It is now exactly twelve months until New South Wales goes to the polls. After a couple of shaky years early in his reign, Bob Carr is now the country’s longest serving head of Government, trying to become the first state government in a decade to win a third term in office. John Norton was a notorious MP who scandalised Sydney in the first years after Federation as the state’s most drunken and outrageous MP. He also founded ‘The Truth’ newspaper. Here’s his take on how politics is going in New South Wales.

Well, what can I say, except that politics moves much quicker now than in my day. No sooner do I explain how hopless the Opposition is under Chikarovski, and they go and try and dump her.

Is this the first example of how important Bill Heffernan has been in maintaining the Prime Minister’s hold on the NSW Liberal Party? Normally, Heffernan would have been at the weekend’s Liberal Party convention, listening to the grumbles, and suggesting the best way to deal with them.

And with Heffernan, the best way is usually to suggest “don’t embarrass the Prime Minister”. For many who remember the mess of Howard’s leadership in the 1980s, Howard in government has run an extremely tight ship. This has been done by people like Heffernan, not so much threatenening people, as just quietly whispering “that wouldn’t be good for the Prime Minister”.

And so, the first chance the Liberals get to meet without Heffernan around, and what happens? Howard does the big sell, about how everyone must pull together around Kerry, and the next day Broggers pulls a leadership coup.

I’m no expert on Liberal Party internal numbers, but you would have to say that someone as young as Brogden wouldn’t threaten his entire career on a challenge which might fail. If he fails, his career is over for some time, and any chance of the Liberals doing well atnext year’s election will disappear out the window.


John Norton’s pre-coup NSW political wrap

So it’s farewell Senator Halfwit. Rarely has an experienced political operator made such a basic mistake as lobbing a load of faeces without first checking which side of the fan he was standing on. It was the most spectacular act of political self-immolation since the flame-out of Michael Knight just days after of the Olympics. Yet Halfwit’s demise is somewhat poignant, coming about as it did from a fire started by the flames of his own burning cross.

The only person left looking sillier out of the whole affair was Piers Ackerman, with his pompous support for the need to investigate Halfwit’s allegations. Strangely amongst Sydney’s chorus of right-wing media ratbags, Ackermann was on his own squawking along as Halfwit’s cheer squad. For once, the Parrot was pursing his lips and underplaying the whole affair. Even Steve Price got stuck into the government, though he made the strange choice last week to direct most of his attacks towards a web site publicising public toilets where men can meet up for sex. (Price appears to be prepared to fight dirty in the ratings battle to knock the Parrot off his perch.)

All this commentary on Sydney’s right-wing chattering classes is important, because at this stage, they act as the official opposition to Premier Bob Carr. No-one takes Kerry Chikarovski and her Coalition team seriously. So bad was the defeat in 1999 that it seems nearly impossible for the Coalition to win enough seats to achieve office in 2003. It is merely a matter of can the Liberals get some new talent into parliament, and gain enough seats to give themselves a chance of victory in 2007.

The federal election results indicate that the Coalition can win the election, if they can harness issues that attract the votes of people in Sydney’s outer fringe, where John Howard so easily defeated Labor. There is a string of outer suburban seats that are Liberal held on Federal results, but currently held by state Labor with massive majorities. It is an area that can be called Sydney’s ‘white fringe’, the outer suburbs where the cities anglo-celtic young families want to live to get away from the crime and grime (code words for ethnics) of suburbs closer to the city. Low interest rates, family tax cuts and the first home owners scheme have delivered these seats to John Howard. But the subtext of ethnic issues inflamed by the Tampa was also important, assuring Howard’s dominance of Sydney’s white fringe.

It may not be well known outside Sydney, but the groundwork for the Tampa crisis was laid by a particularly nasty gang-rape involving Lebanese youths in Sydney’s western suburbs. The case came to court in the run-up to the Auburn by-election last September, the flames of outrage beaten ever higher by the Parrot as he lashed the government, the judiciary and the police force, in particular Commissioner Peter Ryan. It is no wonder that when the Tampa arrived, some in Sydney viewed them as a boatload of potential pack-rapists, and suddenly after September 11, they were all ‘sleepers’, potential terrorists coming here as illegal migrants. The fact that all the American terrorists were either on work of student visas, still the easiest way for potential terrorists to enter Australia, was over-looked as the Parrot turned up the heat on the Labor Party. Is it any wonder that the appointment of Michael Costa as Police Minister was run past the Parrot, and why some cynics have dubbed the whole process of undermining Police Commissioner Peter Ryan as ‘Operation Parrot’.

