A column about Morris Iemma and Nathan Rees

Morris Iemma won the 2007 NSW election, I believe, because he adopted a slogan whose humility was unique in Australian political history. Though it was widely mocked at the time by many sage commentators including myself, the phrase “More to do, but heading in the right direction” struck a chord in the electorate for one very good reason. Unusually for a political slogan, half of it rang absolutely true. Everyone who heard it intuitively agreed that Iemma had more to do, a hell of a lot more to do, and this made us think that the new Premier was a man who understood our concerns. Now, finally, Iemma has delivered on the second half of that slogan. Because the first Labor Premier to be dumped in the Parliament’s 117-year history is, without doubt, finally heading in the right direction.

Inspired by Iemma’s success, Rudd too adopted a slogan that was instinctively half true for his election victory: “New leadership. Fresh ideas”. Sure, the ideas are virtually identical to those of his predecessor, but no-one could deny that the guy delivering them was new. And so Rudd sold the electorate as well.

Those of you with long memories may faintly recall a fellow by the name of Peter Debnam. No? Well, he was the Opposition Leader Iemma defeated. Scarily conservative fellow who liked getting around in swimwear. Still no? That’s understandable, the same thing happened on polling day. His slogan was “Let’s fix NSW”, to which the reaction from voters was “Sure Peter, it desperately needs fixing – but I’m damned if I’m going to let you near the problem.”

In 2005, Labor gambled on an unknown in a bid to rid itself of the stench of the Carr Government. In 2008, it’s gambling on another unknown to rid itself of the stench of the Iemma Government. Nathan Rees, the new Premier, is even more of an unknown than Iemma was, and I have to say that everything I’ve learned thus far impresses me. He’s only been a Labor MP for 18 months, which is an excellent recommendation and he isn’t Morris Iemma, Joe Tripodi, Reba Meagher, Eric Roozendaal, John Watkins or, best of all, Michael Costa. In fact, I like him already.

A lot will be made of Rees being a former garbage collector. And for having worked with a different kind of refuseas chief of staff to the disgraced MP Milton Orkopoulos. But we cannot really hail as new someone who arrived in Macquarie St shortly after Labor’s election in 1995, working as an adviser to then Deputy Premier Andrew Refshauge. So really, unless Rees is unusually effective for a Labor politician, it’s hard to see him doing much better than his predecessors, who rose through the NSW Right, with great experience in headkicking and factional dealmaking but little, it seems in running a government effectively. Rees is from the Left, but I hear he switched to the Right to get the Premier’s job, which only goes to show that any idealism he may have had has been now leached out by such a long time in State politics.

It’s an interesting comparison to make with another obscure figure who has suddenly been catapulted to political centre stage, Sarah Palin, the Alaska Governor who’s become John McCain’s running-mate. She’s added considerable entertainment to the race, and while the idea of her being leader of the free world in the event of a recurrence of John McCain’s cancer terrifies me, I have to admire a political system that can actually bring genuine outsiders into the mix. Everyone we get in Australian politics, especially on the Labor side, has been through the party wringer and had their individuality dulled, with the result that their loyalties are to their colleagues rather than their electorate. The Liberals do draft in genuine outsiders from time to time, but generally from such noxious places as to make the effort hardly worthwhile, as we saw with Debnam.

The fact that the Labor caucus has again elected someone unknown by most voters without even referring to opinion polls to check whom the public might like to be made their Premier is, as we saw with Iemma and Unsworth, a recipe for appointing a poor leader, with little chance of engaging the public. I would be beyond delighted it if Nathan Rees proved a highly effective Premier who finally tackles our state’s appalling decline, but, like the President of the Committee To Make Michael Costa Premier (who surely must be Michael Costa, in lieu of any other members), I’m really not holding out much hope for the future.