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Well-oiled Coalition hits ground running

21 May 2011 2,398 views No Comment

NSW Labor’s demolition at the recent state election confirms a national voting trend at state and federal level.

Labor’s incumbent governments are all behind in the polls and the NSW result has sent a shudder through the ranks.

The thumping election win delivered the NSW Coalition 69 of the 93 seats in the Legislative Assembly. The incoming government, in the full blush of its honeymoon, clearly has a mandate to deliver on its commitments. The outcome reflects voter disgust with Labor and an endorsement of Barry O’Farrell and his team.

The record result also means O’Farrell has a national profile and is arguably the most powerful premier in Australia.

A change of government is a significant exercise. New ministerial staff must be recruited, ministerial offices need to be established and the business of government commenced. The O’Farrell transition seems to have been relatively smooth, as it should have been. With all the polls last year pointing to a convincing victory, detailed preparations were made for the transition to government. A small team led by adviser Peta Seaton was put together to plan intensively the logistics of the transition. After the election, this team was expanded to co-ordinate staff recruitment, and the new ministerial offices were quickly operational.

More than three-quarters of all ministerial staff have now been appointed, with many having worked for either the Howard government or the previous NSW Coalition government, which lost power by one seat to Bob Carr in March 1995.

Given that only two of O’Farrell’s ministers, Chris Hartcher and George Souris, have served in government previously, the appointment of these experienced staff has helped the new government hit the ground running.

O’Farrell has been a consistent supporter of a strong and independent public service. The bureaucracy has been tightly reorganised into nine clusters, each with a senior responsible minister. This has enabled the removal and replacement of a number of directors-general and the re-assignment of others.

Chris Eccles has been poached from his former role as director-general of the South Australian Department of Premier and Cabinet to take up the same role in the larger NSW Premier’s Department. He replaces Brendan O’Reilly, who has nonetheless retained a role within the newly created Public Service Commission, which is to be headed by respected former commonwealth mandarin Peter Shergold.

Labor’s former Education Department director-general, Michael Coutts-Trotter, has been retained and shifted from Education to a new and more powerful Finance Department. Given Coutts-Trotter’s ties to NSW Labor through his marriage to federal Labor Minister Tanya Plibersek and his former role as chief of staff to NSW Labor treasurer Michael Egan, his retention by O’Farrell is a mature recognition of talent.

On April 4, the same day his cabinet was sworn in, O’Farrell released a 100-Day Plan. The halfway point towards its completion will be reached on Monday. The plan’s implementation has generated a heavy workload for the new cabinet, which has been meeting weekly. An expenditure review committee of cabinet has begun work already on the government’s first budget, due to be delivered on September 6.

Key policy priorities have begun to emerge. O’Farrell moved quickly to commission an audit into the budget, which subsequently revealed a $5.2 billion deterioration in the state’s finances. He has established an Integrated Transport Authority to replace the previously disjointed delivery of transport services under Labor. Legislation has also been introduced into the NSW parliament to deliver commitments to cut several housing taxes.

The talented new Attorney-General, Greg Smith, has made a welcome announcement of a 300-bed specialist prison for drug rehabilitation. This is part of Smith’s broader plans for prison reform, which place a stronger focus on reducing recidivism.

For NSW Labor, the reality is much different. First there is the physical shock of moving from spacious ministerial offices into tiny Parliament House accommodation. Former ministers used to a large personal staff must learn to cope without many helpers at their beck and call. The former Labor ministry had more than 200 ministerial staff. Now they have about 30, predominantly in the office of the new Opposition Leader, former union heavyweight John Robertson.

Importantly, NSW Labor is in opposition without its three most talented recent MPs: John Della Bosca, Frank Sartor and John Hatzistergos.

Labor’s shadow ministry must come to terms quickly with what Gareth Evans famously described as relevance deprivation syndrome. Former ministers still on Labor’s front bench must confront the reality that few are listening to what they have to say. This will be most stark for the new Opposition Leader.

Although he was elected unopposed to the leadership, Robertson has already faced significant public opposition to his ascension from several notable NSW Labor figures including Sartor, Morris Iemma, Michael Costa and Paul Keating. Robertson will need to land some early punches or he may soon be replaced.

Ambitious shadow ministers waiting in the wings include former premier Nathan Rees and opposition treasury spokesman Michael Daley. While their numbers have been depleted to a demoralising rump, Labor’s line-up will get plenty of opportunity in the new parliament.

O’Farrell has expressed a determination to reverse what he saw as the decline of parliamentary government. NSW parliament will sit for more days this year than under Labor, and each parliamentary sitting week there will be an additional question time.

While his new ministers may not appreciate the additional questions they will have to face, O’Farrell deserves credit for the risk he has taken here. More scrutiny of his government by parliament may deliver some hiccups but, all other things being equal, it should deliver better government.

With the first two sitting weeks of parliament completed, the proceedings suggest that despite the extra question time, O’Farrell has performed well in the parliamentary bear pit.

He has been ably supported by his young Treasurer Mike Baird, who has shown an early talent for the theatrics of question time, rousing the large Coalition backbench with his attacks on Labor’s abysmal economic record.

Senior ministers Brad Hazzard, Jillian Skinner, Gladys Berejiklian, Hartcher and, notably, Smith are also performing strongly.

NSW Labor’s narrow victory back in 1995 introduced to the citizens of our most populous state a new style of government. Back then, Carr’s approach to governing was borrowed heavily from the British Labour Party, led by Tony Blair, who secured electoral success by modernising the party, its policies and, perhaps most significantly, its communications with the media.

Managing the media is an essential part of the business of government and O’Farrell and his team will no doubt deliver their own spin as time goes on.

But delivering good government must always be the first priority. The NSW state election result demonstrates that voters will wreak their vengeance on those who have failed to put good outcomes first.

Ross Fitzgerald is a member of the NSW State Parole Authority and the Administrative Decisions Tribunal.

The Weekend Australian

May 21-22, 2011