Ridiculous Free-For-All Over The NSW ALP Leadership

FOR A PARTY boasting 35 MPs, the brewing free-for-all over the vacant NSW ALP leadership might make sense if Labor was in striking distance of taking office; coming off its worst defeat in 80 years and needing a swing of 16% to win, however, the “who’s who” of would-be leaders is as unedifying as it is ridiculous. Meanwhile, a vicious missive from Paul Keating to outgoing leader John Robertson that has resurfaced has proven uncannily prescient.

Less than a week ago — as revelations emerged that the then-leader of the NSW ALP, John Robertson, had signed a constituent letter on behalf of Martin Place siege perpetrator Man Haron Monis, despite grave questions that already existed over his character — I wrote in this column that Robertson was a dead man walking for a range of reasons, and that the sooner his colleagues put him out of his misery, the better.

Robertson resigned his leadership later the same day.

And in one of those delicious coincidences of timing that can hardly be construed as accidental, a copy of a letter sent by former Prime Minister Paul Keating to Robertson the day the latter was sworn into the upper house seat he initially held in the NSW Parliament quickly resurfaced, and upon reading it I was stunned by how eloquently vicious — and how thoroughly prescient — Keating’s words have proven.

Keating's letter to Robertson

LIVE AMMUNITION…Paul Keating’s assessment of John Robertson has proven devastatingly accurate. (Source: australianpolitics.com)


(As an aside, I should like to acknowledge Malcolm Farnsworth’s site at www.australianpolitics.com, from which the copy of this letter republished here was sourced; Malcolm’s site is an excellent resource for political and electoral material, and a veritable treasure trove for political junkies that I thoroughly recommend readers take some time to explore. If your browser is being temperamental about loading the letter, regular reader gregdeane has kindly pasted a text-only version of it into the comments section of this article).

Keating was motivated by Robertson’s positioning and behind-the-scenes handiwork — as a union heavyweight and backroom player in the NSW ALP — in helping to scuttle the Premiership of former Labor leader Morris Iemma, his privatisation program for the state’s electricity sector (a suppurating public policy sore that continues to weep six years later), and in engineering the departure of Iemma’s Treasurer, Michael Costa, from the upper house sinecure into which Robertson had that day been sworn.

Yet beyond that, Keating’s observations were not far wide of the mark about electricity privatisation, an issue that pursued the then ALP state government until it was slaughtered at the polls in 2011 even if, to be sure, it wasn’t the primary catalyst for the defeat that Keating foretold.

The “new…and good leader” Keating alluded to — former Premier Nathan Rees — was indeed destroyed by the ongoing machinations that Keating saw had marked Robertson’s own entry to Parliament via Costa’s seat.

But Keating’s brilliantly eviscerating comments about a putative move by Robertson to a lower house electorate and thence the Labor leadership were deadly in their precision, accuracy and prescience, and to be blunt — for all the reasons we discussed here on Monday, and then some — Keating’s “shame” in sharing common membership of the NSW ALP with Robertson was probably a well-placed sentiment.

I have included the letter today partly on account of its topicality and relevance, but also because (like so many aspects of the tribal beast that is the NSW Labor Party) it highlights issues that trickle down into the present leadership contest and at least one of the candidates vying to succeed Robertson as leader of state Labor.

But before we move onto that, a word about Keating: I always hated the bastard, politically of course, on account of what he did to the Liberal Party during the 1980s and — in a wound that still smarts — destroying its prospects comprehensively ahead of the 1993 federal election to win an undeserved fifth term for Labor (although I am on the record with more than enough explicit and strident criticism of John Hewson as Liberal leader, and his thorough unsuitability as a political front man).

From a purely impartial perspective it is impossible not to marvel at the sheer eloquence of Keating’s turn of phrase, the almost graceful use of invective and abuse, and the sheer hard, cold savagery with which this missive was crafted. Keating hit his target with bullseye precision, as he so often did. But to imagine any major party leader today exhibiting the same mastery of language and using it with such skill is quite literally an undertaking that defies belief.

Anyhow, I digress.

