A week is a long time in politics, especially if you are following the print media in NSW.

One week ago, The Sydney Morning Herald startled its readers with this headline: “Former union boss tipped to lead ALP”.

The Herald’s Alexandra Smith said that that “Labor Party bosses” were seeking a lower house seat for John Robertson, the former secretary of Unions NSW who has just been elevated to the NSW upper house.

She further said that “Robbo” was being positioned to replace Premier Nathan Rees if his polling continued in the doldrums.

The following day, The Australian’s Caroline Overington counter-attacked with “Secret plot aims ‘to replace Rees with union boss'”.

“NSW will have a new premier by year’s end, whether the incumbent, Nathan Rees, knows it or not,” she declared.

“That’s according to state Opposition leaders, who say that Mr Rees, who has held the top job for a mere four months, may not know his party is secretly moving against him.”

All this “Robbo”-for-Premier speculation was blown out of the water on Wednesday when The Daily Telegraph‘s Simon Benson produced an “exclusive”: “SECRET PLOT TO DUMP REES — Revealed: Ministers push for Sartor as Premier.”

Benson wrote: “A group of senior NSW Labor MPs, including member if Premier Nathan Rees’ own Cabinet, are quietly plotting to topple him after just 132 days in the job – and replace him with Frank Sartor.”

Sartor, dumped by Rees as planning minister back in September is the former Sydney Lord Mayor. He joined the ALP in 2003 so he could contest the southern Sydney seat of Rockdale and switch from the town hall to state politics.

As Benson’s Sartor succession shock-horror was lampooned all over the city, The Terror hit back 24 hours later with an editorial which breathlessly claimed: “A move to destabilize current Premier Nathan Rees, reported exclusively in yesterday’s The Daily Telegraph, has subsequently gained speed. This comes despite on-the-record claims that no such move exists.”

Read that a second time to savor its complete vacuity.

Now turn to yesterday’s Sun-Herald where Lisa Carty delivered a front-page “exclusive”: “I won’t tackle premier — Frank Sartor speaks.” She wrote: “Frank Sartor has ‘no intention’ of trying to unseat Nathan Rees as NSW Premier.”

So much for Benson’s secret coup plot which was based on a December meeting of a handful of ministers at which, he claims, Rees’s overthrow and the succession were discussed. They weren’t.

In truth, the meeting was called to discuss the premier’s plan to bring “Robbo” into the Cabinet as police minister. Senior faction leaders felt Rees was riding roughshod over the normal protocols of choosing ministers and wanted to insist on wider consultation with the dominant right-wing faction.

Benson’s other contention is that “Rees was brought in to replace Morris Iemma on the premise that he would lift the party’s poor polling.” He wasn’t.

Right from the start of his premiership, Rees, senior ministers and party administrators have made absolutely clear that the polls wouldn’t “bounce” with the arrival of the 40-year-old unknown. Indeed, everyone was warned the polls would remain disastrous throughout 2009.

For once, the sanest commentary came from former Treasurer Michael Costa who wrote in The Australian last Friday: “Rees is the NSW Labor Premier and deserves the support of head office and the caucus. Labor has plenty of time to turn the polls around. The replacement of Rees would guarantee electoral disaster.”

Previously, idiocy was confined to the government: now it’s infecting the Press Gallery.

Peter Fray

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