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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.

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