But can the state Coalition harness these issues to win the next election. Last week, Liberal staffers were trawling the press gallery corridors with a paper by election gnome Antony Green showing they could win the next election. Such an analysis is misguided, as the federal results show the Coalition making no ground up in marginal state seats like Kogarah, Strathfield and Georges River, with Labor’s vote also holding up in key in rural and regional marginals. The reason the Coalition’s vote looked good was the results in white fringe seats like Penrith, where the Labor vote was 22% lower at the Federal election than the 1999 state election. But Labor holds Penrith by 16.7%. The white fringe holds a string of seats with Labor margins above 10%, but Liberal held on Federal results. Given the Liberal Party’s weak membership in these areas, what can the party do to win over the white fringe?

Unfortunately, all those interest rate and tax cut issues harnessed by Howard are not available to Chikarovski. What is available is the subliminal race issue tapped into post-tampa. In the spread of brick venereal housing on Sydney’s white fringe, the Opposition needs to find hot-button issues, valid in their own right, which operate as code words for concern about ethnics.

The two main candidates are law and order, and planning. Law and order is obvious. In rural areas, everyone knows it is code word for doing something about drunken blacks. In Sydney, everyone knows it is code word for doing something about ethnic crime gangs. But planning laws is another issue that taps into the cultural divide between older anglo-celtic Sydney and its quest for the quarter acre dream, and the booming inner city multi-ethnic city of high population densities and all night night-life. Young couples might spend a few years slumming it in inner-city rental accommodation, but in the end, they want to migrate to the suburbs to breed.

(A little side-light. One side effect of the first home owners grant is many young breeders have brought forward their home owning plans. Rental vacancy rates have risen in the inner-city, and a few people trying to negative gear property have found their fingers burnt.)

For years now, in Sydney’s middle class suburbs, there has been concern about planning laws forcing higher population density. Dual occupancy, granny flats, town houses, flats, have all been objected to over the past decade. Since the great bubonic plague outbreak of 1901, high population densities in Sydney have always been viewed as related to crime and disease. This may have changed slightly with urban regeneration in the last thirty years, with once grotty inner-city working class suburbs now prestige areas to live. But still, ever since the car came along, Sydney-siders have been fleeing to the edges of the Metropolitan area. The only problem is that the Cumberland Plain is more or less filled. If Sydney is to continue growing, where is the population to go? In the outer suburbs, higher population density is resisted, even if it is the only way that improved infrastructure can be afforded. Closer in, in older suburbs that retain an anglo-celtic majority, higher population density is seen as the way migrants can get a toe-hold into an area. In many a predominantly anglo-celtic suburb, the sight of someone Chinese or Arab looking at a property for sale is always a concern to the old-timers.

Bob Carr’s planning strategy

Which is why the Malthus of Maroubra, Premier Bob Carr, has risen above the viscera and gore, bestriding the national stage and lashing colleagues left and right in opposition to increasing Australia’s population. He talks about increased population forcing Sydneysiders to live cheek by jowl from the Nepean to the sea. Malthus is making absolutely sure that he cuts off any attempt to harness planning laws as an ethnic sub-text for harnessing votes on the white fringe. The thoughts of the Labor caucus are already focussed on the issue, so shocked was the Labor Party by the way the mood turned in the three months before the federal election. And Malthus is never going to be outflanked on law and order either, as he has shown now for two state elections.

The federal/state gap has existed previously in outer Sydney. The same groups who helped keep Malcolm Fraser in office in 1977 and 1980 delivered huge majorities to Neville Wran in 1978 and 1981, when the state Coalition was even more pitiful than it is today. State governments can always win votes by delivering services. Population growth is stretching infrastructure in western Sydney, with some areas suffering badly as new estates go in before the roads and transport links meant to service them. Yet by next year, it seems unlikely this backlog of problems will be enough to undo the Carr government. With Snarl Cully ready to drop any half-planned and unfunded capital works project to get a good headline, at this stage the government still looks focussed on holding on to outer Sydney. All the Coalition can hope to do is drop some of the deadwood it has in its safe seats in the hope of having a more talented frontbench in time for the 2007 election.

Let’s have a look at the two frontbenchers, and sieve the achievers from the duds.

