If there is something to be said for the quality and competence of the representatives we send to Canberra it is that those who remain behind to infest state legislatures are even worse. They weren’t saints, but how badly we miss the likes of Bolte, Playford, Wran, Kennett, even Joh
While a pretty watertight case can be made that Australians are currently ill-served in relation to the quality of Canberra’s political class, what of the governance of our states? If you think that the likes of Turnbull, Frydenberg, Bishop, Pyne, Shorten et al are short on class, skill, backbone, smarts and morals, what to make of the mire of talentless spivs who run the lower jurisdictions? In fact, an interesting exercise might be to come up with a suitable collective noun for a group of state politicians. An ICAC of state politicians, perhaps.
The stand-out leaders at state level in Australia are, historically, slender in number, to put it kindly. There were a a few in the 1950s and 1960s – Thomas Playford, Charles Court and Henry Bolte come to mind – and in later decades a smattering of giants like Jo Bjelke-Petersen, Neville Wran (the master politician) and (of course) Jeff Kennett. In recent times, only Campbell Newman catches the eye, and he was cut down before he hit his stride.
In the great state of New South Wales, on the Liberal side there have been (seemingly) at least thirty or forty “leaders” these past decades, some of whose names (Debnam) can scarcely be remembered. Of these only two stand out. One, Bob Askin, is remembered largely for three things – changing his name from Robin to Robert, his infamous urging of police to “run the bastards over” — the “them” being anti-Vietnam protesters doing very much the right thing during a visit of the ghastly LBJ — and, finally, his proclivity (alleged, assumed and still occasionally denied) for brown paper bags and hanging with corrupt senior coppers.
The other noteworthy, Nick Greiner, had and has his admirers, though he was substantially overrated and threw away government, inflicting on us through his ineptitude that amiable bungler John Fahey, surely the leader of the worst government at any level in the country’s history – a government held to ransom by Tony Windsor et al. Ultimately and even worse in terms of character, the truly egregious Bob Carr. Anyone disputing my claim about Fahey’s people only need recall Terry (Inspector Gadget) Griffiths, Tony Packard, Neil “I’m off to London” Pickard and all the other bunglers. Michael Photios I will come to later. And Tony Windsor was, back then in his Macquarie Street days, only just warming up in terms of the endless whinging and blackmailing of governments to bestow useless goodies on the bush. He would perfect that art with the help of Julia Gillard after his move to Canberra.
Then we had Bob “I will practise my German during question time” Carr for a tedious, dreary decade in which NSW went deep green, Treasury was infested with mediocrities and the oddly charming Michael Egan – who kept on smoking in smoke-free government offices for the duration – in effect drove NSW infrastructure into the ground.
To the south, we now have an absolute lunatic “running” Victoria, a state which may indeed deserve Daniel Andrews in view of the residents’ high threshold for tolerating the scarily incompetent. As for the leaders of the other mainland eastern states, the average punter would be unable to spell their names and, even less, to list a single achievement of either. Recently ousted South Australiam premier Jay Weatherill’s success at thoroughly stuffing his state’s industrial base, blowing up power stations, hiking electricity prices, periodically plunging Adelaide into darkness and being eagerly seduced by Elon Musk’s battery-powered snake oil do not count as achievements.
Even this cursory flick through recent history serves as a reminder of the dearth of state talent in Australia. Why are state governments so bad? And why is NSW perhaps the worst of all?* After all, we can endlessly produce Test cricketers (even though some of them cheat a bit). We also produce the odd great prime minister. From the Rum Corps onwards, all the way down to Gladys, NSW has been governed by chancers of dubious political merit, many content to forsake Canberra for minding the political shop in Macquarie Street. (*editor: If you think NSW is bad just try living in Victoria, where the recent budget unashamedly announces the government’s intentiond to find more Victorians guilty of more things in order to boost on-the-spot fine revenues.)
State governments don’t have that much to do, and certainly not much of consequence. But they generally get wrong the very little they do have to do. They mercilessly bully local councils – many of which, mind you, richly deserve all the bullying they get. They rip off people and businesses through taxes that should by now have been abolished. They endlessly hold their hands out for more Canberra money. They whine about others whom they allege are the cause of all their problems. They bicker in unseemly fashion with their peers. They don’t build the infrastructure we need while building the infrastructure we don’t. They strut about it in gay parades and love a good smoking ceremony if that signals their virtue to mates and fellow members of the political class.
