NSW political blood spilled


Sydney Morning Herald When New South Wales Ministers Joe Tripodi and Ian Macdonald tendered their resignations to Premier Nathan Rees they were obeying conventions established over decades in Westminster type parliaments. In reality, the Premier had asked the two for their resignations last weekend, effectively sacking them. Whatever the reasons that they were given and have since supplied publicly, the immediate political reading of the action was that Rees was moving against disloyal members of Cabinet.

In a state which has had an MP assassinated, a Minister suspected of murders here and convicted of a similar crime overseas, a factional leader bashed savagely outside his Sydney home, and whose parliament has a reputation as a ‘bear pit’, it is inevitable that commentators will describe political blood being spilled. Unfortunately, where NSW Labor is concerned, such events often invite reprisals.

While a Premier’s authority in Cabinet might be based in unwritten rules inherited from Westminster, a Labor Premier’s authority has traditionally been restrained by a firm understanding within the Party that Caucus, the party room meeting of Labor MPs, decides the membership of the ministry while the Premier allocates portfolios. In practice, as in many political meetings, the Labor factions will have met previously and decided their candidates for the ministry. Left, Right, Centre and various other combinations claim spots according to their relative successes at election, perhaps modified slightly by any previous agreements.

Liberal and National Party Leaders have always enjoyed a free hand in appointments, and more recent Labor leaders have been attempting to bypass the factions. Following their election victories, both Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Queensland Premier Anna Bligh claimed the right to appoint their ministries. Addressing Labor’s State Conference on Saturday 14 November 2009, Premier Rees claimed a similar privilege. Conference supported the Premier, perhaps reckoning that the move might help the Government retain power in 2011.

A Premier must balance many considerations when deciding to sack a Minister. Ideally, a Minister should only be sacked for maladministration or personal impropriety, or perhaps when a stronger candidate is available. Often however, political factors are paramount. It is a firm principle of politics that while you want your friends close, you need to keep your enemies even closer. Former Premier Bob Carr recently advised John Della Bosca finally to put his leadership ambitions aside because continued speculation was creating instability. That instability only increased after Della Bosca’s resignation, because once he was outside the Cabinet ‘tent’, one imperative demanding his loyalty had been removed. Premier Rees has taken a risk, placing Macdonald and especially Tripodi, beyond the demands of Cabinet solidarity.

Former President of the Legislative Council Meredith Burgmann has suggested that the influence of formal factions was overrated. Rather, Labor is divided into informal groupings she called ‘shifting fiefdoms’. This might explain why Macdonald, originally from the hard Left, seems to be a Della Bosca supporter. While he might remain a disaffected presence in the upper house, taking on the factions in NSW really means taking on the Right. Fairfield MP Tripodi supported by Right heavyweights Della Bosca and Eddie Obeid could be an overt threat to Rees very soon.

Tripodi has in some respects led a charmed life. He might well have been sacked over an allegation of sexual harassment or over several allegations of attempting to manipulate development decisions on behalf of mates. A National Party MP had a go at strangling Tripodi in parliament, but he shrugged the attack off nonchalantly. The Right breeds them tough.

Following the sackings, Rees faces two further political problems. Both are matters of perception - one concerns the ethnic vote and the other, paradoxically perhaps, Cabinet solidarity. When the Coalition Opposition targeted Michael Costa, Della Bosca and Tripodi in the 2007 election campaign, Costa accused the conservatives of being against people of ethnic background. All three have now left the ministry, and while there have been no suggestions that they have been forced out because of their backgrounds, their departure could undermine Labor’s traditional edge in ethnic support. Certainly, there has been speculation that Rees retained another Minister accused of disloyalty Tony Kelly, because of a need to maintain contacts with rural people.

While Premiers claim that sackings are sometimes necessary for Cabinet solidarity, they do not automatically create stability. Premier Carr lost only one Cabinet Minister in his first term. At a time when several federal Ministers had to resign, this stability showed Carr’s effective administration. While Carr later had some trouble with factional appointments to Cabinet, his teams seemed well disciplined. Ministers will contain their personal ambitions if they believe that the Premier is a winner. They want to hold on to Government and its power and perks and recognise that disunity is self-defeating. When a Premier looks like losing, resentments fester and erupt.

Rees now hopes to get on with business in the hope of salvaging Labor’s electoral chances in 2011. By acting against two ministers, he has hoped to convey the impression that disloyalty was the source of the government’s problems, and that things will now improve markedly. Unfortunately, Rees now has an even more limited pool of experience on which to draw than he had previously. It is a gamble to expect that Government must now become efficient and popular. A Premier can play the disloyalty card only once. Premier Rees will have to hope that he has not thrown away Labor’s last chance.

Tony SmithTony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities, most recently at the University of Sydney.


Topic tags: tony smith, rees, tripodi, mcdonald, nsw, bear pit, della bosca



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Existing comments

Perhaps Dr Smith should consider that the recent changes to the NSW cabinet (together with the recent ALP Conference decision, however it is implemented in legislation and practice, to ban developers' donations to the party) might have other grounds entirely.

Plainly optimising the chance of the government's re-election is paramount; but it is also clear that -- for particular reasons -- both Tripode and Macdonald were "on the nose" with the electorate. Macdonald (inter alia) for self-indulgence and luxury spending; Tripodi for partiality to his friends (giving the perception, justified or not, of lacking integrity) and for the enduring smell of his alleged sexual behaviour.

As to the depth of talent: we know that in state governments, the capacity and the repute of the Premier are dominant factors; an astute commentator (which Dr smith ought to be) shoudl also know that, in the coalition, the talent is also pretty shallow and Barry O'Farrell behaves as if the government will be his as of right, seeming to forget that, in the eyes of the electorate, he needs to earn the moral claim to the Premiership.
Perhaps NSW politics have become less clear-cut than the pundits might allow.

John Carmody | 19 November 2009  

Tony Smith's analysis piece totally neglects the pivotal role of Luke Foley, the NSW ALP left wing Assistant Secretary in Rees' actions. This was alluded to in Benson's analysis in the Daily Telegraph on 16/11/2009. Foley's involvement has even extended to the parliamentary secretary appointments and as Jack Lang said:"always back self interest, its the only trier in the race".

"Rees now has an even more limited pool of experience on which to draw..." (referring to the axing of MacDonald and Tripodi) is interesting.

MacDonald's "experience" has involved him committing the NSW Government to expenditure of around $30 million to adapt Sydney Olympic Park roadways for "V8 Supercar" racing despite its questionable value. (The most recent media coverage of this issue occurred on ABC "Stateline" 13/11/2009).

Tripodi is very bright but unfortunately he has failed to use his intellect in politics relying rather on political machinations. He is certainly electoral poison and that is the reason for his demise.

Initially, there were reports of five ministers to be axed, then four and eventually only two casualties emerged. Rees needs to convince the public that this is not just more style over substance.

Coherent policy development in transport, health etc would be a good start.

Paul Crittenden | 19 November 2009  

When Labor's factions reflected differences in political philosophy and approaches, selection of cabinet members by the factions made sense. But Labor's factions are now nothing more than the not-so-petty fiefdoms of self-interested war lords competing for power and the spoils that go with it. Is it any wonder that the ALP is losing ordinary and committed members everywhere? I say, a plague on all their houses!

Ginger Meggs | 26 November 2009  

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