Modia Minotaur

Trawling the airwaves to spare you the agony!

Saturday, March 31, 2007

A Closer Look at the NSW Cabinet

Now, you'll find plenty of dull, descriptive posts about the new NSW Cabinet on the internet at the moment (for example, the one below). Perhaps a more useful question to ask is not `who makes up the new NSW Cabinet', but `What is the nature of the new NSW Cabinet'?

Firstly, as I previously noted, it is very new. Only twelve Ministers remain from the Cabinet formed by Morris Iemma upon his ascendancy roughly eighteen months ago. Of them, only four were a part of Bob Carr's final cabinet (John Watkins, John Della Bosca, Morris Iemma and Michael Costa). None at all remain from Carr's first cabinet of twelve years ago. That's certainly some generational change.

Secondly, it is not a smaller cabinet, as I had predicted, but remains at 21 (though it was previously 19, this number is artifically small, given that nobody was elevated to replace Carl Scully or Milton Orkopoulos). This is quite a surprise to me - probably, I underestimated the amount of negotiation such a move would require - however, I wouldn't be surprised if they presided over fewer and more amalgamated departments. Reducing the workload of a number of overcommitted Ministers, such as Tony Kelly, Frank Sartor, and especially John Della Bosca, was a smart move.

Thirdly - and perhaps most significantly - it's a far more Left-wing cabinet. Only five members of the Left participated in the previous cabinet, and just three of those in major portfolios. This week's new cabinet features no less than seven Left MPs, though fewer in major positions, with the notable exception of Phil Koperberg. Again, creating a Minister Assisting for Koperberg's hefty new portfolio is a good idea. It will be particularly interesting to see which legislation will come under whose jurisdiction, given rumours that the Energy and Water portfolios will be virtually stripped. There is plenty within the Planning portfolio that could decently come within this new role, given that the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act produces an increasing amount of business for the Minister for Planning. Any change would represent a fairly drastic shift - but given the unpopularity of some of Frank Sartor's decisions, it might possibly be considered.

The shift to the Left may be interpreted as a sign of further healing between the two sides of Labor who have, at various times in the past decade, hated one another more than they collectively hated the Opposition. The matter appears to have particularly improved since Mark Arbib took over as the General Secretary of the NSW ALP from an unpopular and hard-nosed Eric Roozendaal. A glance across the parliamentary benches at the debacle taking place within the NSW Liberals would tell why bringing all factions into the tent in a major way is a sound move.

To this, I would add something somewhat controversial. Under Iemma himself, we have seen a very subtle leftward drift. When elected, Iemma named often neglected areas such as disability services and mental health as part of his reform agenda. In the latter area especially, the first advances in many years are already being seen.

Like everyone, I waited for the traditional law and order auction before last week's election. It never came. Though the notion that some large shifts in law and order policy have been made under Iemma's leadership has some legitimacy, it was simply not an election issue, either for the government or the public. Quite rightly, the government condemned Peter Debnam's pledge to lower the age of criminal responsibility to ten, rather than instantly arguing that it should instead be eight. Some of this may be attributed to the rare alignment of planets that produced both an Attorney General and Police Minister from the Left - but let's hope it's indicative of a wider trend of focusing on the social justice issues often described - and just as often dismissed - as nothing more than the topic of intellectual argument for the Left.

Friday, March 30, 2007

New Blood

What surely must be an unprecedented number of new faces make up the new NSW Cabinet, including a few that didn't figure in anyone's rumours. Nearly half of the cabinet are new Ministers, while three of those - again, surely unprecedented - are newly elected MPs. Several years of painstaking reconciliation between the two dominant factions seems to have paid off, with the Left particularly benefiting from the reshuffle.

As previously reported, Deputy Premier and Minister for Transport, John Watkins has been given the further responsibility of Finance. This makes a lot of sense when you think about it, and it's further evidence that Watkins doesn't plan to act as a mere figurehead.

Finance is one of several portfolios that has been removed from John Della Bosca's previously unwieldly list of duties. He retains Industrial Relations as well as picking up Education from the departing Carmel Tebbutt.

David Campbell will take Police. Campbell is, as I mentioned, someone who has been on a rapid ascendancy since his initial elevation. He's done a decent job of the difficult water portfolio and has proven a surprisingly effective media performer, so this new role is not the surprise it might have been. Despite some rumours of a serious demotion, Tony Kelly has retained most of his portfolios, aside from Justice and Juvenile Justice. As predicted - and in line with most other states - these have gone to the new Attorney General, former barrister John Hatzistergos. His former portfolio of Health has meanwhile gone to Reba Meagher.

Believe it or not, that's more or less it from the previous cabinet. The duties of Eric Roozendaal, Ian Macdonald, Joe Tripodi and Frank Sartor remain largely unchanged, though Sartor has shed a few duties and picked up Arts (his retention of Planning coming as a surprise, given his heavy-handed style has proven unpopular with many). Macdonald's adoption of Energy is not the promotion it sounds, as much of the portfolio duties will be moved to the new Climate Change portfolio.

Amongst those promoted on the Right are Kristina Keneally, who takes Della Bosca's former portfolios of Ageing and Disabilities; Graham West (Gaming and Racing and Minister Assisting the Minister on Citizenship) and Matt Brown who, in one of the biggest surprises, replaces a demoted Cherie Burton in Housing.

Controversially, Paul Gibson has been elevated in Burton's place. Gibson's relationship with the former wife of fellow incoming Minister Phil Koperberg has, not surprisingly, been the subject of friction between the two men. It's just as well their portfolios are not likely to bring them in to contact; nevertheless, Gibson's eccentric behaviour makes him an odd choice for cabinet. Amongst his new duties are the newly created portfolio of Minister Assisting the Minister for Roads (Road Safety).

