IF something needs to be done in Barry O’Farrell’s NSW, be prepared to wait for an inquiry.
Our 43rd premier is set to celebrate a year in office on Monday, but so many of his policy decisions have been subject to inquiries or reviews (at least 30 major inquiries and counting) that it’s got some in government wondering whether the Premier can make a decision without one.
And the big remaining decision on whether the government builds the M4 East or M5 duplication requires, no surprise, an inquiry, too. That comes down in August or September – when the Infrastructure NSW team presents the Premier with a five-year plan and 20-year strategy.
The Premier’s insistence on waiting on that, as he has waited on inquiries over so many big decisions, has got people joking that if Infrastructure NSW were to come up with the unlikely scenario that the F6 was the next road to be built, the Premier would just go with it.
Even more confusingly, the infrastructure plan will merge with the government’s Transport Masterplan due out in November.
Speaking in an interview to mark his first year in office, O’Farrell basically says he’ll do whatever Infrastructure NSW tells him to. It’s a fascinating insight. The man with the largest parliamentary majority in Australian history has taken all the power he has earned in a thumping election mandate and given it to others to make the decisions.
Asked if he was likely to adopt the Infrastructure NSW recommendations, the Premier says: “Not having seen the recommendations, absolutely.”
I put to him that perhaps he might want to overrule Infrastructure NSW. They, after all, are expected to recommend proceeding with the cheaper M5 duplication before the M4 East and he says: “Their report is made public and any variation from us has to be made public and presumably attract whatever political odium there is.
“Infrastructure NSW was specifically … about ensuring politicians didn’t put … scarce and critical infrastructure dollars into policies which suited them, and not the public.”
So is he saying he can’t be trusted as a politician to deliver the right outcome? “What I’ve said before the election was every government comes to power with a focus on the public interest, but the longer they stay in office, the more the politics takes over.”
And that would include you? “Absolutely.”
O’Farrell commissioned, as much as agreed to, a series of one-year anniversary interviews this week. His suspended communications director Peter Grimshaw contacted The Daily Telegraph, a day before his own scandal broke, suggesting the interview.
Things went pretty pear-shaped for Grimshaw after that. Leaked texts and emails from The Star casino work phone of his girlfriend, a former human resources manager at the casino, showed Grimshaw had enough spare time in the Premier’s office to conduct a vendetta against his ex-employer, The Star.
While many in government suggest Grimshaw should be permanently shown the door, his future rests on – you guessed it – an inquiry. Actually, three. One from the Director-General of Premier and Cabinet, one from the Liquor and Gaming Authority and one from ICAC.
Asked if Grimshaw will come back into his office, O’Farrell says: “That goes to how the various reports and reviews come out.”
He defends his handling of the issue by saying whatever Grimshaw’s views were they did not get the casino’s licence removed in a review by Gail Furness SC.
Considering the vendetta Grimshaw had against the casino for demoting him, is O’Farrell concerned the man known as “Grimmo” might “dish the dirt” on O’Farrell if he sacked him? “Good luck, my life is an open book, so the answer is no,” O’Farrell says.
It’s the standard question to a premier about how long Barry might want to stay in the job that elicits the most surprise from me. Before this interview, I had thought O’Farrell, who loves political history, would be all about staying in government – maybe even for three terms – to beat Bob Carr and Neville Wran’s records of 10 years in the job. But the Premier gives every indication he could pull the pin after six years.
“Well, we have an election in three years and one week’s time, all things being equal I expect to contest that election and presumably in that term I’ll then consider at some stage what happens in the next election,” he says.
“I’m not in the business of setting records, I’ll leave that to the Bob Carrs of this world. Nor do I want to be foreign minister, I hasten to add.”
When it comes to backing a successor, it’s his favourite, Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian, who gets the frontrunning when most pundits think the clear and obvious choice is Treasurer Mike Baird.
This seems yet another snub to Baird, born of Barry having worked as chief of staff to Baird’s father Bruce during the Greiner years. Barry started his term by taking half of Mike’s job off him and giving it to Finance Minister Greg Pearce, as well as putting Baird number 11 on the cabinet list.
“I think I’ve got a cabinet full of successors,” he says.
“There’s Gladys, there’s Mike, there’s Pru (Goward), there’s Greg (Smith) … there is no shortage of talent in the team and that’s a good thing.”
He says he didn’t mention Mike first because: “I’m an old-fashioned gentleman – I still open doors for women and still let women go through doors first.
“The good news is, in our party it’s ultimately not the leader who gets to choose who’s the leader – it’s the party room.”
And O’Farrell adds for good measure, the moment a leader goes all their power dissolves.
A former Liberal Party state director, O’Farrell views politics often through poll results. And they have been unquestionably good. But after 16 years of Labor scandal and inaction, and an opposition leader who seems more a caretaker than a serious contender in John Robertson, that hardly seems surprising.
If there’s one time you could argue you don’t have to worry about polls so much, it would appear to be now.
But it is the recent poll results which still show the Coalition ahead 64-36 which O’Farrell points to when he says appointing Nick Greiner as Infrastructure NSW boss was not a mistake.
In some respects, Greiner was a more effective opposition leader than Robertson last year.
The former Liberal premier caused O’Farrell much grief, urging him to abandon his caution and sell the $10-15 billion electricity poles and wires to pay for infrastructure – something O’Farrell failed to do because the Tamberlin inquiry he commissioned sat on the fence.
“I don’t think he created any political damage; that’s evidenced last week by (the) Newspoll,” O’Farrell says.
The business community has hoped until now that O’Farrell will change his mind and promise to sell off the asset at the 2015 election but there is none of that.
“I haven’t even thought about the next election, I’m too busy,” O’Farrell says.
Equally this week when The Daily Telegraph flagged a plan by Roads Minister Duncan Gay to charge tolls on the existing motorways to pay for the M4 East and M5 duplication, the Premier’s office encouraged Gay to step back from his comments.
The minister said in reaction to the story that any such changes would have to be taken to the 2015 election.
The Premier points to achievements with the planning work on the North West Rail Link, South West Rail Link, setting up the Public Service Commission, Infrastructure NSW, donations reform, disability reform, the planning review, and devolution of schools as highlights of his first year.
And his biggest mistake? An attempt to retrospectively cut the solar bonus from 60c per kilowatt hour to 40c, a decision he overturned.
One area where O’Farrell didn’t show his trademark caution was backing James Packer immediately over a plan to take over Grimshaw’s former employer The Star and set up a second casino.
The Premier explains: “On the less than handful of occasions I’ve seen James Packer in the past … he never made any secret of the fact that he’d like to extend his gaming operations into Sydney.
“Any premier who refuses to entertain or meet with people who suggest they are going to invest somewhere between $750 million and $1 billion dollars in the state shouldn’t be in the job.”
He predicts a tough budget in June but fails to promise more than the current public service job cuts target of 5000 over four years.
He says he has made real progress in western Sydney, in terms of upgrading local roads and other initiatives, but concedes there is more to do.
“We were never going to, and we never pretended we could, fix in one year or overnight what it had taken 16 years to bugger up in the state,” he concedes.
And then I try just one more time – which would he personally prefer; the M4 East or M5 duplication?
“I prefer to do what we said we’d do in opposition, which was to ask Infrastructure NSW for a 20-year infrastructure strategy based on what’s best for the state.”
And with that statement the cautious leader, with the political opportunity of a lifetime, cedes the power again to someone else’s hands.