Sunday, March 25

If Labor was so much on the nose, why couldn't the Libs win seats off them?

What an extraordinary election! Opinion polls clearly showed New South Wales voters detested both the Labor Government and the Liberal challengers. Essentially they had to decide whom they distrusted least.

So why did electors decide to stick with the side perceived to have stuffed up so comprehensively? Why were they unconvinced by the Libs' promise to fix things up?

Perhaps it's more accurate to say they had to select the side which would prove least inept in running a State with deep-seated problems, particularly with the growth of Australia's biggest city – public transport, traffic congestion, high tolls for car commuters, health services, public education, unaffordable housing . . . all the problems which beset Sydney.

And soon, perhaps, afflicting a greater metropolis running from south of Wollongong all the way to the Hunter, and well up into the Blue Mountains.

And that's before you address the special worries of regional and rural areas.

It's still hard to fully explain why the Libs across the State could improve their standing by only 2.1 percentage points to 26.8 per cent of the vote (while the Libs' coalition partner, the Nationals, added 0.2 per cent to 9.8 per cent).

The Libs could win only two extra seats – Manly and Pittwater, in each case doing no more than regaining a traditional Lib seat from an independent.

Labor may have lost just two seats, Tweed to the Nationals and possibly Lake Macquarie to an independent . It also lost Murray-Darling, ending the parliamentary life of the colourful Labor MP Peter Black from Broken Hill (however, the new boundaries had brought in so much of the old Murrumbidgee seat, the ABC's analysis made it notionally a Nationals-held seat, and thus one retained by the Nats).

NSW Labor got away with a brilliant move when the austere Bob Carr stood down as Premier, to be replaced by Morris Iemma. On television, Iemma is a natural – coming across as affable, unflappable, likable, genial, sincere and capable.

And the Libs let him get away with the fiction that he was a new man, disconnected from the old guard which had earned so much animosity from the people of NSW.

They failed to drive home the message that Iemma was a senior member of Carr's ministerial team, and that as Health Minister he had been the man in charge of hospitals (although, Carr was to insist, Labor had done well on hospitals, rebuilding them all in the past 12 years).

If anyone could promise a new broom – and be believed by voters – it should have been Opposition Leader Peter Debnam, but instead the Libs ineffectual campaigning let Iemma get away with a message which was, essentially: “Yeah, we haven't done too well, have we? But we promise to try harder.”

Debnam himself came across as sincere and likable, but too rigid in his conservatism. As the campaign went on and the pressure increased, he started to look like a 'roo transfixed in the headlights, but I respected his guts as he fought to the end.

Inexplicably, he failed to stay focused on key messages. He gave up on public transport, just before a train failure on the Sydney Harbour Bridge handed him a great opportunity to highlight Cityrail's shortcomings.

His water reclamation policy was bold, and bettered anything Labor had on the table. Why couldn't he sell it effectively?

Why did NSW voters reject Debnam? I have some ideas (but you should bear in mind that I'm a bit of a leftie).

First, Debnam showed no sign that he'd stand up to Canberra as long as the Libs held power federally.

Candidates from electorates as disparate as Penrith and Monaro reported that WorkChoices was still a hot issue, but Debnam still made it clear he would hand over NSW industrial relations to be put through Prime Minister John Howard's shredder.

Of more concern to me, he refused to stand up to the Feds for a fairer financial deal for NSW and its people. Debnam uttered not a squeak of protest at a grants system which took almost three billion dollars annually (the sum will be somewhat less in future) of the GST paid by NSW residents and handed it to such impoverished states as Queensland.

When Federal Treasurer Peter Costello demanded NSW cut taxes such as stamp duty because of its “GST bonanza”, Debnam did not demur.

NSW electors have a right to expect their Premier to fight for their interests in Canberra, whatever their political affiliations. Debnam appeared to have a lickspittle approach.

As I mention in my previous post, I also worried about the hard-right, backroom Liberals who shafted John Brogden, then warned off Barry O'Farrell to put Debnam in as their own man. Would Debnam toe the line with these people, who represent a formidable anti-abortion force?

