Published in The Australian, 6 March 1995, p. 11.
Conventional wisdom suggests governments lose elections rather than oppositions winning them. So, in considering whether John Fahey deserves to lose, it might be useful to dwell on the merits of his team, the “Fahey bunch”, as they are called in the ALP election jingle.
According to Labor’s critique, the Fahey government is dead on its feet. Is it?
The polling indicates there are four areas shaping the election campaign: law and order, health, education and worries about wasteful expenditure. What is interesting in this list is what is left out: transport, corruption and a lack of confidence in the ethics of public officials.
On the latter issues, it appears that the invention of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, whatever its deficiencies, has changed the perception and probably the realities of public office in NSW.
The ALP’s attempt to portray the Fahey team as a bunch of fools even illustrates the point. (The ALP’s commercial features photographs and catchy lyrics about some sacked ministers and former Liberal MPs.) The advertising shies away from asserting anything tougher. This is not only due to the State’s libel laws!
On transport, the former deputy leader of the Liberal Party and Minister for Transport Bruce Baird (who is not contesting his seat at this election) did a good job. The State Rail Authority and the State Transit Authority are cited, for example in reports by the Federal government’s Bureau of Transport Economics as the leading examples of efficient, more productive public transport enterprises.
On health, education, and law and order, the Liberal ministers are not too bad. The Attorney-General, John Hannaford, is a sincere, sometimes imaginative law reformer. The federal Attorney-General, Michael Lavarch, is known to share a high opinion of him.
In education, in marked contrast to the days when Terry Metherell was the minister, there is quiet calm. Virginia Chadwick exudes all the charms of a pleasant school teacher done well.
In health, the government faces some of its greatest challenges. Concerns about waiting lists and suspicions about the government’s alleged agenda to privatise health services are electoral liabilities. However, the minister, Ron Phillips, deserves credit for improved budgeting performance and taking some courageous decisions in covering priorities and resources for healthcare.
On this scorecard the government appears to be doing a reasonable job. Such a conclusion, however, deserves to be challenged. In doing so, it is necessary to acknowledge that what may impress public opinion (typically a function of the quality of media scrutiny) is not a decisive criterion of who should win or lose.
The problem with the Fahey government is that it does not make enough of its opportunities. Tax reform, for example, is not being tackled. When and where have the government’s ideas concerning the Hilmer report and competition policy been heard? In short, the reformist credentials of this government are weak.
After Nick Greiner’s resignation as premier, the pressure was off so far as most of the statutory authorities and departments were concerned. Fahey’s administration lacks intellectual horsepower.
It is true that there are problems associated with the “hung Parliament”, with Independents holding the balance of power. But a more creative and determined administration would have been braver in handling this challenge.
A glimpse of the core problems of the Fahey government was shown at the annual dinner of the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) late last year.
The Premier decided to speak off the cuff. He highlighted the problem of implementing a commitment of his predecessor to eliminate stamp duties on transactions at the ASX. He could not do it. There were budgetary problems. However, the Premier went on to explain that his government was still committed to “reform”. Take, for example, fisheries. Fahey suggested that many people in the audience would know that fish – and chips, for that matter – are more expensive in Europe than in NSW. But in this state reforms have been implemented, he claimed. It was at this point both Fahey and his audience appeared lost. It was a perverse performance.
The real indictment of the Fahey government is that it is merely administering rather than in the business of governing.
No government deserves re-election if it does not have much of an idea why it should be returned. For what purpose? For what cause? It is in this area that Fahey is more than lost for words.
The vision thing may be bullshit, as Fahey once said. But what is worse is a do nothing administration.
The cautious, steady-as-she-goes style of John Fahey was in marked contrast to his predecessor, Nick Greiner. The impression was of a government not doing enough to tackle reforms in energy privatization and a host of issues raised by the Hilmer competition Report.
(In October 1992 the Prime Minister Paul Keating, with the support of the state governments, commissioned a review of national competition policy. Three people were appointed, Professor Frederick G Hilmer (Chairman) from the Australian Graduate School of Management at the University of NSW, Mark R Rayner, company director, and Geoffrey Q Taperell, lawyer and partner of accounting firm KPMG. The resulting report, by the Independent Committee of Inquiry, National Competition Policy, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, August 1993, set the agenda for many, if not most debates on micro-economic reform, including those of government business enterprises, for the ensuing decade.)