Having said all of that, the leadership ballot now set down for 5 January is beginning to look like an unmitigated farce, with (proverbially) every man and his dog apparently readying to stand to replace Robertson.

One of them — upper house MP Luke Foley — has, subsequent to Keating’s prosaic bullets being fired at Robertson, gone on to secure “a parliamentary seat at the public expense,” although as a replacement for disgraced and allegedly corrupt former Labor minister Ian Macdonald, it’s difficult to split hairs in view of Keating’s appraisal of Robertson.

Even so, for a party almost certain to face another shellacking at the state election to be held in March, the number of Labor MPs apparently fanciful of themselves as leaders and bent on indulging their delusions of grandeur is a surprise, to say the least.

Foley doesn’t even have a seat in the lower house, a prerequisite for leadership of his party: the word today is that the NSW ALP’s notorious Sussex Street headquarters is to see to that by fixing Foley up with preselection in the disputed Labor-held seat of Auburn.

Another contender, Steve Whan — beaten in his lower house seat of Monaro in 2011, kicked upstairs to fill a casual vacancy ten weeks later, and now preselected to recontest Monaro in March — presents as such a convoluted option as to best be given a wide berth.

Whan at least offers the prospect, somewhat refreshing as it is for Labor, of a potential leader from regional NSW: a consideration not to be trifled with, so poor is Labor’s performance in the regions compared to its Sydney heartland.

Yet there is no guarantee he will even win Monaro, and even if he does, a leader insecurely seated in a marginal seat is hardly a guarantee of stability or continuity if any kind of serious advance were to be achieved under his leadership.

Further, the fact he seems prepared to go up and down between the two houses of Parliament at will is a poor look, to say the least.

Maroubra MP and former minister Michael Daley is free of these drawbacks, and probably deserves to be the frontrunner in what is at best a mediocre and lacklustre field of candidates.

Yet just as Sussex Street appears set to fix up Foley in a lower house seat, it also appears determined to fix him up in the leadership, too; and if this comes to pass, Daley’s initiative in setting the ball rolling to get rid of Robertson in the first place will, in terms of his own interests, have been for naught.

Robertson’s deputy, Linda Burney — who is acting as leader until the ballot is held — has also indicated her intention to contest the leadership.

It must be remembered that disgraced former Premier and outgoing Toongabbie MP Nathan Rees had been slated to retake the leadership from Robertson, and probably would have done so had details of an illicit affair that also intersected with his portfolio responsibilities as a shadow minister not emerged last year.

And just to further heighten confusion, Labor has preselected a fellow called Chris Minns to its marginal (but usually safely held) seat of Kogarah; it is an article of faith both in Labor circles and among political commentators generally that Minns is the “chosen child:” selected now, well in advance, as the “star signing” who will enter Parliament and lead NSW Labor back into government, possibly as soon as 2019.

Of course, this kind of succession plan can easily come unstuck: especially in a political environment, and especially in a bearpit like the NSW ALP.

But for a party that boasted 20 lower house MPs and a further 15 in the upper house after the last state election — and whilst Labor has won three by-elections in Liberal-held seats since then, at least one of those has been abolished, as has Rees’ seat of Toongabbie — it is ridiculous that no fewer than six potential leaders are coming out of the woodwork at a time the party is virtually assured of a second successive drubbing at the hands of voters.

There is no guarantee more of their colleagues won’t also succumb to excessively well-developed self-importance complexes and nominate, either.

The truth is that whilst the Coalition government has not been invulnerable, its replacement of do-nothing Premier Barry O’Farrell with an outstanding substitute in Mike Baird has shut off a potent line of attack for Labor in the coming election campaign.

Whilst the Coalition has not been untouched by ICAC and misconduct findings, either — with no fewer than 10 of its MPs sidelined, some having already departed Parliament, and the remainder mostly set to do so in March — the Liberal Party has acted swiftly to excise this cancer wherever it has appeared; the fact Labor continues to be saddled with bad press from the likes of Macdonald and the ubiquitous Eddie Obeid vigorously proclaiming their innocence (and in Obeid’s case, waving the threat of defamation proceedings around as a bullying tactic against anyone who suggests otherwise) simply underlines just how entrenched the culture of dirty politics really is in the ALP’s DNA, and how even the fast action taken by the Liberals, if copied, could not have removed the stench of corruption from the NSW ALP’s entrails.

