Barry O’Farrell is NSW premier, so he has to be high on our list. He holds the key to fixing Sydney’s transport mess and is the gatekeeper to all major change. But we’re not making him number one, because either the hinges are stuck or he can’t find the lock.
Even his natural supporters — business and The Daily Telegraph — say he’s still groping in the dark, six months into the job.
O’Farrell tells The Power Index it’s the premier’s job to build new roads and railways, and deliver reliable services to Sydney and NSW. But so far he has just set up inquiries and delegated power to others.
“What’s the premier for, if not to take decisions?” asks ex-premier Kristina Keneally. “He had a mandate on transport but he’s given away his power to Nick Greiner. It makes you wonder who’s really the premier.”
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It is ex-premier Greiner’s job, as head of the newly-created Infrastructure NSW, to draw up a list of transport projects that need to be built, plus a plan to pay for them. O’Farrell says he is bound to accept its recommendations or “explain why not to parliament and the public”.
“It may create some heartache and put the political heat on us, but it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “We need to have a strategy put together without politics.”
Isn’t that a bit masochistic, we inquire? “Yes,” he concedes. “It’s very different from how the Rum Corps ran NSW, but we have to do what’s right, not what’s convenient.”
Even Greiner admits he’s impatient at the slow pace of progress. In September he told the government to sell state assets and privatise electricity so Sydney could build the transport system it desperately needs. “Barry is Barry, he’s not Jeff, he’s not Nick,” Greiner told The Telegraph, lamenting the fact that he and Kennett moved much faster when they were in charge.
Two weeks earlier, The Tele ran a huge front-page headline “Barrier O’Farrell”, accusing the premier of blocking change. The story smeared O’Farrell with a “do-nothing” image that will be hard to shift, says Bob Carr, who ran the state for a decade. But Barry is not in the least perturbed.
“We’re playing the long game, not the short game,” he tells The Power Index. “You’ve just got to set yourself goals and get on with it. I learnt in opposition that you can’t keep the media happy, so you shouldn’t try.”
Some say he has time on his side. “He’ll be the same sort of premier as he was an opposition leader,” says former NSW premier Morris Iemma. “Cautious, middle of the road, governing from the centre. But he’s got four years and maybe another two terms after that, so he’s in no hurry. ”
Others believe Barry has blown it already. “His biggest mistake is not to have taken the initiative his win afforded him,” warns Keneally. “As soon as a new government is born, it starts to die. Every day he moves away from the election he has less authority.”
Genial, conservative, cautious and friendly, O’Farrell craves consensus. More like a bureaucrat than a politician, he wants policies “based on evidence and facts”, and he believes that “the public must keep up with and understand the pace of change”.
And he’s going to do it his way, whatever happens.
Slow and steady has always ruled Barry’s life. His father spent 27 years in the army, finishing up as a warrant officer — hardly a stellar career. His grandfather was a Ballarat cop from an Irish Catholic upbringing; solid working class stock.