In an earlier post, I named six members of the Left who had been rumoured to be elevated, and predicted about half actually would. In the event, all six were (Peter Primrose to President of the Legislative Assembly, replacing Meredith Burgmann) - and largely at the expense of a number of incumbent Ministers for the Right. Long serving MP Paul Lynch has been given Kerry Hickey's Local Government, Aboriginal Affairs and Minister Assisting the Minister for Health (Mental Health). As predicted, Diane Beamer has also been demoted, and her Fair Trading portfolio given to Linda Burney, who has also taken Tourism, formerly held by Sandra Nori.

Given the fact that Burney has already served in Parliament, it's somewhat surprising the three first-termers - all from the Left - have taken jobs usually given to (and in most cases, taken from) more experienced colleagues. This is particularly true of Nathan Rees, who takes Emergency Services from Tony Kelly Water Utilities, like Energy, is likely to be largely subsumed by the new Climate Change.

In perhaps one of the biggest risks of all, this important and high profile portfolio has been given to newcomer Phil Koperberg. Koperberg's experience leading the state's firefighters is legendary, but will he be able to find his feet in politics swiftly enough? I imagine the learning curve has already been very steep. He will be assisted in this role by Verity Firth, the former Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney, who has also taken her predecessor's portfolio of Women, as well as two areas previously held by Frank Sartor. Ironically, her disagreements and negotiations with Sartor over local development issues that helped secure her win in Balmain.

Now, if that's not an influx of new blood, I don't know what is - the changes virtually constitute a new government. Certainly, it's a clear and final break with the Carr era. The question remains as to whether inexperienced Ministers will be more accident prone as they find their feet - but it should also be noted that a number of genuine talents will genuinely enrich a Cabinet that was looking threadbare by last weekend's election.

Bob Debus to Contest Macquarie

Former NSW Attorney General Bob Debus has confirmed that he will stand for the seat of Macquarie in the upcoming Federal Election, citing his desire to see a Labor government elected and a number of issues both within and outside his former portfolios addressed at a Federal level. Before retiring from NSW Parliament at the election, he was the last remaining Minister from the Wran Government, the country's longest serving Environment Minister, as well as the NSW Arts Minister. He is perhaps best known as the target of an extraordinary attack last year by Peter Debnam, involving allegations made under parliamentary privilege but later comprehensively disproven. Coming as they did at the time of the Milton Orkopoulos scandal, Debnam's monumental blunder has been identified by many observers as a key turning point in the Liberal election campaign. This, perhaps even more than any reiteration of his policy to cut 20,000 public service jobs, led to many people deciding they `couldn't risk Debnam'.

Debus should be a formidable candidate in Macquarie, a seat which, as I said earlier, is held by Liberal MP Kerry Bartlett but is notionally Labor after the redistribution. Should Debus win - and of course, should Labor win - his name will almost certainly be raised as a potential Federal Attorney General.

Early Oil on the New NSW Cabinet

The Sun-Herald's Alex Mitchell has just appeared on ABC 702 with some early details of the new NSW Cabinet, which will be finalised at caucus this morning and sworn in on Monday. Even though I find Mitchell a noxious worm, his information tends to be pretty sound.

Here's what we're looking at:

  • John Watkins to retain Transport and pick up Finance, as a counterbalance to the Right's Michael Costa retaining Treasury

  • John Hatzistergos to take Attorney General, to the surprise of absolutely no one

  • David Campbell, currently best known as Minister for Water, for Police - a major step upwards for a Minister whose rise has already been pretty swift

  • John Della Bosca to replace Carmel Tebbutt in Education

  • Reba Meagher to take Health (and, I would have to assume, dropping her other demanding portfolios)

  • New Left recruit Nathan Rees to replace Kerry Hickey in Local Government

  • Kristina Keneally to be promoted to a portfolio as yet unknown (I've been predicting her elevation since the last major reshuffle) for an unknown portfolio (perhaps Di Beamer's former portfolio of Fair Trading?)

  • Matt Brown, also strongly rumoured, and also to take an unknown portfolio (perhaps Aboriginal Affairs?)

In addition to these, I would suggest Linda Burney for Reba Meagher's former portfolio of Community Services. The race for the new Environment, Climate Change and Water portfolio seems wide open - it seems inconceivable that such a prominent portfolio would be given to a new Minister, but Phil Koperberg's name seems to be coming up in connection with it more consistently than with the more obvious choice of Emergency Services.

All (well, most) will be known later today.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Peter Andren Headed for the Senate

Bathurst area Federal independent Peter Andren has today announced he plans to stand down from his seat of Calare, in order to contest the Senate in the next Federal election.

Phew, what a day!

Andren has held Calare comfortably for many years and is regarded as pretty popular amongst both his colleagues and constituents. However, last year's Federal redistribution had a substantial effect on his seat, slicing off the areas in which his support is strongest and adding demographically dissimilar areas in which he is little known. Speculation has since raged that he would challenge the Liberal Party's Kerry Bartlett for the neighbouring seat of Macquarie.

Instead, he has taken neither option, pledging to redress the balance in the Federal senate.

I can now confidently predict an almighty stoush for Calare. While Andren was unassailable under the old boundaries, he was markedly more vulnerable under the new. The big question is to whom the votes Andren currently wins would flow should an Independent not follow him in the seat (and please, dear God - don't let it be Pauline Hanson! Surely she's finally got the point!). It's generally assumed that the Nationals would be the beneficiaries, though it's interesting to note that they polled fourth in Calare in the 2004 election (when both a Liberal and National candidate stood, splitting the vote - but splitting it in favour of the Liberals, who themselves were outpolled by Country Labor) and didn't have a candidate at all in Macquarie.

