberals are widely acknowledged as underperformances against expected results; this, too, continues a long trend of similar outcomes, including the embarrassing 1993 election at which Liberals won just 8 of 50 seats in NSW.

It is not enough to simply coast toward polling day in March 2015, comforted by the assumption that Labor Party corruption, scandal and incompetence will guarantee a second term, and one manifested in a similarly thumping majority to the one presently enjoyed by the NSW Coalition.

Such an assumption is based on a false premise: that NSW voters, rightly angry with the ALP for misdeeds committed during its time in office, will tolerate sloppy, petty, unproductive government in its stead.

For every achievement O’Farrell can point to, there has been an opportunity missed, squandered, or trashed; for every win his government has scored, there is a mistake, or a miscalculation, or a misdeed of its own for its critics — within and without — to seize upon.

The buck has to stop somewhere — and as Premier, presiding over a Liberal government during what should be the party’s golden years in the Premier State — it must stop with O’Farrell.

Anyone seriously deluded into believing a government that so comprehensively destroyed its opponent at one election is immune to being virtually obliterated at the next should familiarise themselves with the 1993 and 1997 elections in South Australia, a parallel — and not just in electoral terms — that is now looking ominously similar to the situation in NSW.

That state has its own precedent, of course; the Greiner government — elected in a landslide of its own in 1988 — approached an early election in 1991 with a colossal lead in reputable polls, only to be reduced to minority status on the day, with the Liberals subsequently swept from office four years later.

In a further exquisite irony, it was O’Farrell — as state director — who presided over the Liberals’ near-death experience at the 1991 election, and the 1993 federal result in NSW that followed it.

And as O’Farrell’s poll numbers now drift lower, it is worth noting that at the 1995 state election, nearly 52% of the two-party vote was not enough to save Greiner’s replacement as Premier, John Fahey, with the ALP winning a one-seat majority and remaining in power for 16 years.

Clearly, the time for change has come.

I am not going to nominate a preference in terms of who should succeed O’Farrell; whilst I have such a view I intend to keep it to myself for now, although should a contest materialise I may reconsider that.

But after a great deal of thought, and consideration of the political realities of government in NSW — weighed against an evaluation of the longer-term prospects of the Liberal Party in NSW at not just the next state election, but beyond that point — I believe, with some reluctance but with certainty, that O’Farrell must either resign as Premier, or that his MPs must confront the prospect of a replacement.

It’s time to start counting; and for NSW’s Liberal MPs, the interests of the state they represent — as well as the fortunes of their party — are what is at stake.