If you believe The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian, NSW Premier Nathan Rees will be gone by the end of the year and replaced by John Robertson, the former secretary of Unions NSW who turned politician and took a seat in the state upper house last November.

“Robbo” has been in state politics for less than 100 days, he doesn’t have a lower house seat and he hasn’t yet become a minister but he’s already being touted for the premiership — it’s a scenario that beggars belief.

While the Labor caucus is unhappy with aspects of Rees’s performance and fearful of Labor’s plunging popularity in the opinion polls, it isn’t ready to appoint a trade union boss to lead the government to the state election in March 2011.

The only person who wants Robertson in the job is the Coalition leader Barry O’Farrell: he is already leading in the polls but he would climb even higher if his opponent was “Robbo”.

And Robertson himself has no interest in taking the Labor leadership. He hasn’t any of the natural skills of a political maestro: his charisma rating is that of a security attendant at the SCG and his voice has all the sparkling inflections of Julia Gillard’s delivery.

Rees has been in charge lass than five months and backbenchers say that they are prepared to wait until the May Budget and the year’s end polls before deciding whether to ditch him or not.

The pretender to watch is the member for Rockdale, Frank Sartor, the former Planning Minister and Sydney Lord Mayor. He is engaged in a strenuous charm offensive to persuade colleagues that he has the experience, the leadership track record and the profile in the business community and the media to give the Coalition a run for its money.

Sartor’s cheer squad include previous premiers Bob Carr and Morris Iemma, former prime minister Paul Keating, former treasurer Michael Egan and other identities in Labor’s right-wing faction who are now immersed in the banking, infrastructure and consultancy industry.

A long standing independent Sydney City councillor, Sartor joined the ALP on the eve of the 2003 state election when he was gifted the Rockdale seat by the Sussex Street machine.

As Planning Minister he amassed extraordinary powers to veto or approve major developments and became one of the government’s most unpopular ministers. He has much to live down in re-inventing himself as the ALP’s white knight.

The other serious candidate is the deputy premier Carmel Tebbutt, wife of the federal transport and infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese.

Tebbutt is underwhelming as a manager and a communicator but the Labor Party has the marketing machinery to turn her into Julia/Maxine/Hilary with the flick of a switch. And a supine media that would lap up the Mills and Boon narrative.

Rees is facing sabotage from a fifth column at senior levels in the state bureaucracy. These are people who lived high on the hog under Carr and Iemma and now can’t face the prospect of having to work and implement decisions.

Sniffing the winds of change, they have begun leaking to the Opposition. Others are leaking to the media to “get square” because they have suffered career misfortunes.

In the face of a hostile media (they are furious about not receiving exclusive access to his recent wedding!) and a cantankerous backbench, Rees continues to plough on. He believes in setting an example and putting “runs on the board”, with faith this will eventually convince his critics and win over the voters. It’s a big wish.

Peter Fray

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