Labor’s Cabinet

Bob Carr:

Premier, Minister for the Arts and Citizenship. After some shaky times in his first year, the Malthus of Maroubra has finally learnt not to aggravate public opinion. An intelligent and genuinely witty man, his ability to charm the press gallery with his erudite humour has defused many a political problem. So weakened has the Liberal Party been since 1999 that his main opposition has been from parts of the Union movement, and of course from the Parrot.

Andrew Refshauge: Deputy Premier, Minister for Planning, Housing and Aboriginal Affairs. The good left-wing doctor has been Carr’s Deputy Leader since 1988, and has settled into the lower profile Planning ministry after making a few blunders in Health in the government’s first term. With population growth, Planning may yet become an issue in next year’s campaign, if anyone can remember who has opposition responsibility for the issue. Occupies his time as Acting Premier entertaining the Caucus with amusing imitations of Carr’s leadership speeches.

Michael Egan: Treasurer and Minister for State Development. The small but perfectly formed Egan is the government’s dogged Treasurer. Possessing an amusing self-effacing wit, his press conferences are always enjoyed by the press gallery. Well on top of his portfolio, he’s prepared to have a stand-up stoush with any of Sydney’s radio shock jocks, and can usually come out on top. Has at times appeared bored with the Opposition’s failure to lay a glove on him, and so tends to occupy his parliamentary time with amusing but savage attacks on his favourite Trotskyite, Greens Legislative Councillor, Lee Rhiannon. Good with his maths despite his Christian Brothers education.

Craig Knowles: Minister for Health. One of the government’s best performers and seen as Carr’s most likely successor. Handling a difficult portfolio with aplomb, and even managing to get good headlines from agreements to put money into the hospital system. Spoken well of by all the influential medical lobby groups, he has hardly put a foot wrong. His preparedness to admit where there are faults goes down well in interviews. A possible future Premier, though no doubt the spin doctors would want someone with more hair.

Bob Debus: Attorney General, Minister for the Environment and Emergency Services. An old hand from the Wran and Unsworth governments, Debus managed to keep a lid on the difficult Corrective Services portfolio for 6 years, and recent problems in prisons have arisen since he left the job. Always looks terrific when out with the emergency services people during bushfires and floods and at least sounds like he knows what he is talking about.

John Della Bosca: Special Minister of State, Minister for Industrial Relations. Went straight from Labor Party state secretary to Cabinet after being elected in 1999, and did a good job in selling the government’s message on a heroin injecting room, and doing something about workers compensation in the face of union objections. The Mechanic gone quiet since. Knows what he is on about, but doesn’t look good on camera, a serious problem for those who talk of him as a future Premier. But then, the NSW Right thought Barrie Unsworth was electable.

Carl Scully: Minister for Roads and Transport, hardly a quiet day passes without Snarl Cully announcing transport infrastructure. Unfortunately, his announcements have a habit of being for the same project, witness the Parramatta to Chatswood rail line, now announced so often it is the butt of gallery jokes. Has a media style like a wind-up tin soldier, fronting the cameras and talking non-stop until his coil is unwound, and can conduct an entire press conference without moving his lips. Amusing and personable in private, but completely wooden in public. Unwise enough to recently use a government car to ferry his pet dog around.

John Aquilina: Minister for Land and Water Conservation, Minister for Fair Trading. Previously Minister for Education, he came a complete cropper after alleging in Parliament that a student with a gun had threatened to go on a rampage. The story was completely and utterly wrong, and Aquilina would have looked an ever bigger fool if only the family’s lawyer hadn’t been such a media tart. Shifted sideways shortly after, he better be looking after his own electorate of Riverstone, which while safe on paper, is rapidly growing, needs a lot of public infrastructure, and would have voted Liberal on federal election results.

Faye Lo Po: Minister for Community Services, Ageing, Disability Services and Women. Was tipped to retire from Cabinet and Parliament, but there is now talk she will stay, Labor concerned by the federal results in her state seat of Penrith. Another one with a wind-up media style, her answer to any question nearly always involves saying “We are looking to progress these issues forward , 05” or “We are not dwelling in the past on this issue.” Would be in trouble, but her portfolios are ones that not enough Liberals, isolated on the affluent north shore, ever get to hear about.

Kim Yeadon: Minister for Information Technology, Energy, Forestry, Western Sydney. A Minister for seven years, he must have done something. We are just not sure what.