Perhaps the current member for Macquarie, Kerry Bartlett, will decide to shift to Calare, vacating a seat that is now nominally Labor. The recently retired NSW Attorney General, Bob Debus, has not confirmed or denied whether he will be standing for this seat, which contains much of his former State seat of Blue Mountains. It would be interesting to know what influence the absence of Andren - and perhaps even Bartlett - would have on his decision. Regardless of the candidates, this area is truly going to be one of the flashpoints of the Federal election.

As a first aside, I wonder - no, in fact, I predict - that this will be first of a number of campaigns based on wresting the balance of power from the Howard Government. It's a pretty popular issue to campaign on, but it will be extremely interesting the impact the high profile of the issue will have on the makeup of the next Senate.

As a second aside, I note that the Federal ALP requires a swing almost exactly the same as that achieved against the NSW government on the weekend to oust the current Federal government entirely.

Carmen Lawrence to Retire

I thought my first day off in months would be a quiet affair - I shouldn't have been so naive - but one thing I didn't expect to hear was the resignation from Federal Labor MP Carmen Lawrence.

Where do I start? Lawrence is the member of the Federal ALP that has most consistently impressed me over the past few years. She is eminently sensible, balanced, and principled. Sometimes, she has seemed an almost lone voice of sanity, especially during the Tampa crisis, at which time she resigned from the Shadow Cabinet in protest of the party's weak stance on the asylum seeker issue. Prior to her time in Federal Parliament, Lawrence was of course the first female Premier in Australian history, while in 2004 she became the ALP's first elected party president.

I have heard her speak most convincingly on a number of issues, from the place of women in politics; factionalism (at last year's Fabian Society forum, at which Robert Ray's comments unjustly hogged the limelight and her superior speech almost entirely ignored), to the use of fear as a political weapon.

It sounds like I'm gushing, and I suppose I am - chiefly because she's been an MP worth gushing about. It's always a terrible shame to see the resignation of a progressive and courageous politician, but she can certainly leave confident in the knowledge of her continuing influence.

Torbay to Speak

Independent MP Richard Torbay has announced that he has been selected as the first independent speaker in NSW to be chosen despite a clear parliamentary majority won by one party.

Torbay is the member for the Northern Tablelands, a seat which he not only won with an astounding 70% of the primary vote in 2003, but won again this year with a further 10% on primaries. He is well known for being the kingmaker of the Independent movement - ABC's Stateline had an insightful report last year on exactly how well organised and integrated a movement this is - and also for not being backward in coming forward (some have suggested his ultimate aim is to be the first Independent Premier of NSW).

It's an interesting decision on the part of the newly elected Labor government. Certainly, it will be seen as a way to increase accountability and impartiality within the parliamentary chamber. The unspectacular conduct of Federal speaker David Hawker demonstrates that a poor or biased Speaker leads to a poor quality of parliamentary debate. However, Torbay has also made demands on behalf of his own electorate in taking the position. I'm not sure how that would sit with the Opposition. Labor's Paul Lynch - an extraordinarily uncompromising politician who wouldn't have made life easy for either side of the chamber - was reportedly asked to fill the position but turned it down.

The complete cabinet is expected to be announced later today.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What next for David Hicks?

John Howard physically struggled against triumphalism following the guilty plea entered by David Hicks today. The Albrechtsens of the Australian media showed no such restraint, and shall no doubt be sharpening their knives for the Left for months to come.

One of the biggest problems during this case has been to separate the principle from the situation. To support a fair trial and humane incarceration for Hicks is not to argue in favour of his guilt or his innocence - it is to emphasise the inarguable fact that nothing disqualifies anyone from a fair process, whether they are defending a parking fine or mass genocide.

The situation is very reminiscent to that faced by the Labor Party in the 1950s, when the Menzies government launched the Communist Party Dissolution Act, a referendum proposing to ban the Communist Party from Australia. Opposition Leader H.V. Evatt - a pivotal figure not only in the formation of Australian foreign policy but in the creation of the United Nations - successfully argued against the ban, which was narrowly defeated.

Evatt's courage and audacity in this battle cannot be underestimated. The Petrov Affair was gripping the nation, and anti-Communist hysteria would shortly contribute to the split of Evatt's own party and the creation of the DLP. Defending the right of the Communist Party to exist would have been seen in almost the same light as defending the right of Al Qaeda to exist. Nevertheless, Evatt - no fan whatsoever of Communism or the Communist Party itself - was able to objectively separate the principle of defending freedom and democracy from the specific circumstances. To twist the now-familiar argument, banning the Communist Party would mean the Communist Party had won.

Like that battle, the David Hicks issue has never been one of guilt or innocence, but of the defence of democratic principles. Losing sight of this and personalising the issue is something of which both sides have been guilty. Hicks and other Guantanamo Bay detainees have repeatedly been referred to as `terrorists'. They have also been described as completely innocent. Either description misses the point.

Debate will probably rage forever more on whether Hicks' plea truly represents his guilt, or was simply designed to expedite his return home. While it's a shame we are now unlikely to hear the case for or against him outlined in court, it's entirely likely that the military commission process wouldn't have helped to reveal the truth either.

The inarguable fact remains that Hicks was held and tried in unjust circumstances, and that the Federal Government did little to redress this. For this, they still remain culpable.

NSW Liberals in Disarray

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of election night was the fact that Peter Debnam did not announce his resignation. Bigger still - he continues to maintains his faith in his own leadership, and continues to refuse to step down. This comes despite the fact that it now appears unlikely that the Liberals will win any seats from Labor, and extraordinary rumblings that the Nationals - who performed far better - may exit the Coalition while the Liberals sort themselves out.

This could be the final showdown between the party's far-Right and its moderates (well, those that managed to wrest back their preselections from same). The overthrow of John Brogden was largely seen as the final stage in the David Clarke-fueled far Right's gradual encroachment upon the party machine, and the beginning of its inroads into the parliamentary party. It has since seen to the preselection of a number of allies and the deposal of its enemies, such as Patricia Forsythe and Steven Pringle.

When Barry O'Farrell was overlooked as party leader in favour of the lower key Peter Debnam, it was viewed as a surprise result, especially given that he was a natural successor as Brogden's deputy, and second only to Andrew Tink as an effective parliamentary performer for the Coalition. Since then, O'Farrell is rumoured to have been approached at least once to challenge Debnam, but has refused.

When you look at it, who could blame him? He faces the job of uniting a party that is obviously deeply divided, and demonstrating leadership towards and of not any particular faction, but of the party as a whole. He is currently approaching this task by refusing to commit anyone to any particular shadow portfolio so as not to alienate the various factions (a process that says a lot in itself).

Should Debnam hold on - surely, after all of this, he can't possibly - what then? More of the same?

Should O'Farrell triumph, we can all only hope that he makes it his task to address the pernicious influence of David Clarke and his cohorts. He will plausibly be able to argue that they have helped to make the party unelectable. However, whether Clarke's tactics makes the party more or less attractive to the general public never seems to have been one of Clarke's major priorities, and the notion that he may continue to drag his party into extremism must frighten a good many Liberals as much as the rest of us.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Carmel Tebbutt Resigns

I have just heard that the Member for Marrickville, Carmel Tebbutt, has decided to resign from the frontbench to spend more time with her young son. This is a most unexpected development. Tebbutt is widely considered one of the most effective members of the Ministry; not only a potential Deputy Premier, but a potential Premier. Her decision is understandable, but a sizeable loss to the newly endorsed NSW Government. Rumours suggested that she may take the Health portfolio after the election; evidently, they were wrong.

This makes for yet another extra place on the front bench - one likely to be taken by a member of the Left - and a new Education Minister.


NSW Election Washup

I crawl out from under a day which started with tying coloured balloons to the gate of a local primary school and ended with a particularly boisterous victory party (praise daylight saving!) to deliver this analysis of last night's results.

In a broad sense, many predictions proved correct - that the swing against the government was not uniform, but differed across seats and areas, and in some places - particularly the traditionally working class Western Suburbs - involved a swing towards Labor. Perhaps Merrick and Rosso's sentiments weren't far off the mark when they told Peter Debnam that the reason not everybody goes to the beach every morning is that some of them live in Penrith (for the record, Debnam is officially the Shadow Minister for the Western Suburbs).

However, several results demonstrate that certain trends have completely gone under the radar of most commentators - and perhaps, also, that over-analysis has distorted predictions. The decisions people made were, ultimately, much less complex than many had predicted. In fact, it largely appears most people have voted on local issues and based on their respect for individual local members and candidates. Fancy that!

As I predicted, the Greens primary vote remained nearly static, both in the Upper and Lower houses. In the inner city seats such as Balmain, seen as serious prospects, the party's primary vote was almost completely static (intriguingly, the Liberal Party made the bigger improvement, up 2.4%) and the seat ultimately won with ease by Labor's Verity Firth. Things initially looked a little more dicey in neighbouring Marrickville but sitting member Carmel Tebbutt was ultimately returned convincingly. Perhaps it's premature to declare the chances of the Greens winning a Lower House seat entirely over - but it's certainly significant to note that they have never once met the high expectations they and others have consistently predicted of them, and that statewide, the Christian Democrats won a larger swing.

One intriguing and unexpected turn of events is the fortunes of the National Party's sitting MPs, who have seen healthy swings towards them in nearly all the seats they hold. This would ostensibly seem to challenge the prevailing wisdom - especially given the distinctly unspectacular Federal National party - that the party is gradually being marginalised by Independents who are seen as better advocates for local issues. However, it also demonstrates the phenomenon - well known to Federal Labor - that it's all very well having the most popular local members, but it won't do you a bit of good if you don't win seats. Nevertheless, the party are likely to be pleased with Geoff Provost's defeat of sitting Labor MP Neville Newell in Tweed, the state's most marginal seat. Iin the end, it wasn't `Better The Neville You Know'. Instead, voters decided to `Give Geoff A Go'. (Yes, those were the real campaign slogans. And the NSW ALP copped it for `Heading In The Right Direction'!)

What of those high profile independents we heard so much about - in particular, the triumvirate of Hunter Valley local mayors, Peter Blackmore for Maitland, John Tate for Newcastle, and Greg Piper for Lake Macquarie? Despite Blackmore winning a large swing towards him and coming second on primaries, Frank Terenzini (succeeding the retiring John Price) retained the seat of Maitland for the ALP. The ALP also held Newcastle, after a controversial and closely run race (which, at one point last night, the ABC's Antony Green called in favour of Tate with some confidence). Dumped MP Bryce Gaudry may have left his run too late and split the Independent vote.

