14 November 2016

The dogs' breakfast

Look, I have a long and winding draft on the US election that I'm still trying to work through, ok? What follows here is a diversion into the politics (and coverage thereof) of my native state of New South Wales, which is ready to go out now. I beg the indulgence of regular readers.

The NSW government committed itself to a significant building program of both public infrastructure and private housing. The departure of Troy Grant as Deputy Premier puts all that in doubt, and the coverage of this misses the point entirely.

In order to pull off an agenda like that, a government needs a nice-guy leader, personable but firm, with an offsider who is a bastard and an enforcer of the steely will the leader never fully shows the public. Everywhere that has successfully pulled off a vast rebuilding program - Haussmann's Paris, Robert Moses' New York, Max Brauer's Hamburg, Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore, Zhu Rongji's Shanghai - saw a charismatic leader with one or more arm-twisting bastard enforcers to get things done.

Grant was Mike Baird's bastard. A police officer for 22 years, he joined the Nationals and won the seat of Dubbo in 2011 from independent Dawn Fardell. He was a backbencher until Barry O'Farrell resigned in April 2014. Nationals leader Andrew Stoner had bought into the development ethos that had consumed the Liberals, insisting that some of the largesse from electricity sales also go to regional NSW; when Stoner stood down six months after O'Farrell, there was no succession plan. Grant had the numbers to become Nationals leader and Deputy Premier.

Being new to politics did not stop Grant taking advantage. He became Minister for Police, leapfrogging his old colleagues who had avoided being posted to Dubbo. He became Minister for Justice as well, breaching the old protocols where the minister for one could not be minister for the other; he outranked the Attorney General, Gabrielle Upton, whose namby-pamby concerns about due process were swept aside by a copper's pragmatism. He combined this with the ministry of Gaming and Racing, putting him in charge of real power with liquor and pokie licencing - as well as Arts, because hey why not and who else in the government wants to do that? Grant aggregated all this power at a time when the Coalition had a vast backbench, full of apparently talented and hard-working potential ministers.

When Baird wanted to curtail liquor trading hours in the inner city, Grant backed him. Police and health workers cheered the move, but the denizens of the city's bars and clubs hated it - and seemed to have no recourse, not to nice-guy Baird, not to the bastard enforcer Grant.

When Baird resolved to ban greyhound racing in 2015, it was to please the same skittish urban base that had embraced Julia Gillard's ban of live cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011. A once working-class past-time had been forced from the inner city to the urban fringes and to rural areas that aren't desert, or pricey prime land, or subject to fracking, or too far from traditional greyhound racing centres in Gosford, Dapto, and Wentworth Park. It was never a big industry and had no champions who were big donors with access to the political class. No migrant group embraced it, it attracted few young people, and with a cut to its subsidies and a bit of compensation it might well have been dispatched into history with its ageing adherents. Grant backed him, and developed the legal and policy mechanisms to make it happen.

As with urban planning or electricity sales, the consultation was broad, but firm; the government isn't backing down on this, but by all means let's talk and money will be available. The legislation passed, and the machinery whirred into action.

If greyhound racing didn't matter, it didn't matter if the ban was overturned. Nobody was asking Baird to go back on something big and important, like WestConnex. By championing greyhound racing, Alan Jones emboldened conservatives who needed votes from lower-income earners and helped them to an easy, low-consequence win over the powers-that-be grinding through the big projects. Jones gives most governments free rein but he expects them to kowtow when he jerks the chain, seemingly at random, whether the issue is large or small. Baird saved his government with the backflip, even if he lost the sky-high ratings a Sydney politician needs to brush off Alan Jones.

Baird didn't want to look like either the bad guy or a backflipper; Grant, who had put the anti-greyhound mechanisms in place, had to undo broad and careful planning and write off the compensation. Labor embraced the greyhound cause for the same cynical reasons Barry O'Farrell used against electricity privatisation in 2008, ending the career of then-Premier Morris Iemma and sending the Labor government into a death spiral. The Orange byelection, brought on when state MP Andrew Gee went to Canberra, came when Grant was exposed and vulnerable.

The trouble with sweeping aside protocols and niceties to make big things happen is that you have to bring people with you. Grant had successively alienated long-standing members of the Nationals such as Katrina Hodgkinson and serial boofhead Andrew Fraser. The Orange byelection is an excuse for getting rid of Grant, not the hill he chose to die on. Grant did not have Baird's residual nice-guy image, nor the depth of experience within the Nationals to smooth ruffled feathers. Hodgkinson and Kevin Humphries had been dumped as ministers, in a party not exactly replete with talent and which needs to have its best members tackling the Liberals, Independents and other forces threatening the party's very existence. Grant's country copper instincts, to start with a chat but end with a boot up the arse if needed, had gone so far but no further.