This, in effect, closes down another potential avenue for Labor to attack.

And — in an exquisite irony — Baird seems set to be handsomely re-elected, in part, on a solution to the electricity privatisation question that has variously bedevilled and skewered individuals and parties on both sides of the political divide in NSW since at least 1999, when the issue was largely responsible for the slaughter of the Coalition parties under then-leader Kerry Chikarovski.

In the years since, however, it has been Labor — and not the Coalition — that has been forced to endure the most agonising contortions over what, in public policy terms, should have been a fairly straightforward issue from the outset.

It is against this backdrop that Labor finds itself burdened by a glut of contenders to lead it into the abyss in March; one potential leader for every six of its MPs.

If that sounds like an expression of a seriously divided party racked by factional interests, manipulated at the whims of its union slave masters, and marked out by the pursuit of petty personal fiefdoms, there’s probably a good reason for that.

In the end, the race to lead Labor in NSW that will culminate on 5 January is in essence merely a pageant to determine who will be king — or queen — of their own dung hill.

A smart party would have quietly lined up behind Daley, who put his hand up to blast the liability Robertson out in the first place, and waited for the dust to settle after its defeat in March before turning to Minns as planned in due course.

But there are few people who would accuse NSW Labor of being “smart.”

There is good reason for that, too.



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.


Polls, A Pox On Everyone’s House, And The Devil You Know

WITH A SLEW of state elections now imminent — and the perennial issue of federal voting intentions percolating away on simmer — opinion poll findings over the past week fail to paint any kind of picture of the faith and trust in governments, oppositions, or in politics in general. It’s the classic case of “a pox on both your houses,” although there are more than two houses in the street these days. Even “the devil you know” is mostly despised.

I must apologise to readers for my silence over the past few days; I have been a bit distracted on several fronts, and when there has been time in which to post I’ve had things to do. I even missed the weekly opportunity last night for baiting the Left during #QandA which kind of says it all, really.

But I have been keeping an eye on things, and with a barrage of polling data over the past week — some of it federal, some of it pertaining to the eastern states — I honestly can’t remember the last time the polls painted such a universal, across-the-board picture of apathy, disillusion, and downright contempt for the political process.

For once, I’m not going to go through the drudge of listing out who’s up a point, down a point, scored a point or missed a point, and what brilliant conclusion can be drawn from all of this: quite frankly, it doesn’t matter where you sit — there are few winners (in the true sense) kicking around the political circuit, and very few players who can claim any kind of vindication from the kind of numbers that are being recorded.

Who would be a politician nowadays?

I think readers know that in the course of the past year, I have grown increasingly critical of the quality of advice elected representatives appear to be acting upon, but the problem is bigger than that; the entire game of risk-averse, stage-managed rubbish designed to offend as few as possible whilst scoring free hits where possible is moving us to the point where the political process is delivering nothing that anyone wants — or can even accept as good governance, if not necessarily popular.

In the tradition of that grand old truism of politics that is ignored at the peril of those who do so, trying to please everyone — and being all things to all people — ends up pleasing no-one.

Don’t misunderstand me — I’m not having some fortysomething moment of indulgent introspection. But there’s not much in any of the latest batch of numbers to make anyone smile, and for once I’m not going to pretend otherwise.

The 51-49 Labor lead Newspoll finds today for The Australian is an indictment; stripped of the rather optimistic preference flows that enable this ostensibly Earth-shattering result for the ALP, Bill “Big Boy” Shorten has, according to its findings, lifted Labor support by the dazzling degree of just 0.6% since the election last September, an occasion that saw Labor record its worst-ever vote in the modern era.

To do this — at a time Labor is gifted with an abominable federal budget that will achieve none of its stated aims of fiscal rectitude, but inflict all of the political pain associated with them on the Abbott government anyway — is an “achievement” of sorts; when it is also considered that the Coalition has stumbled a bit (as new governments of all persuasions are wont to do) and is faced with a greater assortment of parliamentary enemies than would ordinarily be the case, Labor’s inability to directly harvest the support being chiselled away from the Coalition is unprecedented.