They showed their priorities when they stacked Epping, reportedly with recruits from church groups, to ensure the preselection of anti-abortionist Greg Smith ahead of Pru Goward.

Goward was given Goulburn as a consolation prize [after a close count, she was able to claim victory on March 29].

I was also disturbed by the law and order auction – and I don't exempt Iemma from that criticism.

When Debnam promised that on the morning of March 25 – the day when in his dreams he would be Premier – he would order the Police Commissioner to arrest 200 men of Middle Eastern appearance and charge them with anything, I realised how ignorant he was. Although, of course, it also confirmed that today's so-called conservatives sneer at the rule of law.

When he proposed charging children as criminals, I wondered whether it was a “dog whistle” for rednecks who thought it would affect only Aboriginal children.

Promising to abolish 20,000 public service jobs (Debnam did cut the number from the 29,000 set by his predecessor, John Brogden) surely alienated many voters who happen to work for the government.

Labor's brutal advertising against Debnam dismayed me, but as I pointed out in a previous post, it did little more than copy the Federal Government's campaign against Mark Latham. Expect to see more negative advertising for one good reason – it works.

Of particular interest is the turmoil Labor encountered in the Hunter, a traditional Labor stronghold. In Newcastle itself, manipulation by Labor's head office ended up splitting the Labor vote between three candidates (although preferential voting drew it back to a two-person contest).

I've never been impressed by the Hunter's parliamentary members, and the Labor heavies down in Sussex Street must have agreed, because they decided to dump Bryce Gaudry, the member for Newcastle since 1991 (perhaps because he'd fought Michael Costa's plan to close the railway into Newcastle).

They approached the popular Mayor of Newcastle, John Tate, who – it was reported – agreed to stand as endorsed Labor candidate until he found the deal involved shafting Gaudry.

Sussex Street then cast around for a more personable candidate, and decided on a former Newcastle television personality, Jodi McKay. Reports at the time said she did not join the Labor Party until she was preselected.

The moves drove the Carrington branch of the ALP to resign en masse. Carrington! Have you ever been to Carrington? Well worth a stroll, it's one of the best preserved remnants of 19th century Newcastle.

Well, Jodi had the preselection, while Gaudry and Tate decided to stand as Labor-leaning independents. Then, in the wheeling and dealing which followed, Gaudry swapped preferences with Greens candidate Michael Osborne and Tate did a deal with McKay.

The depth of McKay's political knowledge came into focus when she couldn't name the Labor Premier of Queensland.

As I write this, Jodi looks set to win. With three-quarters of votes counted, she had won 31.2 per cent of the vote, which is a fall of 17 per cent for Labor. Gaudry had won 21.5 per cent and Tate 24.1 per cent. After preferences are distributed, the ABC forecast McKay to win with 54.2 per cent of the vote to Gaudry's 45.8 per cent.

The Libs' poor showing surprised me, because I had the impression the burgeoning apartment blocks and the gentrification of old working class streets would have delivered more Lib voters to the electorate.

Lib candidate Martin Babakhan won only 9.3 per cent of the primary vote, a fall of almost 17 per cent for the Libs. Even the Greens did better, with Michael Osborne winning 11.2 per cent – and that was a fall of 4.2 per cent.

Elsewhere in the Hunter, Labor found itself losing ground to strong independents. In Lake Macquarie, mayor Greg Piper looked a good chance to take the seat from Labor's Jeff Hunter, who had succeeded his father. In Maitland, mayor Peter Blackmore was in a tussle with Labor's Frank Terenzini.

How about telephone canvassing? Up my way, around the electorate of Gosford, phones everywhere were ringing at the end of last week with an automated message from Liberal candidate Chris Holstein. Chris, a former Mayor of Gosford, appears to be a good bloke – his family run one of my favorite coffee spots, the Gnostic Manor in Woy Woy.

But he, or some bright spark on his staff, should be told how much we Central Coast people hate cold canvassers on the phone. Those calls probably cost him votes. Perhaps the same is true elsewhere around the State.

