31 March 2011

Johnny Panic

The selection of John Robertson as NSW ALP leader shows how committed they are to staying dysfunctional, on a number of levels.

The rise and rise of John Robertson has been happening for the better part of five to ten years. The same five-to-ten that has seen that party go from a credible, even in some respects formidable government, to being a small-scale rabble and a big national joke. You'd think that Robertson could cool his heels in the Legislative Council while they are still pulling survivors from the rubble, until the fabled consultation with the members takes place - but no. If Labor had won, Robertson would have switched to the lower house. Now that Labor has lost, the same solution is applied: Johnny Robertson, the man for all seasons. The accepted wisdom among the journosphere is that Robertson has somehow lucked in to the leadership of his party, just like Steven Bradbury's ice-skating gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics, which is rubbish. There's been a lot of work go into getting Robertson up, and journalists who claim otherwise don't understand politics and will believe anything.

You could argue that Robertson is a man who is wildly popular. You'd have to ignore the fact that his vote was 18.7% down on last election (not as bad as some, but a lot worse than most), when Paul Gibson was getting ready to prove himself unsuitable for ministerial office. People flocked to Blacktown to help Robertson during the campaign, but they weren't Blacktown locals. They weren't members wanting Robertson to rank and file them. They were the sorts of careerist who know the value of sucking up to the next leader at a time when he could use a bit of face-saving. Another victory for the Labor careerists: the voters, the ordinary members were right to turn off.

You could argue that Robertson is wildly popular because of his position on electricity privatisation. After thirty years of Labor and Coalition governments selling off public assets, only old-school socialists are against privatisation per se (and they are more likely to vote Green than Labor anyway). What people don't want is sudden price hikes or disruption of service - which are contradictory impulses, and without leadership you can only go the populist route and set yourself as the champion of an unsustainable status quo. Throw down the baton of leadership and you can't be sure that someone else won't pick it up.

Most Labor people who insist that Robertson is wildly popular assume that the voice of the unions are the authentic voice of working people. With fewer than one in ten private-sector workers in unions, this is a poor assumption - but one on which Labor seems to rely heavily. A non-entity made it to number two on Labor's Legislative Council ticket on the basis that all the shop assistants in NSW would vote Labor because he was so well known and loved among that occupation. I'd love to see some proof of that, but it would be like yanking the curtain away to reveal the 'real' Wizard of Oz. If Robertson had to rely on union members in Blacktown, he'd be finished.

Yes, he has enemies, it's part of politics and many other walks of life - but real power isn't having no enemies. Real power is making your enemies shut up. Robertson doesn't have that power, not even if he were Premier today could he hand out trinkets and threats to get a unified team. With Keating and Iemma coming out hard against him, Labor has turned its back on leaders who could actually win elections and chosen someone almost purpose-designed to repel them. People who've known Robertson for many years think he's a jerk, so why would most people who don't know him at all be persuaded differently? Robertson would need to back up the tough-guy persona with some chucking-out of the people who got him his job in the first place - can't see it happening myself.

Robertson's rhetoric indicates that he wants to hold the government "ferociously to account". Watch O'Farrell bat him away like Gillard is increasingly doing to Abbott. Labor lost government because it had lost its sense of big-picture, longterm policy, and little niggly criticisms will only reinforce the idea that O'Farrell is doing his best (for which well-meant slip-ups and newbie errors will be forgiven). Like his federal counterpart, Robertson can't be guaranteed to keep his inner boofhead disciplined, which will add to his troubles getting others to shut up and toe the line. You can see the 2015 election campaign from here: Barry the Gentleman vs Johnny Boofhead.

Of the 19 seats Labor can be sure of in the Legislative Assembly, 11 are held by women - the joke is on so-called "progressive women" that they can't get one of their own elected with a 11/19 majority. At what point do you tell Tebbutt to lead or get out of the way? Do you have to wait until the Greens develop a genuinely focused political killer in that district, someone who won't be distracted from the main game and who'll go door to door in order to represent the electorate?

There's an argument that says you put Robertson in and burn him out so that someone else can have a go. That idea didn't work last term, where Labor just looked stupid and flaky by changing leaders. It won't work given the extent to which the machine is invested in Robertson: if they try to take him down he'll take them all down with him, like the Man from Ironbark in the barber's shop. It's understandable tthat no other leader would want Robertson plotting away behind them, but show me a leader afraid of that and I'll show you no leader: Bob Carr survived ongoing comparison with Peter Anderson, but none of the current crop have Carr's drive and tactical sense. Robertson won't sit quietly after dumping like Rees did, either: when he's gone as leader he'll flame out and go at the worst possible moment, because he has no other job to go to, no "Paris option". We could yet have a Liberal MP for Blacktown.

There have been so many articles and interviews by Labor figures over the past week, all paying lip service to the shellacking but all proposing to carry on as they have been. They could have broken that pattern by choosing an outsider (too bad there aren't any), or even someone harmless but articulate like Daley, and demonstrating that things really are different without being worse.

It's a dilemma of participatory democracy that those who do it fulltime - and develop skills that part-timers or well-meaning novices develop to a lesser extent, if at all - get the rewards for effort, and that this discredits the whole enterprise. What looks like a "poisoned chalice" is like mothers' milk to some, just as there are creatures that live in alkaline or near-freezing environments that can't relate to fresh, temperate air. Nobody regards professional athletes as "hacks" or cries about "jobs for the boys", and nor does it necessarily diminish the same activity performed at the community level by amateurs.