Grant rose like a rocket and fell like a stick, at which I neither mourn nor revel. I never imagined we'd have a Deputy Premier named Troy; I just assumed it was unconstitutional or otherwise unfeasible. It will be interesting to see what happens now:
  • Apparently the new Nationals leader will be John Barilaro, who like Baird comes across as a nice guy and not at all an arse-kicker like Grant.
  • As Vocational Education minister, Barilaro had his run-ins with Education Minister Adrian Piccoli; we'll see how things change when the difference in seniority between these two men is reversed.
  • Interesting to see who becomes the new Police Minister, a source of real power vastly underestimated in state politics. Will the Liberals bring back Mike Gallacher, or is it too soon? Is he content to join the Liberal Right's factional silly-buggers over preselections, angling for a Federal role?
  • Will the Attorney-General be able to reassert due process over the new minister(s) for police and justice?
  • What of the regulation of liquor, pokies - or greyhounds, for that matter?
  • Will the momentum of big road, rail and other "once in a lifetime" infrastructure projects stall?
  • Will arts funding (increasingly important to the sector since federal cuts) stay close to the city's elite, or be dispersed by a new minister from far beyond?
  • In Dubbo, Grant had learned to speak Wiradjuri. No other NSW government minister, apart from Linda Burney and some 19th-century Renaissance men, learned an Aboriginal language.
  • Imagine Andrew Gee regarding his old seat, in the heart of his federal electorate, that has registered a 30% swing against the Nationals. Gee had entered state parliament in 2011 as Grant had, but never became a minister. He has joined a government less popular than Baird's, with a Nationals leader more cunning but less capable than Grant. No federal MP is safe from a 30% swing.
  • Speaking of people considering their future - Grant has been forced out of the Deputy Premiership and faces the undoing of two years of work. Why should he stick around until the next election (in 2019)? His seat of Dubbo adjoins that of Orange, with similar demographics and issues ...
Apart from the prospect of a byelection in Dubbo and a bit of soft-soap work on Barilaro, NSW political journalists haven't started on any of the above issues. NSW politics has been reshaped almost as profoundly as New Zealand's South Island. Grant was significant enough, in less than five years, to leave a vacuum in his wake. State political rounds should be across all of those issues and plenty more, yet they've just clustered around the same set of talking points which make no difference to anyone but the journalists themselves.


  1. Lachlan Ridge15/11/16 3:31 pm

    I wouldn't discount the destabilisation of, not just the Nationals, but the NSW cabinet with the demotion of Adrian Piccolli either.

    Adrian Piccolli was that rarest of creatures; a thoughtful National, more in the mould of Al Grassby than Andrew Fraser, who did a more decent job of Education minister than most of his ALP predecessors and really was a champion of public schools (even if he did oversee an IT shambles). In an age when Public Education is becoming welfare education in the eyes of the political class we could have done a lot worse.

    Now the Nats have gone to Barilaro - a Queanbeyan knownothing who is overseeing the greatest destruction of a public institution in our generation, namely the TAFE based vocational education system. Barilaro sits mute while carpetbaggers and tick-and-flick experts set up cash registers between the unemployed and work, playing the Australian taxpayer for fools.

    Treating work training as a market based for-profit business was started by Howard, but enthusiastically pursued by Gillard through COAG when she was Education Minister, with the introduction of competitive tendering for course places by training providers. Now 457 visas are becoming an issue as they are there ostensibly to deal with the inevitable skill shortages that have resulted from treating training as a market opportunity rather than a public investment for the last generation. Voila, vocational training and immigration become intricately linked in a way too complex for the brain-dead media to comprehend. And in a way that will not end well for the advocates of neoliberalism that clog the arteries of our major parties and media.

    There is real anger about 457 visas in the community - especially among the large proportion of the working age population that have nil or minimal formal qualifications but lots of work experience. There is nothing more illustrative of the frustration of neoliberalism than having to pay to get a ticket to do a job you have been doing for years, yet it happens to thousands of people in retail, logistics, transport, community services, aged care and other industries every year. If you're lucky your employer pays for it, but most aren't that lucky, especially those many Australians who are casually employed or "independent" contractors.

    There is a ticking time bomb here and it is invisible in the media because, well, it doesn't affect them, or so they think.

    Just hopeless.

  2. The biggest news story in NSW at the moment, which is getting no coverage at all, is that the Baird government is poised to introduce laws to relax land-clearing legislation. And it has been reveled in the last day or so that they are not policing the current legislation, allowing political friends to get away with illegal clearance, so obviously the new, relaxed laws will be a britzkrieg against wildlife and native vegetation.
    Similar relaxation in Qld under the Newman government lead to huge losses of vegetation and of populations of iconic species such as koalas, to say nothing of non-iconic, not very well-known species.
    The last thing the Australian environment needs is any more native vegetation clearances, and such clearances will not help agricultural or pastoral productivity one little bit, such clearances are usually to do with shady attempts to increase the value of land.

    1. Between muzzling ICAC, the land-clearing and the backflips on greyhounds, Baird is quickly making me realize why I never normally show any respect to Coalition politicians. They always make you regret it.

  3. Thankyou Andrew for once again exposing the cogs and wheels of party politics.

    One thing though. As someone who does not live in Sydney I always assume that real estate, particularly that by the water, is always playing a role in government decision making.

    Wouldn't Wentworth Park be a desirable location for developers?

  4. This is a little tangential, but can anyone explain to me exactly WHY Alan Jones has such influence in NSW? His demographic seems to be otherwise unengaged oldies (like my parents) and retirees, and while allowing that he is one of the highest rating talk-back radio hosts in Sydney, his actual ratings are something like 15%! Not 90%, not 50% - 15%! That is, 85% of people even listening to radio in his timeslot don't listen to him, let alone the rest of us not even listening to radio at that time. What gives?

    1. He has influence with politicians and with the journalist/pundit class. His voice echoes within the echo chamber, even if it is not very loud outside it.

      Also, sometimes people say "Alan Jones" as shorthand for the collective of right wing ranting heads on radio, TV and print. While there is huge overlap between their audiences, between them they DO influence quite a lot of people and the topics which lead the headlines and news bulletins, even if their power as individuals is very questionable.

    2. Like wolves, shock jocks hunt best in packs, Anon.

  5. How do you manage to write this (as New South Wales state politics editor, no less) and completely ignore the elephant in the room?
    Anyone with even a modicum of knowledge of New South Wales state politics knows that the Right of the Liberal Party will go completely feral if Gladys Berejiklian becomes Premier (much though she deserves it). Indeed, it's how Mike Baird got the job in the first place!