Crikey’s most mysterious political commentator, Boilermaker Bill McKell, has produced this sharp analysis of Bob Carr’s Cabinet reshuffle.

On viewing Bob Carr’s ministerial reshuffle falling the departure of Treasurer Michael Egan, all I can say is that I’ve never claimed to be infallible or close to Carr. For instance, I never would have picked Carr to appoint the first left wing Treasurer in NSW. I would have thought that the analogy of Jim Cairns (nicknamed “Dr Yes” for his lack of fiscal discipline) being appointed as Whitlam’s Treasurer would have been enough to scare him off.

From AAP, the full picture of the reshuffle emerges:

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Deputy Premier Andrew Refshauge has been named NSW Treasurer by Premier Bob Carr following the resignation of Michael Egan. In a Cabinet reshuffle today, Mr Carr announced changes to six portfolios.

Community Services Minister Carmel Tebbutt would replace Dr Refshauge as Education and Training Minister, and Police Minister John Watkins would replace Michael Costa as Transport Services Minister. Mr Costa will move to Roads and Economic Reform and Ports.

Carl Scully would move from the Roads portfolio to Police. Reba Meagher would be moved from Fair Trading to Community Services and Youth. Industrial Relations Minister John Della Bosca would take on additional responsibility for the Ageing and Disability portfolios and would also administer Fair Trading.

I’ll get to Refshauge’s surprise appointment later, but most of the reshuffle actually makes sense. Tebbutt and Watkins are among the best Ministers in Carr’s Cabinet, and are moved to portfolios that play to their strengths.

Tebbutt must be counting her blessings, getting out of the Community Services portfolio before it had a chance to claim her, like it had her predecessors, Ron Dyer and Faye Lo Po’. Education stakeholders, like the Teachers’ Federation, will look forward to dealing with her, in contrast to their dealings with Refshauge. It confirms that she is the one most likely to succeed Refshauge as Deputy Leader (and as Member for Marrickville, if she had her way).

The biggest immediate challenge in Transport is implementing the vast range of safety and reliability measures for the rail system following the Waterfall Inquiry, getting the new timetables up and running by September and building bridges with the Labor Council (sorry, Unions NSW) and the Rail, Tram and Bus Union. Watkins is a details man and will relish the challenge of getting the rail system (wait for it) back on track. The Labor Council and the unions will be glad to see the back of Costa, after the near complete deterioration of their working relationship.

Costa’s move can only be read as an attempt by Carr to find a portfolio that does not require him to deal with people. More than anything, Costa wanted the Treasury Portfolio after Egan’s departure – to see the Left get it will be all the more galling. The major challenge for Costa will be completing the massive infrastructure investment in roads and ports, and move the Sydney Harbour port facilities to Port Botany. No doubt there are some in the Roads portfolio who might benefit from the timely updating of their resume. Keep an eye out for major road projects that improve the travelling time between Sydney and the Hunter.

Scully’s move to Police just about completes the rehabilitation of his reputation following the last year of his term as Transport Minister (where the post-Olympic ennui’s impact on the reliability of public transport, the Millenium Train fiasco and the Glenbrook and Waterfall crashes combined to nearly claim his scalp). In an unusual mix, Scully keeps his existing responsibility for Housing, which gives him responsibility for two of the biggest spending portfolios.

Scully will be a welcome change for some in NSW Police (such as the Commissioner’s Office and Courts and Legal Services). While Watkins was nowhere near abrasive as Costa during his term as Police Minister, his micro management of the Police portfolio and its budget still grated with many, from the Police Commissioner’s office down. It will be interesting to see where Watkins’ former COS, loyal lieutenant and Deputy Director General of the Police Ministry, Jane Fitzgerald, goes with the reshuffle. She’ll be left exposed in the Police Ministry after Watkins goes, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she makes a move to some role in his new portfolio.

Reba Meagher moves from Fair Trading to Community Services – a significant promotion and opportunity to make a mark in a heavy duty portfolio. I certainly wouldn’t have picked her for the job, and even thought her marked for demotion or treading water. As I’ve said, these are tricky waters for any Minister, let alone one with as little experience as Meagher. Tebbutt had a firm grasp of her portfolio that I can’t see Meagher ever having. She’ll come to rely heavily on Neil Shepherd, the Director General of DOCS and former Deputy DG of The Cabinet Office, and one of the finest public servants I’ve ever seen. DOCS is likely to be the last posting for Shepherd as Director General, and he doesn’t care who he runs up against, which might be fine for him, but will leave Meagher exposed if she doesn’t get a hold of her portfolio from the outset. For instance, there are critical decisions to be made in the next two to three years as the bulk of the $1 billion expenditure commitment made in December 2002 is actually delivered. This is a brave choice by Carr, and given the massive risks in the DOCS portfolio, I hope his judgement is proved right.

Carr has also taken a big chance on appointing Refshauge as Treasurer. This is a critical time for New South Wales’ finances, with the boom period of the late 1990s onwards having well and truly come to an end. Egan has left a raft of unpopular taxes behind, but even these are not sufficient to prevent the budget from slipping into deficit. Following the last budget, most public sector agencies have had to implement a 3% cut to their budgets, and further cuts might be in the pipeline for this Budget. There will be no opportunity to sit and watch the money roll in, and Refshauge will have to work closely with Treasury to get the books back into the black. Refshauge will have to lose his reputation for being the laziest man in the Cabinet and get used to saying no to his colleagues. I suspect this may well be his farewell gig.

Finally, the man most entitled to be disappointed by the reshuffle is John Della Bosca. He would have been my pick for Treasurer, based on his deft handling of the motor accident, workers compensation and drug law reforms. He picks up the relatively thankless portfolios of Ageing and Disability and Fair Trading. In fact, he must have the most disparate set of Ministries in recent history. He is Special Minister of State, Minister for Commerce, Minister for Industrial Relations, Minister for Ageing, Minister for Disability Services, Assistant Treasurer, Minister for the Central Coast, and Vice President of the Executive Council. He relishes the work, but if you ask me, needing to be across all these portfolios leaves him and his Ministerial staff terribly exposed.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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