And surely the Liberal Party could have arranged a better photo for his posters. The smudgy image made him look like an overweight Con the fruitologist.

Those photos made the Labor member, Marie Andrews, look sparkling by contrast. Marie has one great strength. Probably remembering Spike Milligan's remark that Woy Woy is the world's only above-ground cemetery, she courts the aged vote assiduously.

Notionally, the new Gosford electorate boundaries could have favoured Holstein, but they added more retirement areas to Andrews's old electorate of Peats (and the more affluent eastern areas went over into the new seat of Terrigal, where former Gosford member Chris Hartcher made a solid gain for the Libs).

By the close of Saturday night's counting, Holstein had increased the Libs' vote by 4.3 percentage points and Andrews had lost a similar amount. The ABC predicts Andrews will win with 54.4 per cent after prefs to Holstein's 45.5 per cent. To be fair, it would have needed a Lib landslide to give Chris a chance.

Monday, March 19

Getting the facts straight on John Brogden

Image shows Daily Telegraph front page headline, Brodgen's Sordid Past, just before Brogden's suicide attemptFirst edition of The Daily Telegraph, August 31, 2005
Following editions reported Brogden's suicide bid

Yesterday's Sunday Telegraph appears to have been a little light on with its history in a report that former NSW Opposition Leader John Brogden had gone overseas because he couldn't bear to watch the drubbing of the Liberal-Nationals coalition at next Saturday's New South Wales elections.

The last par of the story said: "Mr Brogden quit politics in August, 2005, ending a nine-year career. A day later, he attempted suicide after admitting he had made a racist comment about former premier Bob Carr's wife."

The Sunday Telegraph, Australia's biggest selling newspaper, failed to mention that its sister publication, The Daily Telegraph, had a role in driving Brogden into suicidal despair.

As the front page above shows, the Tele made devastating claims about Brogden in its first edition sent to the bush and to the Central Coast on the night of the suicide bid. It's reasonable to believe Brogden quickly learned of this front page.

To my mind -- and I was a Tele journalist for many years -- the story alleging he harassed young women on his staff was reckless with its claims and light on substantiation. It was the sort of stuff you expect in a "celebrity' magazine, full of "it is understood" attributions and direct quotes from unnamed sources, such as those "friends" so often quoted in irresponsible reporting.

Only one former staffer put her name to a quote, and she denied emphatically that she'd had an affair with Brogden.

It does seem Brogden imbibed too freely at boozy functions, and became recklessly indiscreet with banter, often of a sexual nature. His harassment of three women journalists at an Australian Hotels Association, along with his racist remarks about Bob Carr's wife shows that.

It's worth noting that the women journalists did not think the "harassment" warranted further action, and they did not report it in the media. Was that a dereliction of duty?

It was some time later before someone hawked the story to a newspaper, setting in train what looks like a planned political assassination of Brogden.

It would be interesting to learn who handed the "secret shame file" to The Daily Telegraph to complete the assassination. My belief is that it was someone representing shadowy, hard-right forces within the Liberal Party.

Some of Brogden's moderate views were anathema to these people. He supported the drug injecting room in Kings Cross, while it is a fundamental tenet of hard-right conservatives that heroin addicts should be left to kill themselves. Harm minimisation sends the wrong message.

There are several reasons I would not vote for Peter Debnam to become Premier.

First, if I voted for the Libs it would disturb my father's eternal rest.

Second, I do not trust those dark, backroom forces who regard Debnam as their man. I do not know their policies -- although I do know many are rigidly anti-abortion -- and nor do I know whether Debnam would stand up to them.

Wednesday, March 14

Whatever happened to Dear Diary?

Remember when you were an adolescent, and you recorded your innermost thoughts into a bound diary which you carefully locked and put back in your wardrobe every night?

How things have changed. If you're my age, some of your grandchildren may be posting all those thoughts, all those torments of puberty and first, exploratory love, on to MySpace for all their peers to read. And they still don't want the oldies looking over their shoulders.

I'm bit behind in my reading this week, so I've only just come across this in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald, a mother describing how a daughter comes home from school, heads straight for the computer, and posts her thoughts to MySpace.

