Inside Story

The man who would be premier

Barry O’Farrell reached the NSW Liberal leadership by an unconventional route, writes Brett Evans

Brett Evans 16 February 2011 2309 words

Barry O’Farrell (above) says he’s reformed the worst excesses of the NSW Liberal Party’s factionalism.
AAP Image/ Dean Lewins

THE former premier of Queensland, Wayne Goss, once declared that the voters of his state were “sitting on their verandas with baseball bats” waiting for Paul Keating to call the 1996 federal election. In 2011 the voters of New South Wales might be described as waiting on their front steps for Labor’s Kristina Keneally with their chainsaws revving.

If this week’s Nielsen poll were replicated on election day, Labor would see its numbers slashed, in a lower house of ninety-three seats, from its current contingent of fifty MPs to just thirteen. Other signs for Labor are equally unpropitious. Over the past several months, some twenty-two Labor members of parliament have heard the Black and Deckers revving, sniffed the petrol on the breeze, and decided not to recontest their seats at the next election.

And the man set to benefit from this impending Macquarie Street Chainsaw Massacre is, of course, the NSW Liberal leader Barry O’Farrell.

Since the last state election in 2007 Labor has given electors in New South Wales a myriad of reasons to vote them out. It has churned through three premiers in four years, torn itself apart over electricity privatisation and offered up a soap opera of scandals. In the meantime, the traffic congestion in Sydney gets worse, public transport and public hospitals don’t seem to get any better, and the voters have pretty much given up listening. Kristina Keneally – the woman parachuted into the premier’s office to save Labor – is now less popular than the man she replaced, Nathan Rees.

Since becoming leader of the opposition in April 2007 it has been Barry O’Farrell’s job to surf this growing wave of anti-Labor discontent. He’s been well ahead in the polls since 2008 and victory seems all but assured. What is at stake now is the size of the winning margin. Will Labor be utterly crushed or merely defeated?

To this end, Premier-in-Waiting O’Farrell has adopted the tried and tested strategy of opposition leaders fighting unpopular incumbents everywhere. He has presented himself as an undersized, cuddly target and sympathised with the voters’ outrage every time another government-inspired fiasco breaks in the media.

As a career politician O’Farrell understands the long-term benefit of routing Labor’s most powerful branch at the polls. Labor has held government in New South Wales for fifty-two of the last seventy years. Only two of O’Farrell’s predecessors as Liberal leader – Bob Askin and Nick Greiner – ever won government from opposition. If he wins big – really big – O’Farrell can cement the Coalition in office for a very lengthy period. He doesn’t just want Labor on the ropes; he wants them carried out on a stretcher.

Yet despite O’Farrell’s almost four years in the job, the electorate still does not have a strong image of the man who would be premier.

BARRY Robert O’Farrell is a little late arriving for our interview in the Liberal party room at Parliament House, and politely apologises. He’s a big, genial man who – famously – used to be quite a bit bigger. He was once derided by his crueller opponents as “Fatty O’Barrell”’ – but not anymore. A lot of hard work in the gym has left him looking positively svelte.

We sit down at the shadow cabinet table and, with the portraits of Liberal Party leaders of yesteryear looking down on us, I ask him if he thinks he has a personal biography that might appeal to the voters. He downplays the idea at first, but then proceeds to tell his life story as a parable of opportunities grasped, hard work rewarded and public service rendered – as if these thoughts had just occurred to him.

O’Farrell represents the heartland Liberal seat of Ku-ring-gai on Sydney’s middle-class North Shore. He lives in sedate and verdant Roseville with his wife and two sons and plays the role of Australian suburbanite with convincing ease. He is a conventional man with conventional tastes and interests, but he has travelled a slightly unconventional road to his present position.

For a start, the man most likely to be the next premier of New South Wales is a Victorian. He was born in Melbourne in 1959 into an army family with a strong Irish-Catholic heritage. As an “army brat” the young Barry moved around a bit, spending many of his formative years in the Northern Territory, where he finished his secondary schooling at Darwin’s St John’s College, the city’s only Catholic high school for boys. Darwin in the early 1970s was a “frontier town,” O’Farrell is proud to recall, and “incredibly multicultural.”

Unlike the vast majority of Australians of his generation O’Farrell had the chance to meet, and be schooled with, Aboriginal kids “who lived almost semi-traditional lifestyles when they went home.” When he moved south to attend the Australian National University in the late 1970s he chose courses in history, politics and Aboriginal studies.

It’s an intellectual legacy that probably puts him on the left of his party on Indigenous policy. “I think we do need to acknowledge that this was, is, and will always be Aboriginal land,” he argues. “We need to acknowledge that there was dispossession, but we also need to acknowledge that, whether we like it or not, or care to admit it or not, European settlement of this country developed it, and largely… created opportunities for all.”

Also a bit unconventionally for a Liberal leader, O’Farrell holds a warm regard for one of his old teachers at ANU: the controversial historian and one-time hero of the left, the late Manning Clark. “He was a significant figure in the teaching of Australian history,” he says. “I don’t profess to understand the man himself, [or] the controversy that seems to have surrounded him in terms of his political views, but he was fantastic at unlocking and making Australian history interesting.”

