Another great column on NSW politics from Boilermaker Bill McKell, a stage name adopted by a serious Macquarie Street insider who remains as mysterious to us as he or she is to you.

Surviving the Breen Mile

Before I get underway with a look at the kick off of the 2005 political year in NSW, fairness demands that I tell you of the release of an Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) report released just before Christmas. You may recall that in mid-2004, I wrote a number of articles concerning the ICAC hearings into the Reform the Legal System Member of the Upper House, Peter Breen. ICAC was investigating allegations that he had misused his allowances and staff allocation – allegations that seemed to be blowback from allegations he had made in 2003 against Outdoor Recreation Party MP, Malcolm Jones, who ICAC had found to have acted corruptly.

ICAC’s December report into Breen made no findings of corrupt conduct, and on the most substantial allegations, found that he had not acted improperly. There was, however, some criticism about his use of staff to work on projects that were considered to be more personal than Parliamentary in nature. But overall Breen has suffered the closest thing there is to a political near-death experience – the subject of public hearings at ICAC, and not found to have acted corruptly. I think (and I’ve said this in correspondence with Breen) that he was very very lucky.

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It won’t come as a surprise that Breen has some firm views about ICAC and how it operates, and in response, I have been trying to put a piece together that looks at ICAC, and where it stands now. The timing has now become pressing with a Bill amending ICAC’s Act introduced into Parliament last week. There’s been very little reporting about this Bill, which is the most significant overhaul of ICAC since the Greiner affair, but it does not address some of ICAC’s shortcomings postulated by its critics, including Breen. Time – and God – willing, I may have more to say about these matters later in the week.

Back to School

Boilermaker Bill has always thought that the first week of a NSW Parliamentary session feels like the first week back in a boarding school. One strolls round the Parliamentary precinct meeting and hailing one’s colleagues like overgrown school students (“Gibbo, Mate!!) who haven’t seen each other since the weeks before Christmas. And this year was no different – but the analogy stretches further this year with a few choice examples of childish behaviour – so here to kick off the 2005 Parliamentary year, Boilermaker Bill’s “Men (and Women) Behaving Badly”.

It was at the Transport Estimates Committee hearing a few weeks ago that showed the kiddies in fine form. First, a quick pen portrait of the kids in the sandbox:

  • Jan Burnswoods, leading lefty in Labor’s lot in Losers Lounge (the Legislative Council for the uninitiated) and campaign manager for John Watkins, newly installed as Transport Minister;
  • Eric Roozendaal (former ALP General Secretary, who joined the Lounge last year);
  • Michael Gallacher, Liberal and Leader of the Opposition in the Lounge and a former police Internal Affairs officer (who once told Burnswoods that her nickname was “New Shoes” because no-one could wear her);
  • and in a cameo appearance, David Oldfield and his chest hair.

Gallacher was putting rail supremo Vince Graham through his paces, when the Labor luminaries decided it didn’t like the line of questioning:

The Hon. ERIC ROOZENDAAL: I appreciate the attempt of the Leader of the Opposition to relive his heyday as a police officer—

The Hon. MICHAEL GALLACHER: I am surprised we never met, Eric.

The Hon. ERIC ROOZENDAAL: All the police I met were honest so I doubt I would have bumped into you.

Then a few more sallies that showed the Wildean wit of the Lounge Lizards:

The Hon. JAN BURNSWOODS: Mr Graham, I note that we have reached the—

The Hon. MICHAEL GALLACHER: The Minister’s nanna.

The Hon. DAVID OLDFIELD: The Minister’s nanna? Is that what you called her?

The Hon. MICHAEL GALLACHER: Yes. She’s the nanny who looks after the Minister.

The Hon. ERIC ROOZENDAAL: And you are a schoolboy idiot.

And then:

The Hon. JAN BURNSWOODS: You are not after the witness’s view, you just like the sound of your own voice.

The Hon. MICHAEL GALLACHER: I do not want to hear yours.

And after that it was on for young and old:

The Hon. ERIC ROOZENDAAL: That was how it was in your day, was it, Michael?

The Hon. MICHAEL GALLACHER: No, I use to deal with real men, not like you. There are methods in place that can protect the transit officer.

The Hon. JAN BURNSWOODS: He is on about real men. He is trying to compete with David’s undone buttons.

The Hon. DAVID OLDFIELD: Why don’t you show us the hair on your chest?

The Hon. MICHAEL GALLACHER: You are like a Huger carpet tile.

The Hon. JAN BURNSWOODS: He really gets rattled, doesn’t he?

Mr GRAHAM: It must be near time.

The Hon. MICHAEL GALLACHER: Mr Graham, it is a serious issue for transit officers to allow them that greater option.

The Hon. JAN BURNSWOODS: Why don’t you stop making it into a bold boy rage—

The Hon. MICHAEL GALLACHER: We know you hate them because in your mind they are police officers. We know you do not like them.

The Hon. ERIC ROOZENDAAL: Point of order—

The Hon. JAN BURNSWOODS: I never mentioned police officers.

The Hon. MICHAEL GALLACHER: No, you see them as police and you are a little Lefty and you don’t like them, nanna.

