There was a tide in the affairs of NSW that if taken at the flood in 1988, would have led on to fortune, but for Nick Greiner now is bound in shallows and miseries, for Ian Temby has said there is something rotten in the state of NSW.
At least Mr Greiner stood upon the order of his going rather than going at once, last Friday. That gave time for much reflection upon whether he had suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in being denied his day in court, or whether things without remedy should be without regard. What’s done is done.
Nicholas Frank Greiner was certainly not born great. He was born in Budapest in Hungary on April 27, 1947. He came to Australia with his parents shortly before his fourth birthday. He achieved his Bachelor of Economics from Sydney University and then a Master of Business Administration from Harvard. And had the Premiership thrust upon him by the people of NSW on March 19, 1988.
Nick Greiner has eschewed political extremes. Perhaps, his parents’ lives influenced him: his mother’s first husband was killed by the Nazis and the family lost its timber company to the communists. The communists held his father in Hungary for two years after young Nick and his mother escaped.
Greiner has always seen politics primarily as a question of economic management. That has been his strength and his weakness. He was elected as leader of the Liberal Party in 1983 after a series of indifferent leaders failed against Neville Wran.
In that respect greatness was thrust upon him. Wran retired and his replacement was the lack-lustre Barrie Unsworth. Thus Nick Greiner was inevitably elected.
He attempted to run NSW as an MBA from Harvard would: let the managers manage. It proved exceedingly effective in government business enterprises. The seven major ones achieved a 25 per cent increase in efficiency. In three years staff levels were cut by more than 18 per cent. His refused to let special interest groups get in the way of his early drive for efficiency, especially the Teachers’ Federation and the environment movement. There was no terror in their threats because Greiner was armed so strong in honesty.
But he had begun to sow the seeds of his own downfall. He seemed to expect people to accept his changes on their merits because they were more efficient or better for the state. He misunderstood the ability of pressure groups to sell the feathers of their own nests as things good for the whole community.
Early in his premiership he wanted constancy strong upon his side. Consistency was what the voters wanted. The trouble was some of his managers could not manage. He had to modify some of their decisions. He said the Government would look at compensation for Chelmsford victims, despite his minister ruling it out. He modified his minister’s defence of some lenient sentences. He chided his first education minister for not selling his policies and consulting with those affected.
Those could be forgiven as a new Premier learning that politics is more than economic management.
But early last year the economic manager turned politician. He had said no jobs for the boys. Greiner was different. So he appointed his wife to a $24,000 director’s job with Elcom. After the storm she had to forsake it, but the damage was done.
Did Greiner learn? No. In March last year he appointed his Minister for Minerals and Energy, Neil Pickard, (whose seat was lost in a redistribution) to the splendid job of NSW Agent-General in London. There were to be no jobs for the boys. Merit alone was to dictate appointments.
Earlier Greiner merely reneged on a philosophy of consistency to change some of his ministers’ statements for the better. This time he reneged on a personal promise to promote one of the boys. He ditched principle, not because it was flawed, but because it was inconvenient. It was a U-turn. And worse Greiner presented his U-turn as candour. Yes, I am changing my mind. The admission of sin, however, is not alone enough for absolution.
By now we are well in to Act III. He was writing his own script, and like the Bard was inserting things to be of great import in the last Act. After defending the Pickard appointment he was asked whether this would be the last political appointment. “I’d take each case on its merits,” he said.
He was true to his word. He took the Metherell case on its very considerable merit: the conversion of an Independent to a Liberal in the Parliament.
To be fair he was true to his word in other things. He fulfilled his promises on truth in sentencing, in pushing for a rationalisation of Federal-State powers and in asset sales.
More importantly, in Act I, he fulfilled promises to enact Freedom of Information legislation and to set up the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
He promised the latter in Opposition. He was determined to expose the corruption in public administration in the years of the previous government. Nothing like that, of course, would happen during his government: the efficient economic management of the state would not require back-room deals or political favours.
Thus he allowed the ICAC Act to contain an extraordinarily wide definition of corruption. The net was woven tight to ensure the wrong-doings of others did not slip through.
And what promises did he not deliver on? He did not stop the monorail, the harbour tunnel or the casino. Nor did he produce an Administrative Appeals Tribunal. However, the fulfilment of politicians’ promises does not guarantee good government; nor does their non-fulfilment ensure bad government.
It was said he was efficiency, not ideology driven. Up to a point that is true. However, he had strong views on nationality: migrants should learn English and Australia Day was Australia Day, not a long weekend. Economics became the ideology. He rejected bans on tobacco sponsorship and frequently put industry before environment.
Ironically, on the central issue of good economic management, Greiner turn out to be mediocre. Though far better than Victoria and South Australia, he ran his state into deficit (as much as $1 billion). He began to fund recurrent expenditure from debt. The public service is employing only marginally fewer people as in 1988, about 214,000 and the state’s debt has been cut only marginally to $20 billion. And taxes remain as high as ever. Of course, once his economic-management credentials fell away the raison d’etre for the early Greiner style fell away with it, leaving just another politician.
His promises were, as he then was, mighty; but his performance, as he is now, nothing.
The Liberals were expected to win the election in May last year, but their majority crumbled, and Mr Greiner relied on independents to govern. The position worsened with the resignation from the party of Terry Metherell in October.
It was then that Greiner appeared to lose the will to govern. He was forced into shabby methods like the attempt to over-rule the environment court’s ruling against logging in Chaelundi State Forest through regulation rather than legislation.
But in March this year he returned from a working holiday in Europe with a new vision. He would make the public service more user-friendly. He would make Sydney a better place by stinging people who wanted to drive to work. As he launched his new vision for NSW to the public, he was having private talks about getting Terry Metherell out of Parliament into a Public Service job.
It was a pity there was no Agent-Generalship to give. That would have been within the Premier’s direct power. A job in the Public Service required advertising and appointment on merit, under MBA philosophy and Greiner principle.
Greiner was not corrupt in the brown-paper-bag-sense. It was inevitable from the beginning that the whole deal would be public. It was not corruption in the sense that someone would get secret personal gain.
The Shakespearian irony runs deeper than Greiner just being caught in his own net, because the catching goes to the heart of Greiner’s character. His own net was cast much wider than previous nets to catch corruption. Previously the definition required an element of secrecy. However, the Metherell deal was wide open: it required a public appointment, a public resignation from Parliament and a public by-election. It required openness to succeed. And Greiner was caught by his own openness. Evidence of an open deal was so much easier to gather than that of a secret corrupt transaction.
After the hung election Greiner should have relinquished power; he would have got another chance later. His attempt to hang on it caused his downfall; and now there will not be another chance. Yesterday, Nick Greiner was deserted by his colleagues. Not because Greiner was a bad Premier, nor because they thought him corrupt, quite to the contrary. They deserted him so they could cling to power. Nick Greiner, BEc, MBA, learnt that politics is not just managing an economy.
Mr Greiner would have liked the Independents to seal up their mouths of outrage for a while till he could clear up the ambiguities. But he was not been given that chance. His play is done.