John Watkins: Minister for Education and Training. Attractive, well spoken, and occasionally described as a future Premier. Unfortunately, he’s in the left faction (the right rules in NSW), and he represents a marginal north shore electorate right in the middle of John Howard’s seat of Bennelong. To date, he has only performed in the good news Fair Trading portfolio, doing those great Christmas killer toy exposes begun many years ago by Syd Einfield. In a much tougher job now, he has at least overcome the negatives left by his predecessor John Aquilina. Still has to deal with the most entrenched lobby group in the state in the Teachers’ Federation.

Richard Amery: Minister for Agriculture and Corrective Services. A big lumbering ex-copper, the member for Mount Druitt has done a reasonable job of keeping the cockies under control in Agriculture, partly because he doesn’t look silly in moleskins and houndstooth jackets, and has avoided hats. But his new portfolio of Corrective Services is more of a challenge, and a few problems have begin to arise, forcing the Premier to start talking tough in the area. No doubt Carr’s actions come from his memories of Michael Yabsley dismembering Unsworth’s Corrective Services Minister John Akister, Amery thankfully not having Akister’s whining Yorkshire accent.

Harry Woods: Minister for Local Government, Regional Development and Rural Affairs. Holding the Labor Party’s most marginal seat in Clarence on the north coast, Harry will always have a fight on his hands to stay in Parliament. His job is to keep the flag flying for Labor in the bush, a job he has done reasonably well. Has taken on the task of getting new boundaries for inner-city councils, a task in which he has been helped by the ineptitude of South Sydney Council’s defence.

Richard Face: Minister for Gambling and Racing. Dick Face should not even be in the Cabinet, after being made to look a complete goose over policing the Casino. But his pursuer, the National Party’s Rob Hotshot, has resigned from his party complaining his branches are being stacked by property developers. So Dick Face continues to plod on as a Minister. Retiring at the next election, the real interest will be who succeeds him in his Hunter seat of Charlestown, with rumours Police Minister Michael Costa will make the move to the lower house.

Morris Iemma: Minister for Public Works, Sport and Recreation. He used to work for Graham Richardson, but the fact he was now a Minister had passed me by.

Sandra Nori: Minister for Small Business and Tourism. The ex-wife of Senator John Faulkner, she also survived an unfortunate relationship with another Labor MP. A gutsy little woman, she fought Bill Hartup’s old South Sydney Labor machine to win pre-selection, and his beaten off electorate challenges from the likes of Frank Sartor, Dawn Fraser and No Aircraft Noise. Will face challenges from the nimbies in her inner-city electorate of Port Jackson, the residents of several local suburbs trying desperately to keep new developments out of their area. However, it is hard to name her achievements as Minister.

Eddie Obied: Minister for Mineral Resources and Fisheries. One of the shadowy number crunchers from the labyrinthine politics of the NSW right. Overall, a senseless waste of human space.

Carmel Tebbut: Minister for Juvenile Justice. Wife of federal Labor MP Anthony Albanese, she holds a portfolio responsible for handling some of the nastier young people in society, so it is the intent of government that her portfolio not be newsworthy, except when the Premier announces some horrible new punishment for young offenders. (Amnesty International recently objected to a government proposal to force juvenile offenders to listen to the Parrot every morning. Cruel and unusual punishment they cried, but no one objects on behalf of the young political advisers forced to get up at sparrows-fart every morning and listen to the Parrot’s rantings.)

Michael Costa: Minister for Police. Police Minister is an ugly job, so the government selected an ugly man to do it, after first running the idea past the Parrot. Has made plenty of headlines by engaging in lots of furious activity and endless media stunts. Described as a ‘change agent’, his job is to get crime off the front page, and the government’s strong stand on law and order there instead. A few dud decisions so far, but again gets away with it as the opposition is ineffective, and the Parrot has been neutralised.

Opposition Frontbench

Kerry Chikarovski:

Liberal Leader. Why does she bother? Only the Parrot seems to think she can still win. The only reason she is still leader is there is no obvious alternative, and with the knowledge that the Coalition will in all certainty lose next time, who would want the opprobrium. Would make a great Member for Bennelong, so when the Prime Minister decides to retire could have an impact on how long she is leader.

George Souris: National Party Leader, Shadow Minister for Rural Services, Finance and State Development. If he has done anything in the last year, it must have been outside Sydney.

Barry O’Farrell: Shadow Minister for Transport and Innovation. Talks well, good political brain and fortunate enough to be up against Snarl Cully in Transport. Overweight and with a beard, he always said he would have to lose weight and shave to become leader. Hence, there was a panic in Chikarovski’s office when he returned from a holiday two years ago sans beard. Hasn’t made a move, and in the end probably isn’t hard enough as a political operative to be a long-term leadership solution, being a bit prone to quick responses rather than thinking through longer term strategies to undermine the government.