" . . . she and her friends are happy to parade the intimacies of their lives for everyone except those who, on a day-to-day basis at least, live closest to them and have known them longest.

"Of course, it's not really paradoxical: they're communicating with their peers and creating their adolescent persona and don't want us around, watching. In fact, they're doing exactly what we did at their age, even if we did it through physical space – the telephone and the diary.

"But what's shocking to us is the extent of self-exposure they embrace. These kids live their lives online, but to their parents it feels like public nudity."

Also, "A survey of 1019 teenagers reported last week that only one in 10 of them wrote a diary compared with the 47 per cent who blog. Could there have been, in the seven or eight years since the arrival of the blog and online diary, a cultural shift of such a size that the privacy of the bound diary is now regarded as some quaint, pre-digital relic, as derisory to young people as some Victorian ideas about modesty now appear to us?"

The story, syndicated from Guardian News and Media, reads like a blog itself. Here's the link:

Like to check out MySpace?

Monday, March 12

If mudslinging is such a failure, why is NSW Labor still flinging dirt around?

Should we be surprised that the Federal Labor Party, and its leader Kevin Rudd, are performing so well in the polls despite a week in which Prime Minister John Howard and his senior ministers have flung so much mud at them -- perhaps more than we've seen in any campaign this nation has known, even in the bitter conscription debates of the First World War?

As we know from the reputable ACNielsen poll published in this morning's Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, Rudd and the Labor Party now have the highest approval ratings ever of any Opposition coming into an election. It supports The Australian's Newspoll a week ago, but suggests support for the Labor Party and Rudd is accelerating.

Read the SMH report here.

The poll showing Labor has 61 per cent of the preferred two party vote, against the Liberal-Nationals Coalition's 39 per cent, and Rudd's 53 per cent as preferred Prime Minister to incumbent John Howard's 39 per cent, startled even me.

But I'm not sure that I agree that the public have rejected mud-slinging, as much of this morning's commentary suggested. I think that after more than 10 years in office, the Howard government is suffering from an "It's Time" feeling against it. And I think Howard will claw back at least some ground when he switches his campaign to economic credibility.

Meanwhile, it's worth noting that in New South Wales the Labor Party backroom heavies have no compunction about running the most brutally abusive, mud-slinging campaign against Opposition Leader Peter Whatzisname I have ever seen.

It's disgraceful, and I mean that word. Journalists with access to Peter Debnam suggest he is shaken by the vehemence of these attacks, and is depressed about his failure to make inroads against Labor. In that case, one must admire the gutsiness of his fight to the finish for the election on March 24.

So where did the NSW Labor heavies find the model for this vicious television advertising? The answer: They copied the Coalition's ads attacking former Oppositon Leader Mark Latham in the 2004 Federal election, wiped out the name Latham, and inserted Peter Debnam's name in its place.

The story is confirmed by a report in the Australian.

So one might suggest, in the old phrase, the Libs have been hoist on their own petard (that is, blown up by their own bomb -- a petard was an explosive device used to blow in a city wall or a castle gate).

Thursday, March 8

Okay, okay, I do have something to say about Kevin Rudd and Brian Burke

Why hadn't I commented on the political row over Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd's meetings with disgraced West Australian lobbyist and ex-Premier Brian Burke?

A couple of the guys at our Probus meeting yesterday asked me just that question, and I wasn't sure of the answers. One might be that last weekend the story was developing so fast, I couldn't keep up. Another is that I felt unable to compete with the excellent newspaper commentary.

Also, I'm trying to focus more on the positive, and there was nothing positive about the mud-slinging of Coalition members as they saw their first opportunity to wing “Saint Kevin.”

I came close to posting some opinion on day one. On the TV, I had watched Peter Costello in full flight, jeering, hooting, smirking, mimicking, sardonic and abusive, as he drove home the attack in the House of Reps. A superb parliamentary performance.

But I wonder if there's a disconnect between most Australians and the antics of their representatives in the Parliament. Do ordinary Aussies really admire Costello's histrionics, or – whether they're Liberal voters or not – do they join in a widespread opinion that all politicians are clowns?

