I don’t know what to make of John Della Bosca falling on his sword over an affair. The man’s personal morality aside, since when were “poor personal decisions” a basis for political punishment? You start applying that logic, you run out of politicians real fast.

Most politicians are like normal people but with ego and a sense of entitlement thrown in, meaning they’re even poorer at “personal decisions” than the rest of us. Traditionally we’ve just wanted them to conduct their ministerial affairs properly, regardless of their personal affairs. Della Bosca says he has, but the “scandal” was the last thing the NSW Government — perhaps we should start using quotations marks for that — needed.

And at least Della Bosca can sit out the electoral carnage coming in March 2011 in the Legislative Council and re-emerge to lead the three Labor MPs likely to be left afterward.

It’ll be submerged beneath lurid press questions about couch sex (because journalists are all exemplars of moral purity) but Frank Sartor, the only other figure in the NSW ALP with the credibility to be leader, had his hopes for the Premiership quashed by a savage rebuke from the NSW Land and Environment Court over what Justice David Lloyd called “land bribes” to facilitate development on the NSW Central Coast.

Current Planning Minister and purported Rees replacement Kristina Keneally copped some collateral damage, but it is Sartor whom the judgement declared had lost his impartiality in making decisions involving “land swaps” where developers trade conservation land for approval. As Herald journalists Matthew Moore and Linton Bresser note, the “land bribe” term will have particular resonance in NSW where the issue of developers’ influence over the NSW Labor Party – and for that matter the Coalition as well — continues to fester.

It’s hard to avoid the impression the decision has crippled whatever hopes Sartor might have entertained of convincing his party to ignore their doubts and install him in Rees’s place.

NSW Labor has thus gone past the last-man-standing stage to the last-woman-standing stage. Keneally and Carmel Tebbutt are the only relatively untarnished figures left, to the extent that anyone in this rabble hasn’t had their reputations permanently ruined. The more Carmel Tebbutt refuses to accept the Premiership, the more sensible she seems.

On the other side of the chamber, Barry O’Farrell sits and has 18 months to wait until he can get into office. He inspires no confidence. Gone is the O’Farrell — the bearded, obese version — who as a straight-talking, sensible anti-politician promised a return to the Greiner era of moderate conservative government and thereby scared the hell out of the religious Right of his party. Instead, despite having a virtual lock on the premiership, he has been backflipping on core policy issues like privatisation and school league tables for political advantage. Meantime his party has decided to have a civil war, complete with actual violence.

The only genuine reformer around in NSW was the incompetent Morris Iemma, who realised the long-term need for electricity privatisation and got turfed out by his own party for his trouble.

In his memoirs, Peter Costello lauded the ALP for its capacity to plan successions, citing NSW, Queensland and Victoria. The Bracks-Brumby transition has worked reasonably well in Victoria, but the Beattie-Bligh transition barely made it to the election earlier this year before Bligh’s Government began suffering severe and occasionally self-generated turbulence. In NSW, the departure of Bob Carr only served to demonstrate how bereft of talent and vision the NSW ALP was. Mediocre governments can survive if they are well-advised, but the NSW Public Service has been systematically politicised, depriving Carr’s successors of crucial institutional guidance.

This isn’t a problem only for NSW. NSW is the only State where unemployment is above 6%. Sydney is the only city — in fact, the only part of the country other than Far North Queensland — where unemployment is currently above 10% in some areas. No other capital is close to the levels of unemployment seen in western Sydney. The prolonged underperformance of the NSW economy is an increasing problem not merely for its residents but for the national economy, where the emerging issue is whether we are sufficiently advanced on the road to recovery to remove the fiscal and monetary stimulus put in place in response to the GFC.

The paucity of talent on both sides in NSW — now rather greater after yesterday’s events — is a widespread problem at state level. State politics is now for the second-raters, the hacks, or those for whom it’s a stepping stone to the real game in Canberra. Decades of centralisation have served to curb the appeal of state politics. In any event, the primary policy problem in state governments is how to minimise voters’ discontent over infrastructure and services while keeping the ratings agencies happy, an insoluble dilemma. There’s no point complaining about the lack of a Greiner or a Kennett because they’d go straight to the Federal sphere now.

There’s no constitutional way to remove the NSW Government. The only way is for NSW Labor to call a vote of confidence in the Legislative Assembly and abstain, allowing the Governor to call an election. If John Della Bosca can “take his medicine” for a personal mistake, his party can do the same for sins far worse than an extra-marital fling.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW