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.