NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance should be a politician at the top of his game. He is the steward of several large transformative infrastructure projects, and a former state Treasurer: all that, and not yet 45. In his current predicament he is more like someone at the top of that slow initial climb of a roller-coaster, just before plunging and being jerked this way and that before eventually being returned to where he started.Transport is one portfolio that resists nimble, blithe solutions. Decisions made 50 years ago limit the options available to decision-makers today, and those made today limit those going forward. This article gives a good summary of why the problems with Sydney's passenger rail system are so intractable and multi-dimensional; they also show why Constance, a politician largely focused on the current news cycle, is so badly placed to deal with them.History is a nightmare from which Andrew Constance is trying to awaken. No minister ever gets a blank slate and unlimited resources, yet Constance has no sense of historical continuum and his place within it: you can't appeal to him on that basis in the same way you can't argue with your cat about rugby league. For him, there is no history, and no future beyond the next news cycle or election, there is only now. Whether it's the tram tracks to Sydney's inner-west being of a different gauge to the proposed tram line through the inner-east, or arguments over proposed routes of tram and train lines that haven't been well managed, or now train timetabling that stretches human and physical resources beyond safe and sustainable usage - Constance isn't good at addressing issues with complex long-term causes and where the few options available are all controversial. The decision to hold a public contest to name a ferry and claim 'Ferry McFerryface' was the popular choice (even though it wasn't) shows some important political lessons, and not just the ones about lying:
- The UK contest in 2016 that would have named a government research vessel 'Boaty McBoatface' was a clear expression of contempt by those who voted against their government and political class. Constance's "captain's pick" in favour of 'Ferry McFerryface' shows that contempt returned in full measure, with interest.
- The contest overseen by Constance returned 'Ian Kiernan' as the popular choice for the ferry. Kiernan was a property developer and a recreational yachtsman who is best known for having founded Clean Up Australia. Unlike most property developers/yachtsmen, Kiernan was never beholden to the Liberals. He organised a broad, well-regarded social movement that is the envy of any political party. In the past, a Liberal Transport Minister might have gritted teeth and done a grip-and-grin with Kiernan in front of the new ferry bearing his name, but Constance has used the more basic tools of PR to deflect onto May Gibbs (there are those who admire this sort of thing, many of them journalists covering politics).
- Constance's attempts to raise the bogeyman of unionism are absurd. Previous leaders of the union covering train drivers, like Bernie Willingale or Michael Costa, were bloody-minded negotiators who happily inconvenienced the public at the slightest provocation. Constance can and does stick to a script, lacking the wit to realise that underlying assumptions have changed and confusing persistence with commitment. He is going to have more trouble going forward in that portfolio rather than less.
Constance has no experience of having to negotiate with workers to keep an enterprise running, and nor does he come from the IPA/CIS wing that militates against union privileges. The fact that the union was quickly shut down by the Fair Work Commission in its attempt to strike undercuts the scare campaign. De-fanging the union movement makes them look like benign workers' self-help societies. For a government focused on the future, with infrastructure projects and Gonski-level education funding, carrying on about unions is a throwback to an earlier time.NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is someone with a sense of history and future, and has set many of the directions within which Constance has to work. She has put him in a portfolio she knows well, and she backs him because she sympathises with the limits which he faces. There are, however, limits on her ability to indulge Constance indefinitely. There will be a state election on the last Saturday in March 2019, which means 2018 will be a year of clearing niggling controversies. Given that Constance is a fuckup ongoing source of controversy in a high-profile portfolio, he can't last as Transport Minister. She is loyal - she and Constance go back more than 20 years together - but she is not overly sentimental.The ongoing war within the NSW between the far right and the relative moderates means the right will be out for blood. They are not going to take on Berejiklian directly, and nor will they take on sitting federal MPs. Berejiklian will be able to toss them the severed head of Andrew Constance and appoint one of their mouth-breathers as Assistant Minister for Whatever. Factionalism aside, it is hard to see where Berejiklian will find someone with the requisite depth of skills and understanding to be a useful Transport Minister, unless she deprives another equally important and complex portfolio of its minister. There were rumours that he might switch to federal politics. Safe Liberal seats in NSW are largely held by his contemporaries, bar one - Warringah - but he doesn't have the political skills or momentum to knock off a former Prime Minister. Constance holds the state seat of Bega; I'll defer to others who know the politics of that area, but I note as Treasurer and now Transport Minister he hasn't been that successful in improving the road that holds that electorate together, the Princes Highway. Two federal electorates cover that area:
- Eden Monaro is increasingly safe for Labor due to demographic overspill from the ACT, and the formidable incumbent Mike Kelly.
- Gilmore is represented by the hapless Ann Sudmalis; if the Court of Disputed Returns found against Sudmalis, or if she trips over her own shoelaces again, it is entirely possible Constance would fly the Liberal flag (with Turnbull offering one of those Assistant Minister for Whatever roles). However, Gilmore is one of those seats standing between Labor and federal government. If the polls are as indicative as their sponsors hope, I don't fancy his chances.
This is not to say that Constance is finished altogether. He might make a solid Minister for Tourism, state or federal; those who thought more highly of him, including himself, have been shown up. People who like him and those who don't agree that he can be warm and engaging in person. When they concede that, his various political opponents should be forgiven by their respective bases. He was always going to graduate to one of those roles post-politics that involve lunching and golfing and opening doors for one's lunch/golf companions. It's just that the moment has arrived 15 or so years earlier than he might have planned. He is older than Nick Greiner, Nathan Rees, Kristina Keneally, Mike Baird, and Gladys Berejiklian when each became Premier; older than John Howard or Peter Costello when each became federal Treasurer. He doesn't have the sort of resume that makes the private sector create board seats for him (and aren't the boards of corporate Australia crying out for more mediocre white men). Sydney lacks Melbourne's parallel power structures of gentlemen's clubs and AFL clubs. The great political-class fantasy is that you can get into politics at a young age and bypass all those worker ants climbing the corporate ladder, landing some cushy all-care-no-responsibility corporate job that will take you through middle-to-old age. Yet, the very rhetoric of politics these days is that there are no free rides, no featherbedding, and everyone has to pull their weight. We see this in an age of mass sackings and insecure jobs, where CEO tenures last scarcely longer than fruit flies. Very few operatives who have made their careers in politics actually make it to the sunlit uplands of non-executive directorships. They bristle at the indignities of freelance consulting, only realising post-politics the nature of the "jobs jobs jobs!" they trumpeted while in office. They often seem to be unfulfilled somehow, hanging around party head office during election campaigns but contributing little, maybe sounded out occasionally by up-and-comers or journalists desperate for a "senior party source". If they're willing to delude themselves about their own careers, you can see why they do the same to gullible journalists and their dwindling audiences.