The popular commentary this morning seems to be that Prime Minister Tony Abbott is hanging onto the ground the government has clawed back in the wake of the MH17 disaster and a mooted package of national security measures; I would simply say that in view of such things, the Coalition should be in front again by now.

The fact it isn’t keeps going back to that budget of tax rises, spending cuts that deliberately target middle Australia and the Coalition’s own electoral core, and the worst-sold budget delivered by any government in at least 20 years: there’s a rod on the government’s back that is entirely self-inflicted.

In a sense, it doesn’t matter what else Abbott announces; every time he and his ministers reiterate their determination to force the budget through the Senate, they reinforce the voter recoil the package sparked in the first place.

As we have discussed aplenty, even if the less palatable measures in the budget pass, they are likely to do so in a form so badly emasculated and distorted as to render them next to useless in redressing the budget bottom line. In other words, another “horror” budget will be required to finish the job that was spectacularly botched the first time. Good luck with that.

And as usual, neither of the leaders are popular; Bill Shorten — experiencing something of a resurgence in his appeal this week — musters just a 39% approval rating; little better than the 36% carded by the perennially unpopular Abbott, a man Labor has misspent five years telling anyone who will listen is too hated by the public to be entitled to be elected to anything. Which is ironic, considering 36% was all Shorten himself could manage in Newspoll’s last survey a fortnight ago.

And as negative as Tony Abbott might have been as opposition leader, he also presented on polling day with the framework for an agenda of sorts; Labor under Shorten doesn’t even have that much, with its only new policy (aside from reinstituting the carbon tax) being the abolition of the private health insurance rebate: a measure almost guaranteed to destroy the healthcare sector in Australia.

The only surprise in the Newspoll numbers is that the vote for “Others” — which includes Clive Palmer’s increasingly destructive little outfit — actually increased by two points, to 15%; Newspoll doesn’t strip the Palmer vote out into a separate column like some of the other polls do, so there’s always some ambiguity about this, but it’s a fair assumption that that additional support has gone straight to his party.

In turn, this is a measure of either the abject stupidity of voters or of their total disgust with the major parties, given the self-indulgent rant Palmer went off on last week and the damage he and the objectionable Jacqui Lambie seemed determined to inflict on Australia’s relations with China.

I would simply observe that people are not stupid, and assert that the ongoing support for Palmer — all 500 tons of him — has more to do with the electorate being treated as if it is stupid by the major parties than it does with any real appeal of the malicious cacophony that constitutes the Palmer position on anything.

Come down here to Melbourne, and a first-term Coalition is set to get it in the neck if the polls are any guide: Newspoll at the weekend found the ALP ahead, 55-45; last week, Galaxy called the likely result at 52-48 the same way. The discrepancy — for what it’s worth — seems to be that Newspoll has understated the National Party vote at just 3%, whereas Galaxy recorded it at a more realistic 5%. At the previous state election in 2010, the Nationals polled 6.8%.

If ever there was a government that deserved a second term, it’s Denis Napthine’s here in Victoria; boasting the only state budget in the country that retains the AAA rating Labor types are so fond of, the Coalition in 2010 replaced an aged Labor administration that hid its inability to handle the state’s finances behind a series of infrastructure deals that almost restored the state’s debt position to the levels that existed before Jeff Kennett took the axe to them in 1992.

Just three months ago Napthine’s Treasurer, Michael O’Brien, delivered a budget that was roundly and warmly received with great fanfare and acclaim. But one week later, the Abbott government’s federal effort knocked the stuffing out of the Victorian government’s budget sell, and I agree with other commentators that if Napthine is beaten in November, the blame can and should be sheeted home directly to his federal counterparts. This column has been impartial and unreserved in its criticism of the budget delivered by the federal Coalition. And its fallout — as long as Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey persist with it — knows no bounds.