In the end, it was Greg Piper, who was given the smallest chance of the three, who in fact won the safe Labor seat off incumbent Jeff Hunter, in an intriguing result that nobody seemed to see coming. Thinking back, it's a wonder this is the case. Hunter has had to see off a number of high profile local issues - most notably, the highly controversial Centennial Coal mine at Cooranbong, the subject of the landmark Land and Environment Court obliging the company to take the greenhouse gas pollution potential of their product into account. Some pundits suggested this ruling would be a factor in left-leaning urban seats hundreds of miles away - in the end, it doesn't even seem to have been a factor in its own electorate. Instead, a loss of faith not only in Labor, who have held the seat since its creation, but all the major parties (the Liberal and Greens both saw major losses) - was clearly a deciding factor. Though rural independents have made ground, one interesting point is that the majority of gains made by the Liberal Party have come at the expense of urban Independents, such as Manly's David Barr and Pittwater's Alex McTaggart (the latter elected in somewhat abberant circumstances - the by-election following former Liberal leader John Brogden's resignation)

The Centennial Coal issue is a good demonstration of the impact of the `vocal majority' on policymaking and electioneering - well organised interest groups who are ultimately unrepresentative of the larger community. They exist on both ends of the political spectrum. Parties do listen to them, but in many cases, a little too closely. Take the seat of Monaro, for example, where the creation of the Batemans Marine Park stirred massive protests from environment groups, who thought protection measures were not great enough, and local fishermen, who though protection measures were far too stringent. Both groups threatened to use their influence to tip the incumbent, Steve Whan from his seat. In the event, he was returned with an increased majority.

I think it's also fair to attribute this victory - like that of Barry Collier and Alison Meggarrity in Miranda and Menai, their fourth successive victory in `naturally Liberal' seats - to local members who work incredibly hard, sometimes in opposition to their own parties (Whan was a vocal opponent of the government's plan to sell the Snowy Hydro scheme) on obtaining results and winning the trust of their local communities. At a time of endless celebrity candidates, the ultimate value of a good local member is something that must never, ever be neglected.

I won't take off my psephologist hat and make too many broad statements about why the government won and the Liberal Party lost, but suffice to say, this was a poor result for the Opposition and, at least numerically, a pretty spectacular result for a government about to enter its fourth term. However, there is some truth in Peter Debnam's proclamation of the victory as voters giving `one last chance' to the current government, and I say that as a member of the ALP. To win a fifth term without performing spectacularly will be a big ask - almost unprecedented - especially if the Opposition finally get their act together. The Iemma Government will have to work hard to retain or obtain the trust of those who did not vote Labor out of any particular passion. It is possible, especially if Iemma elevates the best talent and continues working hard on defining the party as something new and different from the Carr Government. It'll just be an awful lot of work.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Shuffling the Deck

Cross posted on Larvatus Prodeo

It used to be customary to wait until after an election before starting to speculate on the makeup of the new cabinet, but like every other aspect of this year's campaign, traditional notions of what happens, how it happens and why just seem inapplicable this time around, and I'm still not quite sure why.

Before speculating on the next NSW cabinet, I should note that, for a government that everyone expects to cruise comfortably to victory on Saturday, an extraordinary number of local candidates - in seats both marginal and safe - are expressing a genuine, non-agenda based pessimism about their individual chances. Usually, candidates have a rough idea of their prospects this close to an election. Many that I know of are so unsure as to their position that they would be no more surprised if they suffered a whopping defeat than if they won a crushing victory.

Thus, both possibilities should always be kept in the back - and perhaps the front - of the mind.

Assuming the government is returned, there will certainly be a significant reshuffle. Morris Iemma will want to make his mark on what was previously a mostly inherited cabinet, and one that is overdue a spring cleaning. He has reportedly been given full sway by factions for this job. Given various mooted demotions, as many as nine positions could be up for grabs (and ostensibly, an absolute minimum of four, given the departure of Sandra Nori, Milton Orkopoulos, Carl Scully and Bob Debus).


Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Big Fella and the Big Bridge

One of my favourite things in NSW Parliament House is the portrait of Jack Lang. Head tilted, square jaw jutted; the anti-guardian angel of the Parliament. I've been looking for an excuse to talk about Jack Lang for some time, and what better opportunity than today's 75th anniversary of the opening of the Harbour Bridge, as well as the final week before the NSW election.

As this year's election approaches, voters could not be more phlegmatic. Regardless of who wins - and the fact that it's already pretty certain says a lot in itself - things won't change much. Standards of living will still be much higher than most of the world, most people will have jobs and homes. Contrast this to NSW under Jack Lang's leadership. The Depression bit harder in Australia than in nearly every other country, including America. Thirty percent of the workforce was unemployed; people who lived in their generation's equivalent of the McMansion one week lived in shanty towns the next. Political extremism, at both ends of the spectrum, was growing.

In response to what he saw as the Federal Government's inequitable and ineffective policies to mitigate the Depression, Lang proposed the controversial `Lang Plan', which included the withholding of interest repayments to foreign interests in order to revive the economy of NSW - a plan which culminated in the hoarding of NSW reserves at NSW Trades Hall to prevent its access by the Federal Government and ultimately, his dismissal by the Governor - one of only two such dismissals in Australian history (the other, of course, was Gough Whitlam.

This was a time when politics were real - when leaders and decisions had a deep, immediate impact on peoples' lives. There's something quite exciting about that today, when politics often seem more like a parlour game or a spectator sport.

It's ironic that unions have been requested not to politicise today's bridge crossing, given that the original opening of the bridge was a politically charged event. Of course, the bridge itself was intended to represent a literal and figurative jumping of the political gap - the working class South now given direct access to the wealthy, isolated North (a noble intention; however, Sydneysiders still define themselves based on the compass points, even 75 years later). Lang's decision to open the bridge himself rather than allow the Governor to do so was controversial. Meanwhile, the famous usurping of Lang at the Harbour Bridge opening by the sabre-wielding Francis De Groot was no mere case of a crazy old man getting a little over-excited. De Groot was a member of an extraordinary organisation, the New Guard.

