Rarely do you get the opportunity to see a government disintegrate before your eyes. In NSW, we’ve already seen one this year and now we’re watching a second.

Morris Iemma’s government collapsed at the beginning of September with the loss of the premier himself, the deputy premier John Watkins, Treasurer Michael Costa, Health Minister Reba Meagher and the exile of Planning Minister Frank Sartor to the backbench.

Premier Nathan Rees, the 40-year-old left-winger, arrived in the job with the energy, fire and decisiveness of a genuine change-agent.

But instead of driving NSW Inc forward, he’s driven it into the ground. He’s tried to turbo-charge a Model T Ford, floored the accelerator and it hasn’t responded. Instead, parts have fallen off.

Veterans of NSW politics have never experienced anything like this.

How could anyone trust Eric Roozendaal, the former NSW ALP general secretary, and Finance Minister Joe Tripodi, to prepare a mini-budget and then sell it to the population? The widely reviled document is a combination of Treasury-inspired grabs — ending the school bus pass system and canning the $50 back-to-school allowance — and ALP marginal seat pre-occupations which include slashing spending in National and Liberal-held electorates and diverting spending to Labor “winnables”.

Taking away bus concessions to get working class kids to and from school will delight Treasury mandarin John Pierce and his ghastly crew of bean-counters but it sits unhappily next to the $3500-a-day fees to former Reserve Bank governors Bernie Fraser and Ian MacFarlane for financial advice.

And on the subject of political judgement, how could Kiama MP Matt Brown have been considered a possible Planning Minister when, as we now know, he owns 18 properties? Brown was then made police minister but resigned within days after revelations that he engaged in exotic dancing techniques with Wollongong MP Noreen Hay in his office on budget night.

One reason why Rees’s “great leap forward” has fallen in a heap is because he has no professional, independent chief executives in the public service. The politicization of the state bureaucracy and the recruitment of party hacks during 13 years of Labor rule has come home to roost. He is surrounded by nobodies who can’t give orders, they can only take them.

Meanwhile, the government appears in permanent crisis. This leads to inertia and ultimately paralysis. This isn’t new, of course: it started at the beginning of the year when “Mr Dilemma” Iemma was in charge but it has intensified under Rees.

After the sacking of Science Minister Tony Stewart this week, Rees said he would uphold standards in his ministry even “if there’s only one of us left”. This inadvisable remark left the impression there would be more casualties in the future and that he would rule on his own if necessary. A very bad look which showed little confidence in his colleagues and fed the fires of instability.

Normally a government would end the agony by choosing a new leader, staging a Cabinet reshuffle, or calling an early election. However, these options are fraught with difficulty.

Its current plan is to soldier on until March next year when Rees’s “red hot go” will be six months old. Only then will we know whether he will circle the wagons and fight to hold onto as many seats as he can in March 2011 (not many!) or whether he will retire to his suite at the top of Governor Macquarie Tower and place a call to the Governor.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey