Yesterday morning it was decided. Rees would go. His well-liked, loyal deputy, left winger Carmel Tebbutt, unscathed by the faction wars, would take over. The 10 pins were lined up. Then the bowling alley got blown up. The best laid plans were in the ruins. What happened?
This correspondent was confident of the game plan working because ALP Left Assistant Secretary Luke Foley had got all the main players to agree. Carmel started to believe in herself. Luke told Premier Rees it was all over. NSW ALP Secretary Matt Thistlethwaite agreed and began phoning and meeting his rightwing base to tell them Carmel was the pea.
Then the Premier decided “fuck it!” His morning press conference was deliberately modelled on Dr H.V. Evatt’s speech attacking the Groupers 55 years ago. This was sheer madness and certain to inflame hatred.
The Premier said: “A malign and disloyal group well known to the NSW community has made the business of government almost impossible.” He went on to say that, “The presence of such a group within the nation’s oldest and proudest political Party is intolerable. Their treachery and disloyalty can be borne no longer.” Then he accused his opponents of corruption, taking swipes at Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi.
Carmel took fright. She was supposed to be the consensus, compromise candidate. Palm leaves were supposed to be at her feet, riding to success on the back of a harnessed beast. But then the donkey bolted.
Late morning, new rightwing ALP Assistant Secretary Sam Dastyari reported to Thistlethwaite that a few Right MPs had told him no way would they vote for Tebbutt. The Right Caucus was organised for late afternoon. Eddie and Joe decided to strike. Already the strongest sub group, they were a few votes short of an absolute majority.
Thistlethwaite flip flopped from Sartor to Keneally, saying he was comfortable with whomever was picked. He recognised that the Right wanted their party back. Della weighed his options, shifting between the two camps, torn by a conflict of disloyalties. Della wanted one thing: a promise that the new Premier would back Belinda Neal to retain federal pre-selection for Robertson. Eddie committed. Easy peasy. As if he could influence anything federally! Then to the Right caucus. It was Sartor versus Keneally. The right caucus voted 25 to 22, with one abstention, for Keneally over Sartor.
Della and his acolyte, Tony Kelly, voted with the majority — though, afterwards, he told both candidates he voted for them. Kelly wasn’t so subtle. Then, early evening, off to the full Caucus; the vote was a drubbing for Rees, losing 47-21. The Left were in shellshock. But we had to stick with our Premier when Rees decided to stay captain of the sinking ship — even if we knew we were like the HMAS Sydney in 1941 under Captain Joseph Burnett’s command. At least not everything was lost. The Left kept the Deputy’s position.
The consequences are immense. The new Premier, Kristina Keneally, will have to live down the former Premier’s toxic words. This will be almost impossible to overcome, electorally. The Government was already on the nose. Now the stink is everywhere.
Nathan Rees, a week ago, was in shaky control; but gradually he lost it. He went wildly off message. Rees career is over. He’ll be offered a ministry. He should decline and retire. Popular Coogee MP, Paul Pearce, should take the spot. Or another leftwinger, Government Deputy Whip and Member for East Hills, Alan Ashton.
There’s a lot of anger in the Right about what Rees said yesterday. Even more so on the Left. Carmel was peering over the finishing line at 11am yesterday morning; but the race was forfeited half an hour later. Rees’ Chief of Staff, Senator-to-be Graeme Wedderburn, is kaput. His political career is over too. Matt Thistlethwaite will eventually take the Senate spot. Graeme will return to a career in public relations. If anyone would take him. His resume now looks a little tattered. Perhaps Mike Rann needs help?
This morning, there’s an eery calm. I am surprised at the confidence, across the factions, that Keneally could be a surprise. She is gutsy, intelligent and brave – with a really warm, inclusive touch. She has no enemies in the Left.
A day ago the NSW Left were within a whisker of retaining the Premiership. In a Caucus over-whelmingly dominated by the Right, power was always going to be hard to retain. It required steely discipline.
Sadly, Premier Rees had a Latham moment. Understandably, Carmel turned yellow and decided to leave it to the Right to sort out. The parliamentary rightwing machine men had something, at last, to broker. Arise, Premier Keneally. She wouldn’t be there but for our Rees.