08 September 2008

Wall-to-wall, but empty

Labor has control of all Australian governments at federal and state level. Rudd promised to use this situation to "reshape Federation". It's all been business-as-usual so far - the nearest thing we've seen to far-reaching reform in this area has been the pathetic effort over the Murray-Darling, where a state which doesn't (technically) have the Murray flowing through it and whose rivers have the worst water quality on the mainland was allowed to spike the whole deal. Whether inside or outside the Murray-Darling Basin, Australians are entitled to be non-plussed by wall-to-wall-Labor. Not enraptured, not fearful: Labor has gone around stirring up apathy, and it isn't working.

Less than a year after wall-to-wall-Labor came into being, it has delivered nothing and it looks like passing into history as a historical oddity rather than as a period of change. It's interesting that the two jurisdictions that have delivered the first signs of the end are well outside the Murray-Darling Basin, NT and WA.

In the NT, Clare Martin knew that the armed response from Canberra rendered her government irrelevant, so she got out. Paul Henderson was so chuffed to become Chief Minister that he underestimated the extent to which it had become a non-job, and overestimated his ability to convince voters that a non-entity like himself would suit a non-job.

In WA, Alan Carpenter has blown the mining boom and has become cranky at discovering that politics is not as easy as it appears to a journalist. Perth should have infrastructure like Dubai, and the fact that it doesn't is the fault of Carpenter and the other nobodies in WA Labor.

It should be easy to accept the WA Nationals' ransom of $675m for regional areas. Turning Port Hedland into a real city with proper bulk cargo facilities would cost at least that much. Whack a few rail lines to the wheat areas, paint a few schools and put some new gear into some rural hospitals, and there you have A Government That Cares About Rural Areas.

Colin "Boonce" Barnett is more in tune with WA's drivers of growth than Labor and it shouldn't be too hard to convince him that the best thing you can do - the only thing left, really - for industry is to invest in a bit of infrastructure. WA Liberals have a closer relationship with that state's business community than Liberals in any other jurisdiction, and such is the infrastructure squeeze (the sheer scale of the opportunities for miners and other exporters limited by the extent to which it can be extracted) that industry can be persuaded that kicking in for infrastructure is in their interests. Barnett is the man to do that, but he (and Buswell, and the NCB/Corman creatures thrown up by preselection processes) may be unable to resist the urge to just bend over forwards for industry and do penny-ante stuff like screwing Aborigines out of leasing rights, building ugly developments along beautiful sections of coast, or whatever NCB wants, rather than longterm capability-building for the state.

Carpenter is bearing the sort of backlash that Bob Carr should have faced in NSW. Morris Iemma was hailed as someone to watch when he entered Parliament in 1991 and I still don't know why. Here was a competent Grade 9/10 Clerk wasted. Like Carr, Iemma had the full backing of the Sydney media but Iemma's luck, and his credibility, had deserted him. Even when he resigned, nobody believed Morris Iemma at the end. Here was another talentless hack who'd equated stubbornness with toughness, and like Mark Latham has nothing to show for his political career but a pension (and having had Glenn Byers on his staff. Where will this genius show up next?).

NSW Labor's Centre Unity faction had done a better job than any political party had ever done in identifying political talent. The bad news is, well, take a look:

  • Reba Meagher: when Iemma came in she was promoted as The Next Premier. Yeah, right.

  • Joe Tripodi: less said the better really. The fact that Rees is still lauding his economics degree is pathetic in light of his net performance. At a time when infrastructure could not be more crucial, this buffoon should not be put anywhere near it.

  • Eric Roozendaal: now stands to do to the state's finances what he did to transportation in northwestern Sydney.

  • Cherie Burton: put herself in reserve to the point where she could become a future NSW Opposition Leader, if she doesn't lose her seat.

  • Tony Burke: smart enough to get the hell out of Macquarie Street, the only NSW Right factional player in Federal Cabinet and barely tolerated for that. Has the Tony Abbott talent of decisively knocking down straw men he has set up himself.

  • Matt Brown: has achieved nothing, which is fine so long as you have confidence in the backroom boys to get it right.

  • Kristina Kenneally: has Thatcher-like focus in bulldozing opposition without hope for much of an ability to see the broader issues surrounding planning, like urban infrastructure or simplified processes.

You can tell that Rees is more interested in plugging political hioles rather than solving problems in governing NSW. He did nothing much in Water and his successor will do little better. There should not be a separate ministry for roads, and Transport is too hard for the duffer from Wollongong. Verity Firth is a lightweight, someone who thinks her job is explaining policy with her jerky Arts Revue arm movements rather than shaping it. All ministers will spend the rest of the year getting across their new responsibilities.

Rees became a garbo because he lacked confidence in anything but his workin' class credentials. Neville Wran knew that workin' class westiness was overrated as a political drawcard, and so has every Labor leader since - while Rees is now polished within an inch of his life his idea of getting things moving is to go toe-to-toe and get shouty. His experience as a staffer hasn't prepared him for front-office work, because the most effective tools of the backroom operator are irrelevant, or counterproductive, if they see the light of day. O'Farrell can make Rees out to be reactive and rebarbative if he works it properly. Rees' face has two expressions: a smug grin or a scowl, neither of which can project confidence to nervous Labor backbenchers. Rees can minimise Labor's losses if he's lucky, it's doubtful he can pull off a fifth term.

The NSW government has been steadily depleted of its policy-making capability, and after being governed by the one party for 13 years the inadequacies are starting to show. The News Cycle, the bitch-goddess of modern politics, no longer provides scope for Labor as the excuses have all been used up in empty re-announcements. They simply have no capacity to engage with the Feds, the well-resourced Victorian government or anyone else over "reshaping Federation".

Mind you, there is no Liberal voice in this debate. Tony Abbott's "idea" of centralising everything in Canberra is the nearest there is to a contribution from the other side of politics. However shaky things might look for Labor at the moment, you'd have to bet on them (outside NSW, that is) having the capacity to pull out of the terminal dive, a capacity lacking in the Liberals. The press-gallery groupthink that Labor is in trouble is a pantomime, they will get past this in better shape than the Coalition could ever hope to, even if when Nelson is replaced.

Let us now give up on the idea that Rudd and Labor can or will "reshape Federation". A shame really, it was a fine idea while it lasted. Once the recession bites there will be the usual regret that reform didn't happen ages ago, but Labor can't complain that voters didn't give them what they needed to make it happen.

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