If there’s one man who can really change the face of Sydney it’s former Liberal premier Nick Greiner. As head of the newly-created Infrastructure NSW he looks set to drive all the state’s most important decisions. And he’s already giving his boss Bazza a hurry-up.
Last month he sent a public message to Premier O’Farrell to say the Liberal government absolutely has to raise $20 billion by privatising electricity, if the state is to build the new railway lines and hospitals it so desperately needs.
“It’s obvious … asset sales are … unavoidable,” Greiner told a business lunch, admitting he was already feeling “impatient” over the pace of reform.
Greiner’s gripe elicited a shocked reaction from another former NSW premier, Kristina Keneally, who told The Power Index: “It raises questions of which premier really has the final say and which premier is really making the decisions about asset sales and infrastructure.”
Having talked at length to Greiner we’re pretty sure we know the answer. But we also believe it’s a brave move by O’Farrell — and possibly a clever one — to give his predecessor so much power and responsibility. The Liberal government will be judged by whether it can fix Sydney’s transport mess, and Greiner looks like he’s the best man for this difficult job.
“I’m a leader and a doer,” he says. “I don’t want to sound immodest, but I’m the ideal person, the natural pick.”
Perhaps it’s a shame that he isn’t premier. It would certainly make for more interesting times.
It was Greiner who introduced urban toll roads to Sydney back in the early 1990s and it was Greiner who pioneered private funding of public projects, which is just about the only way to get things built nowadays. He also chaired the construction company, Bilfinger Berger, which built the Cross-City Tunnel (losing a fortune), and has worked successfully across public and private sectors.
In a landscape littered with former premiers, Greiner has made easily the best transition to business, with Rothschild, Citigroup, Natwest, BAT, QBE and Coles Myer among the many household names he has helped to run. But that’s partly because he was never a typical politician.
“It was an accident,” he told The Power Index. “I would never have gone into politics if my father had let me run the family business. I had the choice of going to the timber company picnic or Liberal pre-selection for Bradfield, so I went to the pre-selection, and I didn’t get in, but I thought, ‘I quite like this’.”
Greiner’s father was a timber merchant in Hungary, whose business was seized by the Russian Communists after World War II and was thrown in jail. At the age of eight months, young Nick was whisked out of the country to Vienna on his mother’s Slovakian passport. Two years later, his father managed to escape from prison “at the second or third attempt” and joined them there. They came to Australia as wealthy refugees in 1951, when Nick was four. “You can imagine my views on asylum seekers are something to the left of Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott,” he says with his trademark grin.
Greiner has since made millions of dollars on his own account, and is much in demand as a director. So why is he risking his reputation by re-entering public life? “I’m doing it because I want to help Sydney, which has dropped way behind Melbourne, and also behind Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide on many measures,” he says.
Sydney’s transport system is a shocker, says Greiner, because Labor did nothing for 15 years and spent $500 million on rail projects that got scrapped. “And those projects failed because the politicians and transport department decided to do things [like the metro] but never got Treasury and Planning onside.”
Infrastructure NSW is designed to solve this problem by getting everyone to work together.
Greiner’s board includes the NSW Treasury secretary, the director-general of the Premier’s Department, and the heads of Trade and Planning, plus John Howard’s former chief of staff Max Moore-Wilton and four other top people from the private sector, including champion networker David Gonski. Greiner hopes they will be able to thrash out plans to present to Cabinet, with Treasury and all major departments already on board.