John Turner: Deputy National Leader, Shadow Minister for Roads and Tourism. Who?

Michael Gallagher: Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations, Employment and Workers Compensation. Opposition Leader in the Legislative Council. There are several more talented members who should be Leader in the Council, but factional reasons make Gallagher the leader. Not well known.

Duncan Gay: National party Leader in the Council and Shadow Minister for Local Government, Energy and Mineral Resources. One of the more popular Opposition members with the Gallery, always good for a yarn over a beer, but is hardly in a portfolio designed to gain attention.

Chris Hartcher: Shadow Attorney-General and Shadow Minister for Justice. A man who thinks he should be leader, but then so did Bruce Macdonald before the 1981 election, and he took the party to the most humiliating defeat in its history. Unwise enough to take two turns running the Olympic Torch, something that no one would let him forget if he became leader.

Gillian Skinner: Shadow Health Minister. In the portfolio now for 6 years, earnest and hard-working, she still suffers from looking nervous and hesitant in press conferences. In the first term of the Carr government’s, several of her exposes of hospital disasters turned out to be wrong, causing some in the gallery to treat her story ideas with caution. Not laying a glove of Craig Knowles.

Andrew Tink: Shadow Police and Crime Prevention Minister. Was effective against Paul Whelan while he was Police Minister, but has faded now the Police Minister is in the hands of upper house MLC Michael Costa, meaning Tink is no longer facing his opposite across the floor of the Parliament. Tink would make a useful stop-gap leader if the Liberals were convinced they would lose the next election, but has lost media profile recently. Perhaps getting a bit depressed after 6 years in such a bleak shadow portfolio. Has the best faked indignation in Macquarie Street.

Don Page: Shadow Minister for Land and Water Conservation, Forestry. Like most National Party MPs, too busy trying to keep on top of his electorate to be noticed in the city.

Patricia Forsythe: Shadow Minister for Education and Training. Ernest, caring, interested in issues, small l-liberal, and not nearly enough of a heartless bastard for this portfolio. Again, not helped by being in the upper house when the Minister is in the lower house.

Ian Armstrong: Shadow Minister for Regional Infrastructure, Development and Planning. Sunk without trace since losing the National Party leadership before the 1999 election.

Brad Hazzard: Shadow Minister for Family Support, Disability Services, the Aged and Aboriginal Affairs. Scores occasional points off Faye Lo Po, but this is not a portfolio Liberals ever feel comfortable with. With Federal governments throwing money at the aged these days, the portfolio with state responsibility tends to get buried.

Ian Slack-Smith: Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Emergency Services. Everyone knows he is a published poet and sheep farmer, but apart from that , 05..

John Brogden: Shadow Minister for Planning Reform and Environmental Protection. One of the youngest MPs, he is a prospective future leader, but has the problem of still being baby-faced. The young Nick Greiner at least had some experience in business before becoming leader. Brogden is still written off for only having worked in politics. Such a background may toughen up young Labor activists, but the young Liberals don’t breed hard bastards.

Peta Seaton: Shadow Minister for Competition, Consumer Protection, Small Business and Insurance Regulation. Pass.

Andrew Humpherson: Shadow Minister for Corrective Services and Rehabilitation, Housing. Would make a useful opposition spear carrier, but the party needs a few more heavy hitters in the front ranks where Humpherson tends to be overwhelmed.

Jenny Gardiner: Shadow Minister for Fisheries and Ports. No idea.

Wayne Merton: Shadow Minister Public Works, Services, Urban Water Quality. Having Wayne Merton on the frontbench is always a sign of desperation and lack of other available talent. But then, it was probably him or Charlie Lynn. Not so much scraping the bottom of the barrel as standing in a very shallow talent pool.

Peter Debnam: Shadow Treasurer. Made the mistake two years ago of telling Kerry Chikarovski she wasn’t good enough and should resign. In the end he had to walk, and spent two years on the backbench before returning to the job he had previously performed adequately in. Unfortunately, representing the electorate with the greatest proportion of million dollar properties subject to Michael Egan’s land-tax, has a tendency to get distracted by his local real estate lobby groups, wanting to make this a key issue with which to beat the government. Attractive to the local party members in his original pre-selection thanks to his naval background, his military training comes across as a slightly detached air when he puts himself before the cameras.