The New Guard was a right wing grassroots paramilitary that reached its height of influence during Lang's reign. It was no rag-tag underground movement, but a highly organised citizen's militia with a reputed 200,000 members - many of whom were experienced WWI veterans - and an astonishing military arsenal. Photos of New Guard meetings show imagery that would become disturbingly familiar in later years, including a straight-arm salute (Hitler was, after all, elected only a year after the Harbour Bridge was opened). Their plans were nothing short of audacious - primarily, to kidnap Lang, bring NSW under martial law and effect a coup d'etat - possibly a bloody one. These plans were well advanced and came alarmingly close to fruition, with a co-ordinated kidnap attempt foiled only when Lang, by chance, gave his driver the night off and drove home in an unfamiliar car, down a Parramatta Road lined with New Guard members poised and ready to pounce.

Over time, various historians have tried to reasses Lang's impact - to unravel his real legacy from the dedicated worship or pathological hatred with which he was viewed at the time. I find it impossible to figure out which of the two camps I would have been in. Would I have, like so many Sydneysiders, been mesmerised by the powerful oratory of the populist, his `Us versus Them' ideology, and his genuinely progressive welfare and infrastructure policies? Or would it all have seemed a bit mad? Hindsight may be twenty-twenty, but it necessarily excludes context, and subjective opinion is dictated almost exclusively by context.

One thing's for sure. It's exciting to think of a time in NSW politics where the decisions were bigger than desalination or recycled, or who's in the budgie smugglers and who's racing Ferraris - where the participants included the ordinary person, and not just the political elite.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Balancing Power

Cross-posted on Larvatus Prodeo

In an extraordinary live interview on Friday's Stateline, host Quentin Dempster has challenged Peter Debnam to stand down in favour of his deputy, Barry O'Farrell, who is widely expected to take the leadership soon after the State election (notwithstanding the ridiculous suggestions that Pru Goward would, in an act that would exude desperation, be fast-tracked into the top job). Dempster's main charge was that Debnam's open concession of defeat was disingenous - nothing more than a late lunge for protest votes.

I think Dempster's was a fair assessment. The dynamics change in the final week, as voting intentions solidify, and the message behind this strategy is simple. Sure, we won't win - but you can help us give the government a bit of a knee in the groin (and perhaps get a few Liberals in marginal seats over the line to boot).

Poor old Debbers. Undoubtedly, he knows as well as we do that his lacklustre leadership is destined to expire in just over a week's time, and yet, for one more sordid week, he has to keep up the facade. It's not often that an election is regarded as so comprehensively unwinnable by one side or another, even though the government hardly enjoys the wide support it did at the time of the 2003 election. Protest votes certainly will occur, and while they won't decide the election, they could indicate to the government who represents the perceived cure to what such voters are protesting about.

In all likelihood, the Opposition will win some grudging protest votes, though not as many as they might have had their selection of candidates been more inspiring, and their leadership not been so uninspiring (come to think of it, agreeing to Dempster's suggestion might have been the only thing Debnam could have done to win a late surge of support). In calling the task to government on everything but offering little of substance as an alternative, protesters hardly have much to plump for.

I still maintain that the Greens will not do any better this year in the crucial Labor vs Greens two party preferred seats - and may even go backwards - though they could increase their vote in some suburban areas in which they have never previously been much of a force. This would be good for their primary vote, which has hovered at around 10% for years, but not for their prospects of a Lower House seat. Following the election, as I've already discussed, the Greens may face a wider malaise. Robbed of their key policy platform, they have already begun to move onto others, such as public education and workers' rights - issues on which Labor is on pretty firm ground.

And, of course, there are the Independents.

Much has been said about the cult of the Independent, and the possibility, given the large number of three-cornered contests at this election, of Independents holding the balance of power. There are two strictly divergent views on how good a thing this might be.

One view sees the Independent as the paragon of integrity bravely navigating the murky sea of party politics; the ones who make sure extreme legislation emerges without the spiky bits, and that their own proposals emerge with too-hot-to-handle spiky bits intact. This was, of course, the philosophy of the Democrats - and, as a moderate balance-of-power party, their philosophy worked quite well for a while (cut to today, and the best known policy of NSW's sole remaining Democrat, Arthur Chesterfield-Evans, is to cut NSW State Parliament to the nub and eventually abolish it altogether).

I've also heard a notion being propagated is that a hung parliament would be `more democratic'. Quite frankly, there is little that is less democratic than the elevation of single individuals to the status of parties which are collectively elected. Democracy dictates that the majority view ultimately takes prominence; instead, the opposite occurs, and a minority of only a few individuals may determine wider policy in a manner quite unrelated to their numbers or actual representativeness. Hence, situations such as, for example, the attempted ban of Adrian Lyne's film adaptation of `Lolita' - the only place when such a ban was even suggestsed - not because there was any genuine public groundswell on the matter, but because one particularly conservative Independent, Brian Harradine, had to be kept placated. A party whose policies are distasteful may be voted out; an Independent MP can only be voted out by the constituents of his or her own electorate. Even when not holding the balance of power, Independents receive inordinately generous treatment by governments who want to make sure they are onside, should they need their support in the future.

Certainly, many Independents are very popular - the safest seat in NSW is held by one - perhaps partially due to this phenomenon, but for other reasons, too. Independents often generate a significant personality cult around themselves - sometimes far more than any party could decently indulge in - and though they are not held to any party line, nor are they subject to the accountability processes party membership affords. (Peter Breen soon learned this during his brief time as a member of the Labor Party). Clover Moore, for example, is often described as a progressive MP, yet closer examination of her voting record shows that she votes with the Liberal Party far more often than with Labor. The mantra of the Independent - the party line, if you will - is `Trust me, as I'll make a better decision. I just will'. A voter who votes for an Independent is placing an awful lot of trust in that person's individual judgement on every issue.

There certainly is a good argument for `keeping the bastards honest' - again, the formation of the Democrats was a decent and genuinely more democratic idea - but I do think that seeing the people with such disproportionate power being seen as unimpeachable and their integrity beyond question, is one that certainly bears more discussion and debate.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Walletgate II

The government's constantly churning dirt machine has backfired yet again, with Minister for Aging Santo Santoro the latest to receive a splattering (and the intended target, Kevin Rudd, with barely a speck).

The deposal of Santoro is particularly interesting, given his status as an overzealous factional heavyweight of the Queensland Right (rather unfortunately, given the current climate, he is quoted as proclaiming his desire to be `the Noel Crichton-Browne of Queensland'). Preselected amongst accusations of much branch stacking, there is no doubt that many of his moderate Queensland colleagues won't be unhappy to see him go.

Unlike the majority of his Queensland colleagues (such as George `Lying Rodent' Brandis), he is also vocal supporter of John Howard, and one of the few who didn't bite his tongue and stare at the ceiling during Walletgate. In Santoro, Howard has demoted a significant and fairly influential supporter who may at best, lose this influence; or at worst, take revenge.

As the pressures continue to mount on Howard, at what point will a leadership challenge start to sound like a realistic proposition?

As I've suggested before, Howard may simply choose the easy way out - retiring before or at the election to allow for a smooth leadership transition and to avoid the embarrassing prospect of becoming the first Prime Minister in eighty odd years to lose his seat. Should he dig in his heels - not only against Labor, but against leadership aspirants (including but not restricted to Peter Costello) - the blood could really flow.

The question is - does the deposal of Santoro suggest that this process is already occurring; that the internal balance is drifting away from Howard?

We forget it is just six months from `Walletgate' - the brief, tantalising period last year when it seemed Costello's decade-long frustration would finally bubble over - and this occurred at a time when Howard was still marching comfortably all over the Opposition.

If I were Peter Costello, I'd probably be allowing myself a small smirk right now - but I'd then remember Kevin Rudd and the fact that the government has a bigger fight on its hands than any time in the past decade and wonder if I wasn't being handed a poisoned chalice.

Update: The Oz also thinks that was a case of friendly fire. Let's not forget - this is the state we're always hearing that Labor needs to win ...

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Are the Greens Irrelevant?

When someone suggested me that the Greens are, far from being on the ascendancy, a party whose relevancy has come and gone, I initially found the idea quite startling.

The party today launched its election campaign, in what is considered their strongest area - inner city Newtown, part of the seat of Marricville, held by Education Minister Carmel Tebbutt since the 2005 by-election. It is one of several seats in which the Greens, and not the Liberals, are generally the second-running party. This includes the neighbouring Balmain (formerly Port Jackson), which gave the party its biggest chance to win a seat in the 2003 election.

Even despite this, the notion of the Greens as a spent force - at the very least, in their current incarnation - is an interesting one to explore.

First and foremost, the core policy focus of the party has been usurped by the major parties. To be an environmentalist is no longer to be a fringe dweller - or a member of the Left, for that matter. Even those parties who have not taken up the cause of climate change acknowledge that it is an issue whose time has come. Rather than foregrounding the Greens, this has had the paradoxic effect of backgrounding them. This seems illogical in one way, but in another, it makes some sense. If the planes stopped flying over the No Aircraft Noise Party, there'd be no No Aircraft Noise Party.

Secondly, to survive, the party must do such distasteful things as make preference deals, like the one that was struck this week (though it isn't as rosy for the government as it may appear on first glance). It's been widely suggested that this deal would `anger' Greens supporters. Third party supporters often seem to forget that, in a country with a two party system and preferential voting, the idea is to make sure that, if your party doesn't win, the next best option wins instead. Greens supporter in these crucial inner-city seats are no `doctors' wives'. For some, the idea of preferencing anyone is repugnant, let alone the Big Bad ALP (the situation is particularly distorted in places like Marrickville and Balmain, where two parties that should have much to agree on end up spending more time getting stuck into one another than into the common enemy in the Liberal Party). The local myth about the Greens candidate who missed preselection because he wore a suit shows the way that the sort of professionalisation that the party requires to become a legitimate third-party force lies in direct opposition to the romanticised anti-establishment notions that attract many to the party in the first place. What would the hardcore supporters do if the Greens `sold out'?

It will be interesting to observe the fortunes of the party in the next few years. Despite being repeatedly feted to make their mark electorally, their primary vote has remained virtually unchanged for some time - the rhetoric of even the Greens themselves is turning away from winning a lower house seat in NSW to increasing their representation in the Upper House. It also appears the NSW preference deal is related to a wider deal designed to deliver the party balance of power in the next Federal senate. The Greens clearly believes the sizeable burden of holding the balance of power could be the making of the party. With a grassroots support base that would be far more furious at the party for even the slightest abandonment of its principles - perceived or otherwise - than were supporters of the Democrats were when Meg Lees supported the GST, it could also be the breaking of it.

Silly Season for Ministerial Accountability

Both John Howard and Kevin Rudd have clearly taken their cabinets aside, asked them to go through their files with a fine toothed comb, and to report back with any - ANY - indiscretions that may be used to batter their party. It's a standard of disaster management - assume everything will come out eventually.

What a lot of hysteria. The idea that what Kelvin Thomson or Ian Campbell did was more worthy of their sacking than the countless lapses of ministerial accountability that have occurred under the Howard Government. Amanda Vanstone or Philip Ruddock for the Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon debacles? Alexander Downer for the AWB scandal? All still there.

Having worked in an electorate office, I know the process of writing personal recommendations. The letter of request will come across an MPs desk - usually accompanied by supporting paperwork (such as further recommendations from friends, colleagues or dignitaries). In some cases, the MP will meet with the person. In most cases, the often voluminous paperwork supporting the person as an upstanding citizen is relied upon. This is how Morris Iemma came to write a recommendation for a terrorism suspect - because criminals tend to get where they are by covering their tracks (let's not degrade Mr Thompson by reminding ourselves that Naomi Robson made the same misjudgement).

