31 October 2006

Why Carl Scully failed

The sacking of NSW Police Minister Carl Scully is an illustration of the sort of person who is fooling political parties, journalists and 'political professionals' about what makes a useful minister.

Scully was a micromanager whose interference warped the management of the public sector organisations. How many times did he "announce" the Parramatta to Chatswood rail line - 40? 50? How may halfwitted press gallery journos traipsed out to some point on that shrinking line to hear him talk more and more about less and less? As Police Minister he stuffed reform of the Police Service because Alan Jones asked him to, and overlooked the more-than-competent Clive Small for the quiet man who'd shine the light that shone from his ministerial arse straight back at him.

Scully didn't just fail last week. His whole ministerial career has been a study in failure. Once all those infrastructure projects initiated by the Liberals had been completed he was pretty much stuck for ideas. All that remained was all he had - the repellent personality, blame-everyone-for-the-bad-stuff-hog-the-credit: Keating with learning disabilities.

Scully's aim in public life was to tweak public institutions so that credit for public services reflected not on the providers but on himself. His end came when he was handed a report written by a grown-up about serious, institutional, dry-but-important policy issues, and all Scully could do was fudge and spin. That's all politicians (and I include union apparatchiks here) of his generation have been taught to do. Federal Liberals of this generation don't need the tweaking skills because PM's office will supply you with those, thanks very much (except Brendan Nelson, who developed his tweaking skills independently, and Tony Abbott, a man in breach of the law unto himself). The issues in that report Scully lied about are still important, they still have to be dealt with, but nobody is going to be dealing with them between now and after the next State Budget.

In 11 years in Opposition, this is only the Liberals' second scalp (the first, trivia fans, was Ron Dyer. The Shadow Minister responsible for that has lost preselection). When they first lost office they kept bleating that all would be well again if only they could tweak the PR a bit more effectively. This was the wrong approach, of course, but being in PR means that whenever you're wrong it's never your fault. That's why all the smart people are in PR and, increasingly, all the dills are in politics.

You can't tweak the PR so that credit reflects on pollies rather than service providers. All societies need teachers, nurses, police and firies, and every society that has to choose between them and elected politicians never chooses the latter. If you're not interested in service provision then state politics isn't for you.

Labor wins state elections because they seem to like the dull work of service provision, and aren't too fussy about the remuneration package. Nobody votes for John Watkins or Eric Ripper because they're dynamic or smooth, they vote for them because they seem to plough ahead and get kids taught, sick people tended to and buses to run on time. The Liberals can't get past the impression that they'd rather be somewhere else, strutting around a local council or falling into line in Canberra.

Peter Debnam couldn't run a bath, and NSW voters can see that - but if the NSW Government had any sense they'd get Jillian Skinner and Gladys Berejiklian to run the health system. The current minister, if he were any more of a corpse, would be waiting to be misplaced by an incompetent hospital administrator and covered up in a coffin made from a papier-mache of his worthless press releases. Skinner and Berejiklian's quiet, policy-focussed competence is a stark contrast from Scully's noisy failure. However, it is Scully rather than the other two who provides the model for aspiring pollies to follow. Kim Beazley's aw-poor-Carl was the worst thing he could have done - Beazley associated himself with a popular joke and polling poison, without having the guts to ask his mate to come on down to Canberra and become the next Laurie Brereton.

If you kick people when they're down you drive the message home. Besides, I kicked him while he was up and he didn't seem to mind.

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