For a time, it seemed that Bob Carr might reinvigorate government in NSW. Bob told me that he had learnt a lot from Greiner on economics and good management. But Greiner was always an uneasy politician. Whereas Paul Keating as Treasurer and Prime Minister educated the nation on the need for the broad sweep of national economic reforms, opening the Australia economy to the world, at the state level, Greiner’s business and efficiency focus called attention to how state administrations could be better run. Carr presented himself to business and his colleagues as a social democrat reformer, akin to ‘Greiner with a Labor heart’.
On 17 November 1994 I introduced Bob to Max Moore-Wilton in my then offices at law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth: “Bob, this is Max. Max, this is Bob. Bob, you really should look at appointing Max as head of Premier’s” was how I introduced the conversation.
If that advice had of been taken up, it would be interesting to contemplate how Australian politics thereafter might have developed.
Max in those days was feisty, a self-styled independent thinker, more inclined to right-wing Labor than anything else. His father was a wharfie and a communist or communist sympathiser, who dropped dead early. Famously, at one meeting of maritime and shipping unions in the Labor Council of NSW Boardroom, one younger unionist was carping away, querying whether Max had any sympathy for the workers. Max snapped back: “Don’t lecture me, son, about this industry. I was f**king selling Tribune on the wharves before you were born!” (At the time, Max was CEO of the Australian National Line, a government owned cargo business. Tribune was the newspaper of the Communist Party of Australia.)
I came to know Max when he became Secretary to the NSW Department of Transport. At the time I was on the Board of the State Rail Authority (SRA), 1989-1992. Max forced his way onto the Board, insisting the Minister wanted a “representative” there. The rest of us, who included Tony Berg, then CEO of Macquarie Bank, Ross Sayers, the CEO of the SRA, and other forceful characters objected that it was not good corporate governance for the Secretary of the Department to be a Board member. Max ended up being an observer and insisted on having a veto-right on any decisions. The rest of us called his bluff, insisting he leave the room on some matters, and insisting that whereas his input was usually valuable, the full Board was constituted so as to provide independent oversight and, with management, to set the direction of the SRA. Despite the occasional joust, everyone respected his sharp mind, driven demeanour, and alacrity. I thought he would be the right fit with Carr, bulldozing through decisions, the proverbial “getting things done” guy.
After Carr was elected premier in March 1995, instead, he choose Ken Baxter, who almost immediately fell out with him, languished in the role a year, and eventually left to pursue other interests. Unfortunately, thereafter Carr did not have anyone strong to back him up in the bureaucracy when his first big crisis erupted – the unions refusing to back the privatization of electricity in 1996.
To the outside observer, Baxter seemed an ideal choice. He was a former senior bureaucrat in NSW who had been head-hunted to become Secretary of the Premier’s Department in Victoria under Jeff Kennett. The symbolism of Carr picking Kennett’s chief bureaucrat was delicious. Soon after becoming premier, with his new head of the public sector next to him, Carr convened a summit of business, unions, and opinion leaders and he boldly announced that NSW would lead the nation once more.
The merit of Max in the role, however, was that he understood Labor and the NSW bureaucracy and was respected, even liked, by many of the unions – certainly by my then successors at the Labor Council – including Labor Council Secretary Peter Sams and Assistant Secretary Michael Costa.
A year later and I saw Max in hospital after a minor, successful operation for a bowel tumour. (It might have been cancer). It was after the Federal election held on 2 March 1996. He regaled me with the story that the new Prime Minister, John Howard, had called the surgeons to ask how serious was the problem and the prognosis for a complete recovery. Howard offered him the job as Secretary (head of) Prime Minister and Cabinet. Lying in bed, Max quipped: “I don’t think he knows how I voted!”. Thus began a fortuitous, deep, and constructive relationship between Prime Minister and Secretary, arguably the most successful in living memory.
Just before the 2011 NSW State elections I saw Max, recalled the gist of the narrative above, and proffered that although he was now very closely identified with the conservative side of politics, that his sympathies were once “ours” or almost aligned and he really could have had a huge impact on Labor politics. He smiled and said “that is so long ago, Michael”.