Not long after Barry O’Farrell (pictured) won government, his predecessor as Liberal premier of New South Wales, Nick Greiner, made what now seems like an ironic comment. “Barry’s Barry, he’s not Nick, he’s not Jeff,” he said, referring to himself and former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett. “He has a more measured approach [which is] likely to lead to him being premier for a lot longer than Jeff Kennett or myself.” In fact, while Greiner was premier for four years and three months, O’Farrell lasted barely three years.

The irony doesn’t end there. Greiner was often compared unfavourably to O’Farrell in terms of political nous. He was much criticised for his performance before the Independent Commission Against Corruption during the Metherell affair, when he responded to questions with “I don’t recall” about two dozen times. If O’Farrell had said “I don’t recall” at ICAC last week he would still be premier.

Yet O’Farrell is likely to leave behind a greater legacy than Greiner. Greiner’s big victory in the 1988 election melted like early snow. Within three years he was in minority government, and his successor John Fahey lost the 1995 election. A whole generation of talented Coalition ministers faded out of politics and Labor governed for the next sixteen years. Greiner certainly changed the nature of NSW politics with his introduction of the economic policies of what was then called the New Right and a new style of public management. His great failing, however, was that he did not take the voters along with him. The political costs of the Greiner era left many people reform-shy.

The O’Farrell model emphasised careful planning and avoidance of hasty, politically motivated decisions. Inquiries and consultation processes were set up in areas where major reforms were intended. O’Farrell said that he aimed to deliver “stable, mainstream, competent government”. He could have added “electorally successful” to the list. Of his first nine months in office, he said:

“I think we’ve made a reasonable start to what is clearly supposed to be a long innings. This is not a job that goes for one year or two years … [W]e’re determined not to make short-term decisions because we know that’s been the problem of the last 16 years.”

A NSW business group accurately summed up the O’Farrell attitude to reform as a “boa constrictor approach … [A] small amount of change, people get used to it, [then] more change and more change … [T]he Kennett approach … was everything at once and people not coping.” O’Farrell’s caution was not a sign of indecision or weakness. As Imre Salusinszky wrote in The Australian: “Nobody should ever take Barry O’Farrell’s genial manner as indicating a lack of political cunning or ruthlessness.”

Caution did not mean the O’Farrell government was an achievement-free zone. O’Farrell’s strategy was to seek re-election on the basis of achievements rather than simply policies. The government’s asset sell-off program to free up funds for infrastructure became a model for the Abbott government. The privatisation of Ports Botany and Kembla demonstrated that there was a big demand for long-life, low-risk assets. Legislation was passed to sell the state’s electricity generators. The O’Farrell budgets reduced the deficit and finally brought recurrent expenditure under control — something that Labor had always promised but never achieved. The government delivered a light rail extension in Sydney, actually started construction on the long-promised northwest rail link and committed to the WestConnex Motorway, a $13 billion toll road and urban renewal project linking Sydney’s west with the airport and Port Botany.

The government also released a State Infrastructure Strategy and a Long Term Transport Master Plan. O’Farrell described them as comprehensive, long-term plans that took “the politics out of government spending”. A Public Service Commission was established to depoliticise the public sector and new legislation passed to update and rationalise the framework for public sector employment. Under the government’s Local Schools, Local Decisions program a wide range of powers over staffing and finance were delegated to school principals. Election funding laws were reformed to ban political donations from associations or corporations, though the legislation was struck down by the High Court in December on the grounds that it restricted freedom of political communication.

At the end of his premiership, O’Farrell was completely dominant in the government and Liberal Party. A pragmatic centrist, he had gained broad cross-factional support and established an excellent working relationship with the Nationals. Dissidents in the Liberal party room, centred on former minister Chris Hartcher, were firmly under control.

*Read the rest of this article at Inside Story

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey