The worst kept secret in Australian politics is now official: John Robertson —  the Steven Bradbury of Sussex Street  — is Labor’s new leader in NSW. Poisoned chalice doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Robertson was elected unopposed this morning at the party’s first caucus meeting since Saturday’s electoral drubbing.

In his first press conference as leader, Robertson vowed to be the most energetic opposition leader NSW has ever seen and said Barry O’Farrell’s “free ride ends today”. This afternoon he will go on a walking tour of Mulgoa and Campbelltown — two western Sydney seats lost by Labor on Saturday — to signal his desire to win back the party’s working class heartland.

The fact that the former-Unions NSW boss faced no challenger is an inauspicious sign for a party whose elders say the ALP faces two choices: democratisation or death. According to former planning minister Frank Sartor, party powerbrokers have been orchestrating the Robertson “fix” for months.

Robertson’s two potential rivals — former Deputy Premier Carmel Tebbutt and Police Minister Michael Daley — declined to run. Tebbutt, who is married to federal frontbencher Anthony Albanese, has a young son and went to the back bench in 2007 to spend more time with her family. Daley withdrew yesterday, saying it was clear Robertson has the numbers.

Robertson has come under crushing criticism in recent days from Labor luminaries still furious about his role in defeating Morris Iemma’s 2008 push to privatise the state’s electricity assets.

Paul Keating lashed out at him for “sicko populism”, accused him of conniving a coup d’etat against a democratically-elected leader and argued his opposition to privatisation was a “principal cause” for Labor’s catastrophic election result result. NSW Labor under Robbo, Keating claimed, would now be “lead weight in the saddlebags” for Julia Gillard.

Morris Iemma said Robertson represented only “narrow sectional interests” and that voters would reject him because he is a former union boss. Michael Costa, the Dr Evil of NSW politics, claimed Robertson lacks the political nous to succeed in the job.

Let’s be clear – Robertson is Labor’s leader despite being a far from ideal candidate. He’s as popular as cancer among many of his colleagues because of his backroom maneuverings. The Coalition will no doubt make merry reminding voters of when, in 2001, he organised a blockade of NSW parliament in protest against changes to workers compensation law. And he has held ten different portfolios since taking Michael Costa’s upper house seat (oh, the delicious irony) in 2008 without making a mark in any of them.

But to single out John Robertson as having 25 “dead” MPs around his neck is a huge call. What about Bob Carr who, for all his successes, failed to address the state’s public transport challenges? What about Eric Roozendaal for overseeing the botched partial privatisation of the state’s electricity assets? What about Matt “t-tty f-ck” Brown? Ian “dodgy trips to Dubai” Macdonald? Paul “I watch p-rn on my parliamentary computer” McLeay?

As for Robertson’s “sicko populism”, most voters — especially Labor voters – regard his opposition to power privatisation as a principled and common sense position.

Privatisation would no doubt have boosted the state’s coffers and removed the government from an increasingly volatile industry. But Iemma always knew it was electoral poison: the party went to the 2007 poll expressly promising not to privatise electricity. Many prominent frontbenchers, such as Carmel Tebbutt, argued against the sell-off. Opinion polling at the height of the privatisation debate in 2008 show 79% of NSW citizens opposed — even when the government’s rationale was put before them. Delegates to NSW Labor’s 2008 state conference voted 702 to 107 to oppose the sale.

Ex-Premier Bob Carr doesn’t agree with Iemma’s take: speaking on Radio National this morning he argued that politicians should be judged by their performance — not their pre-parliamentary background.

Robertson is a divisive figure with no record of policy innovation. But he has a strong story to tell.  The narrative of a man who started out his career as the first male checkout operator at Ryde Woolworths, became an electrician, led the fight against WorkChoices and rose to become Labor leader will appeal to many of the party faithful.

In his inaugural speech to parliament he said: “It is good to be a rebel and it is good to win. Long may the rebel live on this side of the Chamber!”

John Robertson is a rebel with a cause, a diabolically difficult one — to transform NSW Labor from a national laughing stock into a viable political entity in only four years. His time starts now.

Peter Fray

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