Politicians fund sporting organisations to maintain those grassroots links, and though they also fund political parties their grassroots links to pollies and policies is weak and getting weaker. Preselection candidates disdain local connections and make a big deal of "media skills", which can be acquired quickly and are mostly bullshit. The assumptions behind these dark satanic skills work against genuine community activism anyway, and won't help NSW Labor climb out of its hole.

If John Robertson is your answer then you're asking the wrong question.


  1. I am a true believer in the idea that the best trick with Robbo is to stick him in now when there is nobody looking or listening to Labor, burn him out over the next four or five years and then look around to see who is likely to start the resurection. But the main focus should be on burning him utterly.

  2. "The selection of John Robertson as NSW ALP leader shows how committed they are to staying dysfunctional, on a number of levels."

    Or an attempt to reconnect with the Union base, which they will need ever more so outside the influence (i.e. donations) of Government and with an ever shrinking pool of members and volunteers.

  3. John Bignucolo31/3/11 11:11 p.m.

    The media and the blogsphere love talking the ALP and NSW Labor. Since the election, hectares of newsprint and megabytes of html have been covered with analyses of who, what, when, why and how the ALP lost, followed by prognostications of what comes next. But as of 6pm on March 26, NSW Labor stopped mattering, and it won't for at least eight, and more likely twelves years minimum. John Robertson is roadkill no matter what he does, or how well or badly he does it, and everyone knows it. So why worry about it?

    Conversely there has been next to nothing written about the Coalition is going to do, and who is going to do it. What we really need is informed analysis of the attitudes and motivations of Barry O'Farrell, Mike Baird, Andrew Stoner, Gillian Skinner, Greg Smith, Gladys Berejiklian and the rest of the Coalition front bench. They're the people in charge and they're the ones we should be worrying about.

    I get that writing about NSW Labor at the moment is like driving by a car accident. You can't help but look. But eyes on the road guys.

    There was a story in today's SMH on extending light rail in the CBD. Is Gladys Berejiklian (assuming she's Minister for Transport) going to back the extension or is she going to listen to the Andrew Stoner (assuming he's Minister for Roads), the RTA, the RTBU and bus lobby and say it's all too hard to do properly and too disruptive for traffic?

    Are Barry O'Farrell, Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian going to do something about the Weimar-like increases in NSW rail project costs?

    Since the August 2010 NSW submission to Infrastructure Australia, the cost of the North West Rail Link has escalated from $7.54 billion to an even $10 billion, a 32% increase. Based on recent comparable or more difficult tunnelling projects, the Swiss or the West Australians would build the north-west link for less than $2 billion. The experience of Sydney's Airport Line suggests a similar figure.

    Mr O'Farrell needs to immediately address the anti-rail bias and debauching of professional standards within Treasury and Transport NSW. It's damaging the state and retarding its development, not to mention the ability of the Liberal Party to deliver projects for the people of NSW. Because until he does and NSW proffers sound, defensible and comparable rail project cost estimates, the Commonwealth is not going to give NSW a red cent, and nor should it.

  4. John, I agree with you. The thing is that O'Farrell and his government will take ages to rebuild the trust you describe, and will have to do so by actions rather than announcements. You can't write the ALP off because they're in government federally and elsewhere, and haven't (despite Robertson's elevation) forsworn state government ever again. What makes Labor fascinating now is their insistence on ploughing ahead regardless.

    "... the Weimar-like increases in NSW rail project costs" - WTF?

  5. hrgh, Robertson is part of a cadre of union leaders who are utterly disconnected from the union membership. How do ytou expect him and others like him to connect with people they don't understand or respect?

  6. John Bignucolo1/4/11 10:54 a.m.

    ".. the Weimar-like increases in NSW rail project costs" - WTF?"

    It was meant as an allusion to the hyperinflation that hit Weimar Germany in 1921. Obviously there are no wheelbarrows involved, but in 1997 the NWRL was costed by RailCorp at $667 million. It's now up to $10 billion.

  7. When Jemima Goldsmith married Imran Khan a society dame said "Well, he'll make a good first husband". I've been hoping the same about Robertson. But I suspect you are right. Robertson may have totally wrecked the joint by the time Labor gets a new leader.

    I've been wondering for a long time whether Carmel Tebbutt should be told to step up to the plate or get out. Why does she get such a free ride on that? She's obviously a nice person. But are people afraid of being called sexist, because she's a working mum? Am I being sexist?

  8. Hillbilly Skeleton1/4/11 9:10 p.m.

    The State President of the ETU is my ALP Branch President. At our next meeting I will be delivering a blunt message to him, 'Now that John Robertson is NSW Opposition Leader please remember that this is the ALP. Not UnionsNSW, and not the ETU.' It won't make me popular but I don't care anymore.
    All I hope is that the party in NSW get back to their knitting. Otherwise the NSW Disease will kill off the party for good.

  9. I can feel a blogpost coming on about party machines ...

  10. You could call that post "Rude Mechanicals", Andrew...

  11. When Robbo was a Unions NSW boss, he also wore other hats, including that of the leader of 'Labor for Refugees'. He continually counselled Federal Labor, during the post-Crean Beazley era, to change its policies on asylum seekers, and forgetting which hat he was wearing, claimed to be speaking on behalf of union membership.

    I remember being gobsmacked by his preparedness to assert union support for a loosening of Howard's asylum seeker policies.

    He didn't have a clue what union members wanted, esp on issues like aslyum seekers. He did not in fact speak for them, and a huge number of them had been, and continued to vote for, Howard.