Of course, here in Victoria there have been other factors at play; the unfortunate but necessary move to switch Premiers 18 months ago isn’t the kind of thing any government would seek to do arbitrarily (the NSW ALP notwithstanding). Notorious ex-Liberal MP Geoff Shaw, who seems set to be expelled from state Parliament when it reconvenes — and deservedly so — has seen to it that for almost two years, the atmosphere around Spring Street has been one of entrenched crisis. And the “leaked tape” scandal that broke in June has scarcely helped either, although that one might well rebound on the ALP and could yet help cost it a state election win.

Yet even so, Napthine — who remains more popular than most of the other state Premiers — has attacked the job of governing with vigour, and it’s a sad reflection on the fact that this dedicated servant of the state of Victoria, trying to get on with making things in the Garden State better for as many people as he can, is perennially thwarted by factors beyond his direct influence.

And it’s a sad state of affairs that a puerile, adolescent oaf like Daniel Andrews is even a shot at becoming Premier. Not that the voters like him; no poll has ever found him to be preferred as Premier, and no poll has ever recorded higher approval for Andrews than his Liberal counterpart. Even now, as it finds Labor up 55-45 in Victoria, Newspoll records just 32% of Victorian voters approving of Andrews, with 41% disapproving, and even that’s probably more than he deserves.

Head up to Sydney yesterday, and the rather triumphant headline in the Daily Telegraph was that the newly installed Liberal Premier, Mike Baird, was set to win a second term for the Coalition when it goes to the polls next March.

Dig a bit deeper, and the same poll — this time, from Galaxy — finds a swing against the state Coalition of almost 10%. Yes, the 2011 state election in NSW and the 64.7% result the Coalition recorded were watersheds. But even so, 10% — if it were to occur in March — is hardly a vote of confidence.

It isn’t difficult to see why; the scourge of corruption, non-compliance and/or official misconduct has claimed a number of Coalition scalps in NSW, including that of former Premier Barry O’Farrell, as the same ICAC machinations that seemed set to keep Labor in opposition for a decade also turned the blowtorch on the government.

My view on such things — that they should be pursued without fear or favour — is undiminished by the embarrassment this has caused the NSW Liberals. But the price of such idiocy is a loss of public support, and what should have been a lay-down misere for the Coalition in NSW in March is increasingly looking like a 1991-style near death experience for the government.

Perversely, the best thing the NSW Liberals have going for them is Labor leader John Robertson, whose Sussex Street connections and union pedigree alone should be enough to render him unelectable; when it’s remembered that this is also a man who admits to self-adjudicating that a $3 million bribe he was offered shouldn’t be referred to ICAC or to Police simply because he said “no” to it, it’s not hard to see why Labor in NSW is unlikely to leap the Coalition citadel in a single bound.

But up in Queensland, Labor may be readying to do precisely that; another first-term Liberal LNP government elected with close to two-thirds of the two-party vote, the trend line in the LNP’s polling over the past 18 months has been a virtually straight line: downwards. It has been too consistent to either ignore or dismiss.

Now sitting on just 52% of the vote, according to the most recent Galaxy poll, the Newman government is already in the statistical grey zone that could see it lose office depending on where the votes fall; the electoral boundaries in Queensland are skewed in favour of Labor by somewhere between 2% and 4% as it is, and it needs to be remembered that 53.7% of the two-party vote in 1995 still returned a Labor government on polling day, albeit by a single seat, and notwithstanding the fact that a disputed return saw a seat change hands at a by-election that led to a minority Coalition government.

But even here, the story is depressingly familiar; a deeply unpopular Premier shadowed by an opposition leader in Annastacia Palaszczuk who is, in round terms, every bit as unpopular as Newman is; Newman seems certain to lose the marginal seat he clings to, whilst a has-been (who never really was) sits in an 80-20 Liberal electorate in Moggill and refuses to budge.

Nobody — even some of the LNP people I talk to in Queensland — suggests for a minute that Newman hasn’t roughed a lot of people up over the past couple of years.

