An American baseball coach once famously said, "It ain't over until it's over." You could say that of another frontline sport – politics. But even before the bell sounds on the New South Wales election on March 26, the result is as sure a thing as elections were in the old Soviet Union. Barry O'Farrell will be sworn in as Premier, Labor's parliamentary representation decimated, and its party machine will descend into the bitter civil warfare so characteristic in Australian politics of losing parties used to the comforts and privileges of power.
After sixteen years of Labor, what will this mean? I'll start with Barry O'Farrell.
I first met Barry O'Farrell when I was a Liberal MP and he was a young staffer in John Howard's office in the old Parliament House. Working with Howard in the strain, confusion, lows and highs of opposition and then tracking Howard's long political career, O'Farrell would have been struck as I and others were by the quality which more than any other got John Howard to the Prime Ministership : his endurance.
This is the Howard message to aspirant political leaders: no matter how bad things are, how personally wounding the political cycle, the derision of the media and your opponents, and the betrayals of your own political colleagues, if you really, really want office, stay with the game.
Barry O'Farrell was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in 1995, after a stint as State Director of the Liberal Party. In his time as State Director and then as an opposition member he had seen Liberal leaders come and go. His own ascent to the leadership of the Coalition parties in April 2007, was greeted with a mix of scepticism, derision and indifference. The Coalition seemed to have made of itself the permanent opposition, its performance woeful, its rotating leaderships a cartoonist's delight. O'Farrell, lacking the "charisma" so favoured by the electorate and lauded by the media, would just be another suit on the wrong side of the Speaker's chair.
It then seemed as if nothing would change. But things did change, and he endured, and events played into his hands.
Longevity in government can breed the fatal flaws of complacency, arrogance and recklessness. Incumbents come to believe in their own invincibility and non-accountability for personal conduct or public acts. Discipline erodes. Internal political rivalries and infighting become public. The façade of political unity, individual probity and good government cracks, and the political machine rots from the top down for all to see.
This is what has happened in New south Wales, laced with cronyism, corruption, and incompetence on a scale such that even our public, inured as we are to bad government, turned against Labor.
And so, Barry O'Farrell gets a dream political ride : the Opposition has had to do nothing but be there. But having won, then what?
Our state governments are in the business of raising money, spending it, and management. Think of a giant corporate conglomerate, the owner, manager or supervisor of last resort of a witches' brew of disparate, complex and changing investments and activities which compete among themselves for resources and power. Each is a fiefdom.
Road and rail systems. Courts, police, prisons, and emergency services. The supply and if necessary the rationing of gas, water and electricity to homes and businesses. Sewerage. Dams and desalination plants. Hospitals. City and urban planning. Docks, mines and museums. The environment, parks, sports grounds and nature reserves.
Safety rules for mines, building works, manufacturing businesses, road, rail and ferry systems,, domestic and public swimming pools. Licensing and licensing fees – for pubs, restaurants, cars, drivers, taxis, entertainment. Think about it: is there anything for which you don't need a licence these days?