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NEIL JAMESON: Tough lessons to learn

NSW Premier Mike BairdIt’s been quite an autumn for the Premier State’s premiers.
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Barry O’Farrell, not so much dumped as decanted, courtesy of the memory-eroding qualities of a ’59 Grange.

Bob Carr, memory weirdly intact and ego unbridled as he rolled out a ‘‘vivid diary’’ of his time as foreign minister.

Neville Wran, great mind lost to dementia, mortal remains laid to rest via a state funeral.

As we observe the ascent of a new premier, the collective qualities and failings of the above remind us what we’re entitled to expect from political leadership. For too long our clamour for vision and integrity have been drowned by the awful sound of snouts sunk deep in the trough.

Nothing rots democracy quite like corruption. Mike Baird, we need you to spit-roast the pigs and drain the trough. While you’re at it, lobotomise the lobbyists (to guarantee they’ll be telling the truth when they plead ‘‘memory loss’’), and banish any soft-bellied lawyers whining about the star-chamber qualities of the Independent Commission Against Corruption. If the ICAC is strong medicine, then keep pouring. It may be our only hope of restoring public faith in the political process.

Baird’s primary mentor will always be his father, Bruce, who distinguished himself in both the NSW and federal parliaments and contributed much to the national good in post-political life.

It’s encouraging to see Baird senior has already surrendered his lobbying role on behalf of the Tourism and Transport Forum. The past week has presented a stack of cheat sheets on what it takes to be an effective premier. Among the fine detail of the many tributes to Neville Wran reside the secrets of how to leave the joint in better shape than you found it.

The bloke they called Nifty Nev came from a time when blue collar’s best and brightest won places at selective schools like Fort Street Boys’ High, from where they graduated to the law faculty at Sydney University. The process promoted academic rigour, intellect and leadership, and it allowed a Balmain boy turned barrister to put his network and debating skill to work for the greater good.

The simple lesson, and it applies to both sides of politics, is pick your best from everyday life – not the political class.

Choose talent over time-servers, and (in Labor’s case) factional hacks.

It also helps if you can stick around.

Wran rose to power in the wake of the Dismissal. The folly and fall of the short-lived Whitlam government all but destroyed the Labor brand and left the party bereft of direction and leadership.

Wran learned from federal Labor’s self-destructive impatience. He knew that true reform worked best when rolled out over time. His 10 years as premier delivered Lotto, rate-pegging for councils, random breath-testing, the Land and Environment Court, liberalised homosexual laws, built the Sydney Entertainment Centre and Darling Harbour redevelopment, rejuvenated many heritage sites and created a network of national parks.

O’Farrell’s reign lasted three years and 20 days. He deserved longer. The irony was that he was hoisted with an ICAC petard of his own making. It beggars belief or, at best, smacks of staggering naivety, that he didn’t see that one coming. Bob Askin would have. After serving as Premier from 1965-75, the member for Collaroy died in 1981, leaving behind a multimillion dollar fortune that could not be explained by the size of his politician’s wage. The crafty shyster reckoned he was lucky on the punt. That Askin remained untouched by corruption investigators is a compelling argument for why ICAC should be a permanent fixture.

Street wisdom helps. Wran was born in Paddington when it was a slum, and raised in the working-class warren of old Balmain from where he paid his way through uni as a bookmaker’s runner for the Waterhouse clan. He majored in street smarts. Urbane in most instances, he could street brawl with the best. He was wily as a fox, but projected the wisdom of a kindly uncle. He could spot the urgers, coat-tuggers and opportunists.

Pity he didn’t foresee the creeping stain of Eddie Obeid. Once Wran was gone in 1986, Fast Eddie, who learned his rat cunning in the dusty streets of Matrite, north Lebanon and back alleys of Redfern, NSW, outsmarted them all.

Graham Richardson, the Labor powerbroker who Mark Latham credits with introducing Obeid to Parliament, is known for his incisive one-liners explaining the arcane ways of the political backroom. ‘‘Always back the horse called Self Interest,’’ he says, ‘‘you can be sure it will be trying the hardest.’’

Mike Baird should remember that advice as an argument for keeping ICAC firmly in place. What better way to frighten the shavings out of wayward pollies and public servants than by having the legal fraternity (who stand to profit greatly from an ongoing anti-corruption process) straining at the leash?

The great carrot of Self Interest working for the public good. Now, there’s a concept.

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