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.


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.