There’s a splendid line in Lisa Allen’s piece in the Fin Review today about yesterday’s events in Macquarie St. Kristina Keneally “was propelled to the top position because the party powerbrokers deemed Mr Sartor unelectable.”

Joe Tripodi and Eddie Obeid declaring someone unelectable. A bit like the captain of the Titanic complaining about his passengers’ swimming ability.

The Telegraph, not always the best guide to what’s happening outside the imaginations of News Ltd executives, got it right, with a cruel, unsubtle and wholly accurate front page on the puppet theme.

I wonder, too, whether there’s more than a faint echo of the traditional ALP’s misogyny in its tendency — this is now the third occasion in the past two decades — to throw a woman into the electoral mincer in the hope the voters would go softly.

As Joan Kirner and Carmen Lawrence can attest, they never do.

The hope is not that Keneally will prove electable, but that she’ll save at least a few seats from what looms as an unprecedented electoral slaughter. But NSW voters have been waiting four years for the opportunity to smoke this mob, and they’re not going to give that up. Forget Wayne Goss’s baseball bat. NSW voters are waiting with machine guns.

In truth, Sartor was the only serious option yesterday, and the failure of the party to elevate him will condemn it to two and probably more terms in wilderness. Given basic competence from the Liberals — and we’ll get to that — NSW Labor is unlikely to see the ministerial leather again before the mid-2020s. And given the past three years, nor bloodywell should they.

Sartor isn’t warm and pleasant and consultative and unifying, the sort of adjectives being used about Keneally. But he’s got more policy smarts than most of his colleagues put together, and a 15-month Sartor premiership would see significant reform across areas such as  health and planning. Sartor also has more executive experience than anyone in the party, including Rees.

It wouldn’t be enough to save Labor, but it would leave voters with the impression that Labor still had some administrative and policy grunt, and lay the foundations for a rebuilding program, which can be faster than expected. If you’d asked Labor figures among the smoking ruins of the Unsworth government in 1988 if they ever thought they’d come within a few votes of winning under Bob Carr in 1991, they’d have laughed at you. And four years after that, Carr was in office.

But it’s not to be. Nor the other critical factor in the rebuilding of Labor, the root-and-branch extirpation of the malign influence of Obeid and Tripodi, on whom hangs responsibility for the rare feat of destroying a mainstream political party. Perhaps they should swap notes with Nick Minchin, who is doing a fair job of that on his own side of politics.

The greater worry for NSW voters is that Barry O’Farrell and his team don’t seem at all impressive. The school league table debacle in particular was an alarming and revealing stuff-up. O’Farrell used to look the goods — the obese, beardy goods, but the goods nonetheless. Latterly he has looked frightened of his own, rather thinner, shadow, as if the more the election becomes unloseable, the more worried he is about what a goose he’ll look if he loses it.

There’s a simple answer to that: Joe Hockey. Hockey’s credentials for the top job in federal politics are fairly limited and took a battering this week, but he’d make a fine Premier — economically conservative, socially progressive, able to draw on the advice of one of the best Premiers of recent decades, his friend Nick Greiner, putting a warm face on the hard work of expenditure cuts that are needed in the NSW Budget.

And he needn’t give up his federal ambitions — a successful one-and-a-half terms as NSW Premier would be the perfect basis for a return to the federal sphere, still on the right side of 50, to take on an ageing Gillard government.

Best of all for a bloke with a young family, he wouldn’t have to spend half the year in Canberra. It would beat the hell out of watching Kevin Rudd and Minchin annihilate his party.

Give it a go, Joe. It could be the making of you, and it would give voters and businesses in NSW a genuine sense of a fresh start after years of mediocrity.

Peter Fray

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