But in this case, a government that has been mostly competent and governed well seems set to suffer heavy losses, if not defeat altogether, and if the latter scenario emerges, then God knows what will happen in Queensland. Labor spent 20 years virtually bankrupting what should be one of the strongest states in the country. For the LNP to squander the massive majority it scored in 2012 and perhaps lose at its first bid for re-election are prospects for which it will have nobody to blame except itself (and for once, that includes Clive Palmer, too).

Up and down the country, the story is the same.

Unpopular first-term conservative governments — whose problems are diverse and the causes of them varied — all facing either defeat or such a hefty kicking as to virtually destroy their authority. In Victoria’s case, the net loss of a single seat would be enough to do it.

And in every case, unpopular oppositions — led by questionable figures like Robertson, unimaginative plodders like Palaszczuk, or dickheads like Andrews — are lining up to fall into office by default; should any or all of them do so, they promise to usher in yet another era of insipid Labor government that will deliver as much as it promises, which at the present time is very little.

It cannot be otherwise: conservative governments, faced with the unruly destructive antics of Labor in opposition, have demonstrated that putting ideas and tough medicine on the menu in the name of the greater good can and will be turned into electoral Kryptonite; if any or all of these governments fall, one of the legacies will be that political parties of all colours will be extremely reticent about rolling out agendas of policy that take any other form than the populist.

And that leads to the real message from all of these polls.

The Abbott government in particular has shown that by trying to please everyone, promising all things to all people and attempting to offend as few people as possible, the end result is that everyone ends up being pissed off: I’ve voted Liberal consistently for nearly 25 years and will continue to do so, but there are plenty of rusted-on conservative voters who are annoyed at the direction the Abbott government has seemed determined to take.

Instead of cutting government spending and eliminating waste, the government has increased taxes in a brazen attempt to have its cake and eat it too: the electoral bribes of the Gillard era are mostly reprieved, with Gonski and the NDIS (and their combined $30 billion annual hit on the federal budget) left undisturbed.

Those cuts in government spending the federal budget does attempt have been efficiently used by all of the forces ranged against the government to howl it down under the auspices of “unfairness.”

In the meantime, the anti-party forces of Clive Palmer prosper, as voters rebel against the major parties who offer nothing, like Labor, or nothing they want to hear, like the Coalition.

And all the while, even “the devil you know” seems as despised by voters as the devil they don’t, with the difference between the two so minor as to be absolutely inconsequential.

That’s the lay of the land this week; politics is everyone’s cup of tea, to put it sarcastically.

In reality, it’s a case of “a pox on all your houses,” as far as voters are concerned. I don’t know what you do to break such a perfect storm of public distaste. But even for those readers whose allegiances lie with the Labor Party, it should be terrifyingly obvious that changes of government are not the way to achieve it.


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.


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: After Affair Revelations, Nathan Rees Must Leave Parliament

NEWS former NSW Premier Nathan Rees had an affair with a constituent are just the half of it; as ALP Police spokesman at the time — and lobbied by his mistress on Police matters — Rees is irretrievably compromised. Even in the corrupt and amoral NSW Labor Party, he has no right to linger as an MP.

It is in some respects ironic that for the second time in two days, a politician somewhere in Australia has placed himself in a position in which any moral right to continue to serve as an elected representative has been forfeited: a conservative in Queensland yesterday, and an ALP man in NSW today.

By now I’m sure that everyone has heard the news that former NSW Premier Nathan Rees has “stepped down” from the NSW opposition frontbench over revelations he had an affair with a constituent, but the man touted as recently as last month as likely to be drafted back to the ALP leadership needs to go one step further.

Rees is no longer a fit and proper person to sit in Parliament, and should resign as an MP.

At the outset, I should point out that I make no public judgement on Rees on account of the fact he had an affair at all, although I have a private view as will every reader.

But allowing himself to be compromised in such an outright and straightforward manner — with the affair directly intersecting with his official responsibilities in his shadow portfolio — is reprehensible.

Whilst Rees has denied abusing his position to pursue the affair, his simultaneous denial that doing so compromised his job is unbelievable, and simply underscores the lack of judgement that ought to make it impossible for him to continue as an MP.

