Restoring trust in NSW politics

For political strategists, Mr O’Farrell’s fate poses a different question. This question is about the ongoing viability of his favoured political strategy, ‘the small target strategy.’  … Daniel Mookhey tells …

Politicians have turned resignation into an art form. Their resignations can be angry and explosive. They can be rash or shabby. Most are dramatic. Typically, the dramatis personæ have stirred over an alchemy of forces until, eventually, somebody arrived at the ultimate conclusion…they are expendable.

For former NSW Premier and Liberal Leader Barry O’Farrell, discovering his political mortality  must have been tough. Three years ago he was the all conquering hero; the biggest winner ever in New South Wales politics. Brio? No. He did not win with any brio. He did not need it. He won won by sating the public’s clamour for a normal, dull, plain old boring, but (most importantly) ethical State Government. Deeply ethical. Never unethical. The antidote to the pernicious behaviour of Eddie Obeid and Ian MacDonald.

Slight problem though…as it turns out, it was quite serious: his Party had a casual relationship with ethics. Certainly the type of ethics he O’Farrell had promised with gusto.

Factionalism? O’Farrell railed against Labor’s, but feigned ignorance about the incredible power of his Party’s tribes. Their dysfunction kept the NSW Liberals in Opposition for 16 years. Special interests? Rich party donors? He said they were exclusively Labor’s problem. Now we know, because ICAC is telling us, that a Senior Cabinet Minister – the longest serving Liberal MP in the NSW Parliament; a former Deputy Liberal Leader as well – apparently engaged in a deliberate and sophisticated conspiracy to circumvent laws Nathan Rees had passed to end the developer/donation nexus that was plaguing NSW politics.

If Mr O’Farrell’s intent was as sincere as his language, he’d have been troubled by presiding over this type of Party. He’d have used the incredible authority he earned from his stunning victory to nurture amongst Liberals the same independence from special interests he promised the State. Instead, he rationalised the culture of influence-peddling that took root so quickly upon his election. Rationalised it enough that he considered it unexceptional for a lobbyist to obtain his home address, call him late at night on his mobile phone, and then to courier to his home an expensive bottle of wine. So rational that it was also forgettable. After all, other people were also sending gifts, trying to win the favour of his new Government.

Mr O’Farrell’s fate means historians will have an an exquisite time resolving whether Mr O’Farrell is what his defenders claim he is: a politician felled at the height of his powers by an obdurate body that ambushed him with a memory test. Or, instead, a politician who had tremendous authority, but failed to use it to extinguish the very culture he said needing extinguishing; in the end becoming its most spectacular victim.

For political strategists, Mr O’Farrell’s fate poses a different question. This question is about the ongoing viability of his favoured political strategy, ‘the small target strategy.’

Mr O’Farrell’s reluctance to tackle the root causes of the rampant factionalism that prevailed in the NSW Liberal Party between 1995 and 2007 probably stems from an acute awareness of the rancour he would have unleashed had he taken strong action. That rancour would have been noisy and distracting. It would have diverted attention away from NSW Labor’s divisions. It would have  made the NSW Liberals a very big target.

Fair enough. Mr O’Farrell wasn’t the first politician to have calculated that inaction can be preferable to action. That honour belongs to Petro Georgiou and Jeff Kennett. They created the modern iteration of the small target strategy back in 1992 when they were battling the Cain/Kirner Labor Government. Their theory was that to defeat a punch-drunk government, the Opposition’s only job was to radiate stability and reassurance. The electorate had to feel like change was a safe choice. That was achieved by saying little, doing little, to distract attention away from your opponent’s mistakes.

Georgiou and Kennett’s strategy stood is sharp contrast to the only other Opposition strategy proven to be equally effective: Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson’s theory of big-bang transformation. Blair and Mandelson felt that securing and holding the electorate’s trust was only possible by truly transforming your Party. Every concern people had about your Party’s philosophy had to be addressed. Any principle that had already been rejected by the electorate had to be surrendered. Anybody inside the Party too devoted to either an outdated principle or a moribund culture had to be confronted.

Mr O’Farrell might now wish that he followed the Blair example. His successor, Mike Baird, no longer has that choice. Restoring ethics in political parties is now the only key to winning the next election.

Perhaps surprisingly, Baird starts this race in the poorer position. Because while Barry O’Farrell was showing indifference towards the culture of influence-peddling that had taken root in his Government, Labor Leader John Robertson was acquainting himself with the new zeitgeist of NSW Politics: power sharing. Robertson grasps that people will no longer cop being shut out from decisions hitherto monopolised by Parties. Decisions like ‘who is the Leader’ and ‘who is the candidate.’ Power abused is power forfeited.

Robertson’s answer has been to crowd out malignant forces that stalk political parties with benign forces that check them. So he’s reached out to Labor supporters – people who vote Labor, will declare themselves as Labor even though they have not yet joined Labor. Thousands of those people have already helped Labor choose candidates in five state seats. After the next Party Conference, anybody who joins Labor will, if necessary, help the Party decide its next Leader.

The irony is that these reforms, cumulatively, mean NSW Labor is the only Party that can credibly claim to being the Party of the many and for the many – definitely not a Party for the few. No one, in their wildest dreams would ever have foreseen this, but when no one was paying attention, NSW Labor manoeuvred itself into a terrific position: becoming the Party with the best claim to having changed enough to restore trust to NSW politics. After ICAC’s sensational revelations, what better position is there?

About Daniel Mookhey

Daniel Mookhey

Daniel Mookhey is a Board Director for the Chifley Research Centre, and the Deputy Chair of the NSW Labor Policy Forum. He was the 2013 Federal Campaign Director for the ACTU.

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