The Hon. ERIC ROOZENDAAL: We now have a schoolboy attack on a member of the Committee and with nothing to do with the questions at hand.

The Hon. JAN BURNSWOODS: He is a fool. He is just a little bovver boy.

The Hon. MICHAEL GALLACHER: At least I got through school.

On the evidence available, the lot of them may as well have never left.

Wave of Sympathy

Further evidence, if any was needed, of the childishness of our friends in Losers Lounge occurred during the debate on a sympathy motion for the victims of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Among the thousands of heartfelt words said in both chambers during the week, it was Greens MLC Ian Cohen, who had the most direct experience of the tragedy. Cohen was in Sri Lanka on a surfing holiday, and I’ll let him tell you the rest of his story:

I arrived in Sri Lanka the night before the disaster—great timing, I must say—and I was about to wax my board for my first mornings surf in Hikkaduwa. I found my surfboard being pounded by the surf on the verandah of the hotel, which was formerly about three metres above the sea line. A chunk of concrete that was part of the retaining wall floated past in the surge. In the distance I saw surfers paddling to shore. Apparently some were lost at sea further south. I retreated to the front room holding my surfboard like some sort of security blanket. I tried to close the door but it broke under the surge of water. I retreated to a house with support poles to see what was going on and to avoid direct contact with the debris that was flowing past like a river, a torrent pushing down between the twin rooms where I had gear stored and the side of the building—sort of surfing in the bedroom, if you like.

It was a humbling experience for me. I was extremely lucky. Imagine a train travelling at 60 or 70 kilometres an hour being hit by a huge wave and derailed. The carriages were pitched in A-frames as they would be by a kid playing robustly with a toy train set. About 300 metres from the train hundreds of houses, from the water’s edge to the rail line, had been completely smashed. That sort of devastation was multiplied along a thousand kilometres of coastline on that one island, with even greater devastation on the east coast. It was just too hard to contemplate. When I was holding on to the pole looking out to sea I could see the waves rolling in but, as the Deputy Leader of the Opposition accurately said, there was a rising of the ocean. The normal swell coming in continued but the surface of the ocean had risen three or four metres. A torrent of water flowed through everywhere it could.

As I had a surfboard, a wetsuit and other surfing equipment, I was pretty well equipped to deal with the situation, and I escaped with only minor injuries. I had a few cuts and scratches.

Boilermaker Bill has a lot of time for Cohen. Indeed, when I heard that he had been caught up in the Sri Lanka tragedy, I was heard to say that while he was one third of the ranks of Green MPs, he is 100 percent of their talent. And everything he had to say on Tuesday was worth my attention. But then Michael Costa had to make an ass of himself by interjecting on Cohen. Cohen was telling the Lounge of efforts to raise resources for the children affected by the tragedy:

We should take the opportunity to provide therapeutic assistance by collecting and distributing children’s art books and materials for the thousands of children in all the affected countries—Sri Lanka, Thailand, parts of India and Indonesia. This Thursday I will speak to the New South Wales Labor Council. I have been invited to speak and I would like to raise the issue—

The Hon. Michael Costa: It would not have happened in my day.

Mr IAN COHEN: This shows a really sick mind, that a man can make a comment like that when we are dealing with such a serious issue. I am appalled. Sometimes you are a joke but at this point you really are appalling.

Theatrical Training

Boilermaker Bill is looking forward to a bumper year of plays in Sydney theatre this year. Later in the year, Sydney Theatre Company will be presenting Democracy by Michael Frayn, author of Copenhagen, which wowed audiences two years ago. Democracy tells the story of West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, whose aide was found to be Stasi agent. Belvoir Theatre will be presenting Stuff Happens by David Hare, which depicts the road to war in Iraq, using the recorded utterances of the central players in the US and British Governments – “stuff happens” was Donald Rumsfeld’s rather sanguine assessment of the looting and pillaging of Baghdad in the days after Saddam was overthrown. And the STC is also giving us a new production of Julius Caesar. So you can see why Boilermaker Bill is so excited.

But playing right now at Sydney Theatre is The Permanent Way, another play by David Hare, and presented by the Out of Joint company and the British National Theatre. It depicts the privatisation of the British rail system in the early 1990s, and the subsequent decline in service and maintenance, with a series of accidents reducing customer confidence. Sound familiar?

Alex Mitchell in the Sun Herald suggested that Rail, Tram and Bus Union Secretary Nick Lewocki buy a block of tickets to take the likes of Chris Corrigan and Vince Graham along. It’s a masterpiece of theatre that’s been finely honed by the troupe performing the play on tour across Britain. All I can say is that if you want to see what’s in for the Carr Government over the next few years if they can’t get the rail system back on track, beg, borrow or steal a ticket for this performance. You won’t regret it.

A serving of reheated Greens

Last Thursday saw Eric Roozendaal use his Adjournment Speech to launch a broadside against the Greens over plans for the handling of eco-developer donations, which The Sydney Morning Herald mentioned in the Saturday edition.

But Dear Reader, not only did you read it first in Crikey, you read it 18 months ago:

Boilermaker Bill is ready and waiting for your scoops at