Life’s just one big blur for John “Robbo” Robertson, the man most likely to be NSW’s next Opposition leader. But as NSW Labor hurtles towards oblivion, at least he is the one member of cabinet smiling all the way to the car crash.

Robbo, currently the NSW Transport Minister, is the party’s unofficially anointed successor to Kristina Keneally when Labor burns out at next March’s state election. And the worse Labor does at the election, the more likely Robbo is to take over as Labor’s next NSW parliamentary leader.

He still has to win the seat of Blacktown, to which he was preselected by the party last weekend, but it is one of Labor’s safest NSW seats, held by a margin of 22.4%, and would seem impervious to any but the most massive of routs.

Although Robbo’s task will be to oversee the party’s necessary restoration and renewal, don’t expect him to dwell on defeat for much longer than a minute. In the true NSW Labor style he has a no-holds-barred mission to get re-elected to government within one term.

Robertson’s rise to party leader will be something of a record — 29 months from his entering parliament, even outstripping Neville Wran’s ascension in the 1970s. His plan to be NSW premier by March 2015 will put him just shy of Wran’s achievement of six years and 11 days between Wran’s election to the NSW Upper House and becoming state leader.

If that seems fast, it’s all part of the stratospheric career of the one-time Woolworths checkout operator and electrician.

After replacing Michael Costa as the secretary of Unions NSW (the former NSW Labor Council) in 2001, he took over Costa’s balance of term in the Legislative Council in October 2008. Since January 2009 he has held seven ministerial portfolios, including corrective services, energy, industrial relations and commerce.

Whether he has been a very effective minister is questionable, although it is hard to separate his performance from that of the dead-in-the-water NSW government. But Robbo, at least, has been very active in the machinations of state and federal Labor.

In 2007, he campaigned against Howard’s WorkChoices laws and was instrumental in Kevin Rudd’s election as prime minister. He was the prime mover in overthrowing (then premier) Morris Iemma’s privatisation plan of the state’s electricity industry, and was behind his removal from office and the succession of Nathan Rees.

When Kristina Keneally took power, Robbo was, supposedly, punished by being stripped his two biggest portfolios, environment and corrective services. In truth, Keneally did Robbo a favour. Corrective Services was under siege by the Prison Officers Vocational Board, a division of the powerful Public Sector Union, which was warring against the planned privatisation of two NSW prisons, a scheme devised by Robertson’s ministerial predecessor, Attorney-General John Hatzistergos.

As the state’s former union leader, John Robertson found himself in the awkward position of being pro-privatisation. In his 10 months as Corrective Services Minister, he gave the scheme little more than lip service.

In keeping with Labor’s chaotic administration — 217 ministerial appointments in just the past five years — Robbo has held none of his ministries for as long as a year and one of them, climate change and environment, for just two months and 21 days.

With everything moving so quickly, perhaps it’s excusable that Robbo can’t remember all of it. At a transport launch at Sydney’s Town Hall in September, Robbo was prompted about what he had been doing between December 2009, when he was removed from the corrective services portfolio and May 2010, when he was appointed as Transport Minister.

“We’ve done a couple of other things,” he said, momentarily perplexed as to what they were, and turning to his media adviser, Lucy Muirhead. “Yes,” Lucy said, “industrial relations, commerce, public sector reform …”

“Ah, yes,” the minister said, nodding.

Robbo is about to embark on a three-month “meet the constituents” tour, tramping around the 31.49 square kilometres of NSW’s Blacktown electorate. It’s a lot of ground to cover in a short time, with about 46,000 voters to make friends with. It might end up a bit of a blur, but Robbo is on the up and up.

*Candace Sutton worked for the past six years as a NSW government media adviser, and for the past three months in the office of lord mayor Clover Moore

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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