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Della can breathe life back into the moribund party

2 January 2010 2,142 views No Comment

WITH a political lightweight, Kristina Keneally, shoehorned in as NSW Labor Premier, it seems that in next year’s election the conservatives will come to power in Australia’s most populous state.

This is despite the fact that NSW Liberal Party leader Barry O’Farrell is a conspicuous underachiever and a lacklustre media and parliamentary performer.

The fact is the NSW Labor government has well and truly lost its way. It is clearly on the nose and is widely perceived as divided and incompetent. It’s simply not listening to the concerns of voters and not acting decisively on their behalf. Under Keneally, it still seems unable to get any positive messages out into the wider community about what it may be doing reasonably well.

It is also not properly utilising its two most talented parliamentarians, former Sydney lord mayor and present Environment Minister Frank Sartor and, especially, its hard-nosed numbers man John Della Bosca, who has been banished from the ministry. Ironically, with the NSW cabinet largely devoid of listeners who can initiate decisive action, Della Bosca’s position on the back bench could be to his long-term political advantage.

In NSW’s Legislative Council late last year, Della Bosca made a highly public declaration of love and public apology to his wife, Belinda Neal, a federal Labor MP, after his affair with a 26-year-old woman, an affair that had led to his resignation as health minister. Significantly, a large number of women seem to have been impressed by his apology.

This is important because for all his personal faults, Della Bosca is one of two politicians who could get NSW back on track (the other being Sartor). Indeed, Della is arguably the most talented and politically astute state Labor MP in NSW.

When former premiers Bob Carr and Morris Iemma wanted something difficult done, they called in Della Bosca, their Mr Fix It.

As disability services minister, he negotiated the biggest increase in disability spending in the state’s history: $1 billion for more respite and permanent care places. As the minister responsible for the motor accidents authority, he made changes so that no matter who’s at fault, anyone catastrophically injured in a car accident now gets the long-term care and support they need.

As minister for industrial relations, he led the NSW fight against the Howard government’s Work Choices, and won. In education, he introduced tougher measures to get children to school, led the work on raising the school-leaving age, and provided more options for young people wanting to pursue a vocational rather than an academic path.

In WorkCover, Della Bosca was handed a scheme that was bleeding business dry and yet wasn’t helping the people who were injured at work. No one got everything they wanted but the scheme was fixed through balanced decision-making and consultation, and so far it has been sustainable.

In health, Della Bosca was refreshingly honest. He admitted NSW could no longer afford a health budget of $15.1 billion a year, which represents almost 30 per cent of the state budget, and which is growing exponentially. He would often say, “We have to use taxpayer dollars more wisely.” In less than 12 months, he visited hospitals throughout NSW, sat down with doctors, nurses and other health workers and listened, then acted. Before he resigned from the ministry, he had begun introducing measures that enable doctors and nurses to return to doing the thing they do best, saving lives, not wasting their talents on time-consuming paperwork.

A comparison of Della Bosca with successful Queensland ex-premier Peter Beattie is salutary. Both Della Bosca and Beattie were handed the poisoned chalice of health, and unlike almost every

state politician in recent memory, both performed extremely well in this difficult portfolio. Under Della Bosca, Labor invested heavily in health and as a result NSW now has the best emergency department and elective-surgery performance in Australia, according to the federal government’s data.

Despite some highly orchestrated local and regional complaints, even the Australian Medical Association agrees that NSW is a standout performer. Compare this with Queensland’s recent dismal record in health.

The truth is that any government worth its salt requires experience, enthusiasm and balanced leadership. NSW has a crucial role to play economically in the nation. It also needs to act as a leader in the important work that the Prime Minister is undertaking to refashion the Federation.

After Labor loses the next state election, it seems more than probable that the NSW Labor Party may be forced to call on Mr Fix It, especially as he will not have been tainted by any membership of the Keneally government.

Good government is driven by good policy and balanced decisions. Although Della Bosca hasn’t always played it safe as a minister, he has a track record of consultation and collaboration to come up with the best solutions. That’s his style, an inclusive approach.

Maybe next year Della Bosca could be the person to save state Labor from utter demolition. This is despite the fact that tradition seems to be against him. Usually the parliamentary leader comes from the Lower House, but a precedent has been set by Liberal prime minister John Gorton, who moved from the Senate in 1968, and Barrie Unsworth, who vacated the Legislative Council after he became Labor premier of NSW in 1986.

In the end, does it matter whether the best person for the job of running the state is in the Upper House at present? If anything, it makes a premier (or shadow premier) more accountable to the people because he or she would have to front both houses of parliament and have no place to hide.

In any case, if Della Bosca is drafted to the state Labor leadership in 2011, there will be plenty of time to arrange for the wily, number-savvy member of the Legislative Council to move to the NSW Legislative Assembly.

By then, if recent history is any guide, all and any of Della’s personal indiscretions will be well and truly behind him.

Published in The Weekend-Australian, January 2-3, 2010. Ross Fitzgerald is a member of the NSW Expert Advisory Group on Alcohol and Other Drugs, which was established by John Della Bosca as health minister.