Labor in NSW, over the past 20 years, has been a beast so rotten and so corrupt as to make anything that might have occurred in Queensland in the 1970s and 1980s look decidedly mild by comparison.

Indeed, just how rotten has become clearer since Labor was thrown from office in its worst result at a NSW election in 2011; prior to that event, those who knew bits and pieces of the story would wink and nod, but in the time since many of us who knew even that much have been amazed by the nature of what ICAC investigations into ALP figures have revealed.

The NSW ALP is rotten to the core: no more, no less.

Rees apparently met the (unnamed) lady in question at a public forum last year and subsequently chased her down, obtaining her contact details from his staff and initiating the ongoing contact.

Where he has disqualified himself as a fit person to hold office, in my view, is that he continued the illicit affair — as shadow minister for Police — whilst his mistress lobbied him about a Police matter: “the alleged failure of officers to arrest someone who had assaulted her son,” as the Daily Telegraph rather quaintly puts it.

Anyone with half a brain, in Rees’ position, must surely have realised that to do so made him a security risk, susceptible to blackmail at best and God knows what at worst, and that in the charged anti-corruption environment that currently pervades Macquarie Street he was playing with political dynamite — to say the least.

The Australian, reporting on the matter, quotes NSW opposition leader John Robertson as saying

“Nathan accepts full responsibility for his actions and deeply regrets the pain he has caused. Nathan has assured me that at no stage was he compromised in the performance of his duties…Nathan and I have agreed that it is in his best interests to take leave and step aside…to work through these private and very personal matters.”

Coming from a man who admits that he was corruptly offered a $3 million bribe — and took it upon himself to decide it did not need to be reported to ICAC — such comments neither reassure nor carry any moral authority of their own.

In fact, they indicate Robertson has learnt little from that episode, describing the Rees affair as “private and very personal matters” but failing to even feign outrage at the conflict Rees brought upon himself and — by extension — his party.

It’s noble to seek to avoid crucifying a colleague, and especially in Robertson’s case when that colleague was (until a few days ago) universally tipped as his replacement as leader.

But post-2011, the clear air NSW Labor must generate for itself is the stiff breeze of unimpeachable integrity; the Rees episode hardly contributes to such an endeavour.

Former Sussex Street identity turned ALP Senator Sam Dastyari probably had it about right when his remark that Rees “should keep his dick in his pants” was inadvertently picked up by press microphones yesterday in Canberra.

Nonetheless, even that succinct observation misses the point.

It doesn’t matter that Robertson’s leadership of the NSW ALP is terminal, and that he will be replaced sooner or later; it doesn’t matter that — this episode aside — Rees was probably the only suitable leadership contender within Labor’s depleted ranks.

And it certainly doesn’t matter that a by-election in the western suburbs electorate of Toongabbie would almost certainly be won by the Liberal Party: political arithmetic is no excuse for the toleration of improper conduct.

We say it very simply: through his actions, Nathan Rees is no longer fit to sit in the NSW Legislative Assembly, and we call on him to resign, and to resign now.

He has brought the NSW Parliament into disrepute; for the little it’s worth, given the state of the Labor Party in NSW, he hasn’t done his party any favours either.

And just as the Queensland Parliament was ready to use its numbers to expel rogue MP Scott Driscoll, the NSW Parliament should contemplate following the lead of its northern cousins if, as we might expect, Rees chooses not to fall on his sword at this time.


NSW: Labor Set To Romp Home In Miranda By-Election

LABOR appears to be on the brink of a stunning electoral triumph tonight, with counting in the by-election for the Sydney seat of Miranda showing a swing against the Liberals of more than 25%; the resignation of Liberal MP Graham Annesley is undoubtedly a factor, but there’s more to this.

With primary vote counts in from 18 of the 21 polling booths and provisional two-party figures from nine of them, the 71-29 result recorded in this seat by Liberal Graham Annesley — itself representing a 22% swing against the ALP — at the election landslide that swept Barry O’Farrell to power in 2011 seems set to be easily overturned.

Annesley, who has served as Sports minister, is leaving politics to take up a role as the CEO of the Gold Coast Titans; he has at least been honest enough to admit that his heart isn’t in politics and that he feels unable to continue to serve, but to be honest that isn’t good enough and it is obvious that the voters in Miranda don’t think it is either.

Barry Collier — the Labor MP Annesley defeated — is set to be returned to Parliament, by a margin in the order of 58-42: a two-party preferred swing of almost 30%.

And rather ominously, all of the decline in the Liberal vote — and then some — appears to be flowing directly to the ALP, rather than through the assorted minor parties and independents who have contested the seat, as might normally be expected.

I think Annesley has committed a fundamental breach of trust with the voters who elected him to serve for four years, and — rightly or wrongly — I think the time to go hunting for private sector sinecures would be at or near the end of his term. Not now.

Even so, there is more to this.

The stream of so-called revelations emanating from ICAC inquiries into alleged corrupt conduct by a range of Labor Party identities has been unrelenting.

Indeed, the parade of such characters through the Courts is beginning to yield results, with former Health Services Union chief Michael Williamson pleading guilty to fraud charges just this week involving the corrupt misappropriation of almost $1 million in union funds.

And (until today, of course) NSW Labor leader John Robertson has seemed a dead man walking, so to speak, with revelations he was corruptly offered a bribe of about $3 million some years ago, and chose to keep quiet about it rather than make an official report on it.

The episode — rightly — appeared to be the death knell for Robertson’s leadership.

A big win in Miranda today may yet oxygenate the cinders of his scorched leadership; whether it does or doesn’t, the voters in Sydney’s south have sent O’Farrell a number of things to mull over.

Generally, his government has been regarded as competent, despite taking unpopular decisions that have disproportionately outraged sections of the community, notably on Labor’s Left and beyond.

The NSW Coalition has consistently continued to record whopping opinion poll leads in the 60-40 range, which suggest on the surface an easy passage to re-election in a little under 18 months’ time.

And it has been generally believed, on all sides, that the stench of corruption and dodgy deals that seem to be a watchword for NSW Labor these days would cruel that party’s prospects for many, many years to come — provided the Liberals kept their noses clean, their house in order, and their deeds beyond reproach.

Yet despite the gain of nine additional seats in NSW at the recent federal election, the Coalition (and the Liberals in particular) in that state have broadly been perceived as having underperformed, and not least on account of the same issues of corruption and disarray in the NSW ALP.

Mutterings about O’Farrell and his performance have found their way into the media from time to time, but nothing that could be construed as anything more than typical internal chatter that has been divulged to a journalist by someone less than loyal or trustworthy.

But it does raise a question, and a precedent.

Is O’Farrell on the same path as Nick Greiner in 1990-1991?

Greiner — like O’Farrell — slaughtered a Labor government that had spent several terms in power, and probably longer than it should have.

Greiner — like O’Farrell — was widely seen as a competent Premier presiding over a competent government, whose tough decisions (Terry Metherell in Education springs to mind) also enraged sections of the community.

And as his first shot at re-election began to near in late 1990, Greiner’s poll numbers — like O’Farrell’s — headed skyward.

We all know what happened to Greiner at an early election in May 1991 that nobody thought he could lose: stripped of his majority and forced to rely on crossbenchers, far from burying Labor in NSW as intended, the result set Bob Carr up to lead his party back to government four years later — far earlier than anyone imagined possible.

Obviously, there is a fair bit of water to flow under the bridge before an election that is due in March 2015.

Even so, and remembering also that by-elections are an excellent opportunity to kick hell out of a government without changing it, this seems to run a little deeper than that.

The state of NSW Labor (and again, the hard evidence of corruption that oozes out of it whenever anyone pokes the beast) should have been antidote enough to disaffection over a first-term MP quitting 18 months early.

That said, whatever ALP corruption couldn’t salvage for the Liberals in Miranda should have still been covered by the huge margin Annesley achieved when he won in the first place.

Instead, NSW Labor will take heart, and likely think it smells blood.

The problem for Barry O’Farrell is that maybe — maybe — that assessment may be nearer the truth than anyone has dared to imagine to date.

And if Labor can find itself a credible leader in the interim, then all bets — in light of this result — would seem to be off.