Cluck, cluck, cluck, round the barnyard they go. To describe the Right of the NSW Parliamentary Labor Party in this way is to give grace and symmetry to their movements this week. More than resembling headless chooks, however, they look like dodos. One consequence of their manoeuvrings now seems inevitable: the replacement of NSW Premier Nathan Rees with the left wing deputy Premier Carmel Tebbutt.
Of course, the barnyard dodos of the NSW Right haven’t figured this out. They think the noise they make is powerful enough to bring down the walls of Jericho surrounding the NSW Premier. Certainly, there’s confusion, colour and action. What’s lacking is direction, unity and leadership. The only thing that unites the NSW Right is their mutual loathing of each other. A new maxim can now be coined: a faction that hates itself so much can never be very powerful.
Which is why, fox-like, Luke Foley is watching and waiting to pounce. At home, he may be on leave, bouncing his new-born on his lap. The phone never stops ringing. He nearly always answers. For a political junkie, paternity leave is rarely this interesting. Foley is shoring up his supporters and knows there’s only one viable left candidate: the Member for Marrickville.
Before analysing this likely political elevation, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the poisonous burning bush that was once the rustling source of wisdom in the NSW ALP.
The Right has disintegrated to cinders of their former selves. Watching them now is like watching an onion commit suicide. There are splits galore. Consider this brief summary: multimillionaire Eddie Obeid has about 20 votes in the right — the largest block of support. He wants to back Keneally. Sartor has nothing other than a few stragglers. Tripodi is in despair and vengeful; he can’t make up his mind who he hates most — the Premier or Sartor. Della Bosca, once the finest strategic mind in the NSW ALP is a joke. His approach on the weekend — with deposed left Minister and faction of one, Ian MacDonald — to the speaker, the country independent, Richard Torbay, was a stroke of insanity. It would be like the federal Liberals this week asking Tony Windsor to lead them. Yet Della touts his genius. In the past 24 hours, his red eyes have widened and glistened as he once more thinks he should be crowned king: “the rest are amateurs”, he says to everyone.
Head office, stung and bruised by the angry hippos in the NSW unions, who are more used to bathing in the warm waters of political favour, is now reluctantly supporting regime change. But NSW ALP secretary Matt Thistlethwaite despairs of the disunity. Talk about rats in the ranks. The ranks are all rodents. Matt Thistlethwaite wants to quit. But there’s no escape until the next election. Then there’s a few loner MPs no one talks to much or takes seriously. A few of them were on their feet at the caucus room on Tuesday calling on the powerful in their ranks to shut up and back the leader. Some MPs are Bonapartists at heart. They always support the leader. Some are so stupid that they see a Bonaparte in the current man.
In sum, the NSW Right is not a faction. It’s a mob. But as we know from history — and this week’s events in a different political party in Canberra — mobs can do damage.
From afar, Senator Mark Arbib, the last strong NSW ALP secretary, is looking aghast. His field-marshal binoculars are at his side. He has been on the phone to Foley.
In 2008, when Premier Morris Iemma strapped himself with a suicide bomb marked “electricity privatisation”, Foley and he settled on Carmel Tebbutt as the ideal Premier. She declined the offer. Thus Rees emerged to take the prize.
Back then, Tebbutt was returning to the ministry after a break. Now, once more, she is the compromise candidate. This time she is more credible after a year as deputy Premier. Her critics say she is likeable, lovely and limited. This seems to also reflect her assessment. But you don’t have to have the genius of Carr to beat NSW Liberal leader Barry O’Farrell. Tebbutt is married to Anthony Albanese, the most presentable, articulate and powerful NSW left-winger since Tom Uren. They are a formidable couple.
What Tebbutt now needs to recognise is that fear of limitations is a good thing. It will cause her to seek advice and to deliberate before action. Surely, that’s no bad thing. People do not want a smart-arse, “red-hot go” tryer. The timing is right for her.
Premier Rees’ blazing language overnight about refusing to hand the party over to Joe, Eddie and Frank is exactly the destructive, Carthaginian language required. It’s one of Foley’s better lines. It helps create the climate for Tebbutt to emerge, white rose in hand, as the unity candidate.
Thistlethwaite can say “we got rid of him!” Everyone will be too exhausted to faction fight a moment longer. The caucus will breathe a sigh of relief that a decision has been made. The NSW Right is again outclassed. Arise, Premier Tebbutt. Your hour is now.