Just how seriously f-cked are our state politicians?

It’s probably too much to ask for political courage and vision. And we don’t reward it anyway — the last two State leaders with serious reform credentials were Nick Greiner and Jeff Kennett, and both got done over by the electorate, although Greiner limped along for a time in minority government.

But it shouldn’t be too much to ask for basic competence and no corruption. Of the two states in the news on the weekend, WA Labor has struggled with the latter and NSW Labor has demonstrated for some years it is incapable of the former.

Are there any state leaders — premiers or otherwise — of whom voters, or even rusted-on party members, can be proud, or at least feel confident they know where they want to go and how to get there?

Then again, if you were talented and interested in public life, why would you enter state politics? The long-term centralisation of political power in Australia is starving state politics of its policy interest.

State politicians are becoming managers and administrators, barely different from the public servants who work for them. It wasn’t just John Howard’s prolonged assault on federalism that did this. Kevin Rudd’s cooperative federalism, with its emphasis on national harmonisation, will have a similar effect.

But Labor’s shrinking gene pool is exacerbating the problem. Like all political parties, Labor has for decades been drawing on an ever-decreasing pool of talent — people willing to make the sacrifice necessary to participate in public life. But what used to be its strengths have now become weaknesses.

Labor’s trade union links used to guarantee a steady supply of capable men and women who arrived in politics with extensive experience in administration and arguing a case inside the party. This at least would guarantee competence.

But the steady shrinking of trade unions and the professionalization of politics, which produced a clear political career ladder — ministerial adviser, factional player, chief of staff, preselection, ministry, lucrative post-political consultancy career — has ushered in the golden age of the factional hack.

At some point in the last decade, Reba Meagher and the ever more blimp-like Joe Tripodi came to symbolise Labor in NSW. Indeed, Tripodi, in between trips to ICAC, has become a party power broker. The sight of he and Eddie Obeid playing kingmakers last week is a perfect illustration of just how utterly stuffed Labor is in NSW.

Michael Costa was another example of the problem. Costa rapidly ascended to the second highest office in NSW apparently without the one thing critical for a successful career — a capacity for compromise.

In fact, Costa not merely appeared to enjoy fighting for what he believed in, he seemed like he’d fight his own reflection if there was no one else around to target. This is an astonishing failure. Regardless of your ideology or competence, you can’t run a state without an ability to be flexible. If you mentioned flexibility to Costa, he’d tell you to get f-cked, although admittedly that appeared to be his reaction to pretty much anything.

And now one professional party hack in Morris Iemma has been replaced by another in Nathan Rees. Rees may of course turn out to be a political star, although his party has handed him not so much a poisoned chalice as a good old Neville Wran-style sh-t sandwich with a tanking economy and a deeply unpopular government.

Brendan Nelson was his usual consistent self yesterday when he vaguely referred to “looking at the Constitutional arrangements in New South Wales” about an early election, but then backed off when Barrie Cassidy asked him to give some detail. But he’s got a point. If ever there was a government that needed dismissal, it’s this lot.

Rees’s one hope lies across the chamber in Barry O’Farrell. I remember when O’Farrell looked the goods — moderate, pleasant, smart, competent. He managed to blow that the other week when he knocked back Iemma and Costa’s privatisation plan. Suddenly there are big questions about the bloke’s judgement. And the Liberals appear to be suffering from the same shallow talent pool as Labor, although at least, in drawing on legal and small business ranks, they get politicians who’ve actually had some real world experience.

These problems won’t go away. They’ll get worse until we change State politics to make it more appealing to talented people, and our political parties decide that they need to genuinely broaden their memberships. Until then, we’re stuck with the likes of Joe Tripodi.

Peter Fray

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