NSW Labor should be streets ahead of the Libs

Apr 3, 2020

Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s Coalition government is regarded by voters as being among the worst in living memory. So why isn’t Jodi McKay’s Parliamentary Labor Party in front by miles?

Jodi McKay, NSW Labor Leader, is a perfectly nice woman and is not responsible for the uninspiring state of her party. Its parlous state is the result of historical circumstances far beyond her control. She cannot possibly be held to account for decisions made and policies adopted before she was born in 1969 in Wellington, country NSW.

Nevertheless, in the eyes of many Labor members and supporters, Ms McKay is under-performing and letting the NSW Coalition off the hook. According to some, there is too much underhand cooperation and deal-making between Labor and the Liberals. They are more united against the Greens and the extra-parliamentary protest movements than against each other.

Now aged 50, Ms McKay has come to embody the “hollowed out” opportunism of NSW Labor and its MPs. Perhaps that is why she has never been fully accepted as party leader and regarded as a stopgap until something more substantial comes along.

Her relationship with the Labor Party has always been rocky. She was installed in the seat of Newcastle by Premier Morris Iemma in 2007. At the time of Premier Iemma’s “captain’s pick” Ms McKay was lined up to become the Liberal Party candidate for Port Stephens.

Her armchair ride into Labor’s ranks has typified her career. She became a Cabinet minister upon entering Parliament and was given the portfolios of Tourism and the Hunter. She lost her Newcastle seat in 2011 when Labor was routed by the Coalition after a truckload of scandals and corruption investigations.

In October 2014 the former TV journalist was installed as candidate for Strathfield in Sydney’s inner-west. Luke Foley, a former Labor NSW Leader, bizarrely promoted Ms McKay to his shadow Cabinet even before she was re-elected to Parliament.

He appointed her Planning Minister to keep the same number of women in his shadow ministry as he wanted to appease the party’s women’s lobby. John Faker, a hard-working local Labor man, criticised the “faceless men” who installed her in the seat and crushed his chances of becoming an MP.

McKay’s rise in ranking went into overdrive. She became shadow minister for Police and Roads, Maritime and Freight. At the March 2019 State Election she was re-elected and subsequently contested the Labor leadership against Kogarah MP Chris Minns. She won 58% of the Caucus vote (MPs) and 63% of the party membership vote. She became the eighth Labor Leader in 14 years following Bob Carr, Morris Iemma, Nathan Rees, Kristina Keneally, John Robertson, Luke Foley and Michael Daley.

One devoted Labor supporter told me in exasperation: “The current Labor bunch in State Parliament are ‘deadbeats, chancers, phoneys and losers’. There are exceptions, of course, more notable because they are so few.”

He continued: “The formula for party success has become just to say and do what is needed to obtain and retain a comfortable and rewarding position. When I say ‘hollowed out’, I mean that in terms of substance, integrity, policy and purpose.

“Jodi McKay’s initial physical impression in front of the cameras is OK, but there is just no substance, only lightweight words. Labor doesn’t need to get the gender balance right. Or the age balance. It fails the substance balance. The whole show now seems to exist only for insiders.”

I don’t agree with all of this Labor man’s criticism of Ms McKay and I wonder whether he would make the same severe critique of her if she was a bloke. Every politician, male, female or from the LGTB community, should be judged by the same standards.

On 24 March when NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman introduced his omnibus emergency Bill which was loaded against environmentalists and anti-mining protesters, Labor’s shadow ministers lined up to approve the legislation. Education spokesman Ryan Park set the tone when he said: “We will pass the legislation. The people of NSW expect us to behave ourselves in a spirit of bipartisanship, and that is what they will get. I look forward to working with  the government over what will be a very, very difficult few months.”

One by one other shadow ministers rose to make the same grovelling commitment. “We won’t rock the boat,” they said. “We’ll behave. We’ll assist the government as much as we can.”

Did anyone know that Speakman’s Bill scrapped local council elections that are due this year? No parliamentary debate, no public debate, no press coverage – local government elections were simply abolished for 2020.

What use is the Parliamentary Labor Party? It has not presented a single policy for the post-coronavirus pandemic era. Surely they can’t believe that the world will simple return to “normality” and it will be business as usual? It won’t happen.

They have no policy to tackle climate change, no policy to harness renewable energy to replace coal-fired power stations, no policy to boost the arts, science and education.

With Labor’s army of academics, intellectuals and policy-makers raring to help, surely it can’t be that hard?

Alex Mitchell is a former Sydney Sun-Herald State Political Editor whose commentary appears every Friday.

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