As I suggested upon Ian Campbell's departure, there is undoubtedly a political element to this situation. Thomson had only been away a few days when `party sources' began to mutter that the only fair and decent thing for him to do would be to leave Parliament altogether, and cede his seat to the ACTU's Greg Combet.

Just for the record, Combet categorically denied any plans to run for Parliament in today's Meet the Press and described the current game of Who's Holier Than Thou as `silly season'. Well said. The trend of substituting personal attacks on MPs for true parliamentary debate (and it's still going on) is not only childish, it places a drag on democracy. Every time discussion turns to a largely irrelevant personal pecadillo, it turns away from proper debate on the issues that matter.

Which is, undoubtedly, just the way the government wants it.

Update: Crikey! A feral Alexander Downer certainly didn't back away from the personal during today's Insiders! No relaxed and comfortable there!

(And thumbs up to the natty new Insiders website!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Morgan Mellish

Following today's airline accident in Indonesia, I'd like to suggest that you do whatever you do - pray, have a moment of silence, or just a little think - about Australian Financial Review journalist Morgan Mellish, who, along with four other Australians and nearly fifty others, is feared dead in the accident.

In recent times, Mellish was justly well known for his Walkley Award-winning expose on the Robert Gerard scandal, which ultimately led to Gerard's resignation - and, while he was being presented this award, ducking a feral Glen Milne as he drunkenly attempted to settle his differences with Crikey's Stephen Mayne.

It's all sad and senseless.

The Future for the NSW Liberals

The NSW election being almost done and dusted, it won't be long before attention turns to the future of its Opposition - and it seems the jostling has already begun.

It's fairly safe to say that Peter Debnam will offer his resignation should his party be unsuccessful - or, if he does not, the pressure on him to do so will eventually prove unbearable. Nevertheless, there are no obvious contenders to take his place. Deputy leader Barry O'Farrell has reportedly refused chances to revive his leadership aspirations. Immediately elevating a new candidate such as Pru Goward would be extremely risky.

Into this mix - and, intriguingly, before rather than after the election - comes an editorial by conservative attack dog Piers Akerman strongly suggesting that one John Brogden would be the only man to drag the party out of the doldrums (whilst `demolishing' the `myth' that Brogden had been comprehensively been brought down by dissidents within his own party) and issuing an open plea for his return to the fold.

Could Brogden be on the comeback trail?

Most commentators agree that the election would have been far more competitive with Brogden leading the Opposition. It's entirely plausible that the David Clarke might be faction fingered for costing the party the election with its white-anting. The moderates - who admit they are no less bloodthirsty in their pursuit of power than their opponents (some of whom have suggested that the only way to counter the stacking of branches with far-Right members is to stack them with their own supporters instead) - will certainly push this line in an attempt to pull the party back into the centre. In such a climate, the notion of Brogden quietly and slowly reasserting himself is a viable prospect, if he has patience and feels up to it.

Someone in Akerman's corner certainly seems to see things falling out this way, anyway.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Taking One For The Team

Forgive my silence. Despite there being so much to blog, spending all day, every day working on the State Election has left me pretty wrung out and not particularly willing to spend my leisure time writing about what I do all day, every day.

The Brian Burke affair cuts through this. It's been a slow-burning issue - it could be said to have started the moment WA Premier Alan Carpenter unwisely lifted the ban imposed by his predecessor, Geoff Gallop, on his MPs meeting with Mr Burke - and it's an unsual one, growing and mutating from a parochial state issue to one of deep Federal concern. At first, it claimed a series of WA Ministers - for one of whom, it is alleged, the ban was specifically lifted. Then, as we all know, it was touted as the end to Kevin Rudd's honeymoon - every political honeymoon cruises for such a bruising, be it this or Mark Latham's pledge to bring troops back from Iraq by Christmas. Now, it has claimed a Federal scalp - not of a Labor figure, but in the person of Ian Campbell, the former Environment Minister.

Campbell's movement to Human Services was widely viewed as a demotion, and he remains - or remained - one of the last moderates in the Howard cabinet; perhaps as a Minister whose career had peaked and was now on the wane. Following a bruising week of questioning for Kevin Rudd, who admitted meeting with the digraced lobbyist several times, including appearing at a dinner he had hosted, Campbell admitted to a lesser interaction - a single meeting - yet has been showered with praise and regard by the government for `retiring with his honesty and integrity intact' - in contrast, it is implied, to Rudd.

The Burke scandal has been the only productive line of questioning against the resurgent Opposition since Parliament commenced this year. To implicate the successful new leader in such a scandal must have seemed manna from heaven for the Government. So too would the revelation of Campbell's involvement to the Opposition - the issue was not Labor's exclusively, but for all those politicians who had met with lobbyists (which must surely be nearly all of them). Campbell's involvement was completely minor - probably minor enough for him to have survived the scandal.

Campbell's resignation has allowed the government to take the high moral ground. The phrases that an Opposition would use - that Campbell has `fallen on his sword' and the like - have already been co-opted. The Opposition, faced with what may have been an opportunity to turn the situation onto the government, are sent back to square one.

Is it possible that Campbell took one for the team?

As a senator falling out of favour, his parliamentary days are numbered. Was Campbell - perhaps on the promise of some post-parliamentary position - asked to be the fall guy to ensure the biggest threat the Government has faced remains inside the box in which it had finally been locked? His departure allows the Government to renew their attack on Rudd, and only at the expense of a Minister who may have been fairly willing to get out of the game anyway?

All speculation, of course. But interesting to think about.