O’Farrell came to the Liberal Party relatively late. He was never a Young Liberal and never ran for office at university as a Liberal candidate, but when he finally made a commitment to the party he found the vehicle for his talents and interests. Bar a few months as a federal public servant, he has made his living climbing the greasy – and sometimes barbed – pole of Liberal Party politics. He even married into politics: his wife Rosemary is the daughter of a former federal National Party MP, Bruce Cowan.

O’Farrell started off working in the office of the South Australian Liberal senator Tony Messner. Then in 1985 he became a staffer for John Howard, who was federal opposition leader at the time. In 1988 he moved to Sydney to become chief of staff to NSW MP Bruce Baird; four years later he defeated a young bloke called Tony Abbott to become the state director of the NSW Liberal Party. After failing at one preselection battle, O’Farrell eventually entered state parliament in 1995, first in Bruce Baird’s old seat of Northcutt, which he held until it was abolished in a redistribution in 1999, and since then in Ku-ring-gai.

As a state parliamentarian O’Farrell has supped on the thin gruel of opposition for fifteen long years. And he’s taken from the experience two important lessons: first, disunity is death – an obvious creed in politics, but one surprisingly hard to live by – and second, to win it helps to appeal to voters beyond your base.

He sometimes jokes that watching Labor govern is like having the world’s longest tutorial on bad government. But this is pure revisionism. For much of the past decade and a half the Liberals in New South Wales were their own worst enemy: “a writhing snake pit” of factionalism, as O’Farrell himself once described it. When I ask him what most offends him about the Labor government, his judgement is swift: “It’s their self-obsession.” He could be talking about his own party in years gone by.

The NSW Liberals have always had their share of factional strife. O’Farrell is unaligned but that hasn’t stopped him working for the granddaddy of the right, John Howard, and later for Bruce Baird, a stalwart of the party’s left (known as the Group).

These factional divisions can be both personally nasty and politically counterproductive. In 2005 the leadership of John Brogden – a man long associated with the party’s left – was torn apart when reports surfaced that he had made offensive comments and acted boorishly at a function hosted by the Australian Hotels Association. In the aftermath of these revelations Brogden attempted to take his own life. Some – including Brogden himself – have argued that the media leaks were orchestrated by his factional enemies within the party.

O’Farrell was, and still is, close to Brogden – he was at the hospital on the night of his friend’s suicide attempt – and many expected him to seek the top job in the wake of the crisis. But he didn’t. “I stepped away from running for leader because I knew I couldn’t unite the party,” he explains, “And without unity – which I place enormous importance on – we had no chance of winning.” Instead, the right’s preferred candidate, Peter Debnam, became the leader and Labor scraped home at the 2007 election by a handful of seats.

Now that he occupies the position of leader, O’Farrell says he’s reformed the worst excesses of the party’s factionalism – and he probably has. The Liberal Party is traditionally a leader’s party: if the leader is popular, if the leader delivers government, then the leader is pretty much unassailable and gets what he or she wants.

In August 2008 O’Farrell put his growing authority within the party to the test. The Labor Caucus was deeply divided over the privatisation of the electricity industry and the then premier, Morris Iemma, thought he could rely upon O’Farrell to supply the necessary numbers on the floor of parliament to get the proposal through. After all, wasn’t privatisation part of the Liberal Party’s DNA? But the wily O’Farrell refused to back the plan. The sale never went ahead, much to the annoyance of the business community, large parts of the media and many in his own party.

O’Farrell remained serenely unperturbed. His opponents were more divided than ever. The state’s Labor voters had one less reason not to vote for him. And, he argued, the decision was in the best traditions of the Liberal Party.

“Menzies,” he told me, “had never heard of privatisation. It’s not about ownership but competition, that’s how you get economic efficiency.” It was also the sort of clever, effective politics that Menzies – a leader not known for giving his Labor opponents an even break – might have appreciated as well.

O’Farrell plays the game of going after Labor’s base very well. Apart from his genuine views on Indigenous policy and his occasional kind words for Labor heroes like Manning Clark, O’Farrell has also criticised John Howard’s Work Choices policy, opposed the publishing of school league tables and argued in favour of a strong role for government in the economy.

The man who would be premier is playing a long game. If he wins, O’Farrell tells me, he would like to be known as the “infrastructure premier.” To this end, he wants to establish a body called Infrastructure NSW – “which would have a twenty-year strategy, broken into five-year chunks.” It’s a big ambition, and to achieve it O’Farrell must win big at the coming election.

THREE questions hang over the prospect of an O’Farrell premiership. Is he wily enough? Is he tough enough? And has he got enough experience? The burden of expectation will weigh heavily on his shoulders. The people of New South Wales want better transport, fewer congested roads, shorter hospital waiting lists and transparent planning decisions; but most of all they want competent government. O’Farrell will inherit a mess of problems with no easy solutions. And perhaps the real and lasting legacy of Labor’s ineptitude in government over the past four years will be a thoroughly alienated electorate, with a very low tolerance for excuses.

New South Wales has fixed election dates. O’Farrell has known since the first day of his leadership that his destiny would be decided on 26 March 2011. For almost four years he’s been preparing for this day of reckoning. He’s up at five every morning. By 5.30 he’s in the gym, working hard to keep his weight in check. The rest of the day is a blur of meetings and media appointments. He’s rarely home for dinner. At night the books by his bedside – currently Roland Perry’s Changi Brownlow – get less and less attention. And when, as widely predicted, he becomes the premier of Australia’s largest state, it will all get a lot harder. •