NSW has had something like seven premiers in a dozen or so years, and each somehow seems worse than his or her predecessor. Carr did nothing – nothing – to advance the state. He simply occupied the building and strutted a lot. Barry O’Farrell quit the top job over a bottle of wine. Morris Iemma – who? Nathan Rees – nice guy, studied English lit, tried his hardest, but nothing achieved. Kristina Keneally set male journalists’ hearts aflutter and spouted very average feminist theology but achieved nought other than re-promoting Macca and Eddie, now both keeping her Majesty company. Mike Baird saved the poor greyhounds, then promptly unsaved them, after which episode he fled the scene faster than the Dapto dogs’ mechanical hare to spend more time with his bank buddies. And dear old Gladys, the latest Photios candidate, is a lefty (naturally) who has dug up the CBD to the detriment of traders, shoppers, motorists and pedestrians so that light rail, that particular and peculiar fetish of the Left, can run a few trams down a George Street that has been half destroyed in the process. Meanwhile, apart from lip service, real and pressing transport problems go unaddressed.
Why the persistently poor governance, then, of our states — the very jurisdictions intended to make federalism work its magic?
Well, we certainly send good ones off to Canberra (Howard, Abbott). But then we also send bad ones off to Canberra (Turnbull). National politics are where the decisions of consequence are made and debates of consequence held. The states not so much. Making decisions about planning, trains, buses and so on has limited appeal for the high fliers, even for the low fliers “supported by occasional gusts of wind”, to quote Sir Humphrey. State politics get the B Teams.
What else? For some reason, the alignment of lucrative development investments and political interest seems to bring out the worst in the people involved. There is a reason why ICACs are created at state level. They are most needed there.
There is also a reason why economic theorists came up with “public choice theory” – to describe the private interests of public officials and explain how these motivate political and bureaucratic behaviour. This is the seedy side of life and politics. For example: the amenity of whole cities being destroyed in the name of a lefty notion called urban consolidation, inevitably to the massive benefit of corporate developers and enabled by politicians in the political debt of their own sideline organisers. Those lobbyists know where all the bodies are buried and how to game the system to their own and their corporate clients’ benefit. Everyone’s a winner, except the public. And voting in the other mob is not really an answer, since they will have their own mates, minders, enablers, plus those on the make and the take, all all clipping the taxpayers’ ticket. Not a pretty picture, neither the urban blight delivered nor the sleaziness of the process.
Perhaps the creepy workings of the factions of state politics best sum up the quagmire. On either side of politics in the great state of NSW, for example, we have the unedifying choice of the Dastyari mob from Sussex Street or the oiliness of Liberal fixers who stack party branches with “moderate” mates, lobby ministers they factionally control, line their own pockets in a way that has all the hallmarks of insider trading (despite minimalist rules about these things), all the while holding the uninformed public to ransom.
Yes, NSW is a borderline failed state. But it ain’t alone. South Australia, basically a country town on the edge of a desert, can’t keep its lights on. Victoria is run by a cabal who demonstrate that combination of being simultaneously talentless and dangerous. It takes a special skill to spend a billion dollars on not building a much-needed road while constructing a desal plant because a paleontologist tirelessly promoted by the ABC as a climate guru reckons it’s just the shot to fill dams “that will never fill again.” Actually, that’s not quite true. Being a Labor project, the feather-bedded union workers who threw up the desal plant made out like bandits, which they were.
Or take Queensland. Annastacia’s husband is an adviser to a coal company, so she withdrew support for the jobs-creating Adani mine. Hubby has an income; little people can go hang while Greens clap and cheer. This is anti-development strategy incarnate. Tom Playford would spin in his grave. These people are an embarrassment to the political class, and a disgrace to the practice of noble politics envisioned by Edmund Burke, A V Dicey and fellow theorists.
When it comes to sleaziness, come to think of it, maybe the “greats” of old weren’t that great themselves. Joh? Bolte? Askin? Playford? Wran? Of dubious honesty, or so it is said, but they were competent, give them that — extremely effective at staying in power, at building systems that maintained their political domination and kept functioning the circles of favour that benefited the in-crowd. All true, but they did get useful things done.
Failed states? At least, I suppose, we should be grateful that, unlike the USA, we have only six of them.