Labor's Deputy Leader Julia Gillard can dish out the scorn too, but she falls well short of “doing a Costello” on the floor of the House. Is that just leftie bias on my part?

But in addition to the clownish antics, Costello also kicked a foolish own goal which blunted Prime Minister John Howard's attack.

The PM can present a sincere gravitas, whether he's explaining that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction make it essential we invade Iraq, or that throwing children overboard made a boatload of refugees too despicable to be given haven.

In his best “we will decide” voice, he drove home a relentless attack on Rudd's explanation of his attending three meetings hosted by Burke. He was doing well, targeting Rudd's claimed inability to remember much of what happened at those meetings.

But then Costello's ill-considered and over-the-top comments tripped him up. From the dispatch box, Costello had declared: “Anyone who deals with Mr Brian Burke is morally and politically compromised.”

Um, yes. Someone tipped off The Weekend Australian that Coalition minister Ian Campbell had attended a 20-minute meeting hosted by Burke, and Campbell conceded it was true. Campbell offered his resignation from Cabinet, and Howard accepted.

Few would say his meeting with Burke was a sacking offence. It was short. Initially it had been called by Burke's partner Julian Grill – who, unlike Burke, is not a “convicted felon” – and it was on a matter of relevance to Campbell's portfolio.

Campbell appeared to show no bitterness at his sacking (okay, resignation), fuelling the widespread belief he'd be back in the Cabinet if Howard won the next election. They say there's no deal, but in these things a wink is as good as a nod.

As an ABC commentator said, Howard had to sacrifice Campbell so he could jump the corpse and continue his attack on Rudd.

But on Monday, The Australian returned with the suggestion that if mining entrepreneur Andrew Forrest – one of Burke's major clients – was so morally and politically compromised, why was he still dining with John Howard on his visits to Canberra?

Oops! By Wednesday, The Australian was able to report: “John Howard has qualified his Government's condemnation of people associating with Brian Burke, defending business figures for hiring the disgraced lobbyist.”

What else could he do? Burke's client list is almost a who's who of West Australian business. And many of them Liberal Party supporters.

To be fair, Burke delivered for his clients. Were they aware of his unscrupulous methods? We should give them the benefit of the doubt.

So where does all that leave us? It may not seem much, but I think Rudd has come through maintaining a quiet dignity. The Liberal-leaning commentator Gerard Henderson believes he will benefit because “Saint Kevin's” halo has been knocked off, and people will accept him better.

I think, however, that Howard has damaged him, although it's debatable whether that will still be so by election time in October or November.

I'm no fan of Costello. As an Australian Treasurer, he's a great union-busting barrister. Dollar Sweets, and all that.

He presents as a buffoon, and I think history will rank him as Australia's most mediocre Treasurer since one John Howard served in that role in the Fraser ministry (we'll go back no further, lest we remember Frank Crean. And was Jim Cairns really Treasurer for a while?) .

By most expectations, Costello will step up as Prime Minister in 2008 or 2009 if Howard wins this year's election. I have my doubts. Costello has shown himself more than somewhat inept in the past week, and Howard has promised to remain as long as the party wants him.

I think the party will want Howard to stay at least until someone better comes along. Howard may even believe he could go another seven years, to top Menzies as Australia's longest serving Prime Minister (La Trobe University professor of politics Judith Brett canvasses the issue in the March edition of The Monthly).

But I believe Howard's retirement is less likely to be delayed till he tops Menzies' record, than until there's a strong successor. It shouldn't be Costello, it mustn't be Tony Abbott, who contemplates intellectual debate by lacing on a bigger pair of Doc Martens boots, and Brendan Nelson would be laughable.

Really, that leaves Malcolm Turnbull, the guy who once said Howard broke a nation's heart when he made sure we retained a foreigner as our head of state. There's a long rapprochement ahead of them, but I think Howard will step down only when he – and the Liberal Party heavies – believe he has a worthy successor. And I think it will be Turnbull.