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.



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.



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.