The big news out of last weekend’s State ALP conference is that Premier Nathan Rees has been given the power to appoint his own cabinet, no longer having factions force candidates upon him.
The move came as a surprise to conference delegates, with only a small clique of ALP members, including Rees, his chief of staff Graeme Wedderburn and General Secretary Matt Thistlethwaite, knowing of it beforehand. Emergency caucuses were called and while some dissented, the party overwhelmingly supported Rees, though they really had no choice. If the party failed to endorse Rees, it would have been an open admission of his impotency and he would have had no choice but to resign or see an ugly split.
Rees didn’t wait long to use his new power, moving swiftly to axe Finance Minister Joe Tripodi and Primary Industries Minister Ian Macdonald. Joe Tripodi was in the firing line due his unpopularity throughout the electorate, based on years of scandal. Macdonald was seen as a destabilising figure and an incompetent minister.
Using the cover of the sacking of high-profile ministers, Rees seized the opportunity to push out Parliamentary secretary Henry Tsang who proved inept in declaring political donations, despite backing him only three days ago.
Rees joins Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Queensland Premier Anna Bligh in having the power to appoint his own cabinet. However, like the Federal cabinet, the factional numbers in Rees’ ministry remain delicately balanced.
Tripodi, of the Right, and Macdonald, of the Left, were replaced by Heathcote MP Paul McLeay and Legislative Council President Peter Primrose, of the Right and the Left respectively. Though I’m sure it’s just a coincidence.
In the reshuffle that followed, McLeay was given Tripodi’s old portfolio of Ports and Waterways, Lands Minister Tony Kelly picked up Primary Industries and Primrose became Minister for Mineral Resources and Regulatory Reform.
Tripodi’s other portfolios were distributed between Kristina Keneally, who added Infrastructure to Planning and Police Minister Michael Daley who gained Finance.
Those last two changes are particularly interesting. Keneally and Daley are both close to Tripodi and favourites of his sub-faction of the Right. Given that Tripodi delivered the numbers to put Rees into the Premiership and has deflected attempts to remove him, there has been speculation that he will use his time on the backbench to do the numbers and depose the Premier. Giving Keneally and Daley the significant portfolios of Infrastructure and Finance could be seen as a move to placate their ambitions.
The simple fact is, that although Rees might have the power to appoint the cabinet he doesn’t have the power to appoint the Premier. So he can’t risk offending too many of those who put him in his position.
Labor sources have apparently confirmed moves to topple Rees in a backlash against his removal of right-wing stalwart Tripodi.
The anti-Rees groups in the party still have the problem of not having a candidate who can unite the various sub-factions and deliver the numbers, though there are moves afoot to pick a successor and rally around them.
Both moves, the centralisation of power and the removal of Joe Tripodi, were risky manoeuvres by Rees. He expects to be vindicated by a boost in the polls after showing his “decisive and strong” leadership. Unfortunately for Rees his woes extend far beyond electorally unpalatable Ministers. He might get a small boost from the recent display of party unity and the decision to ban donations from developers but I doubt it will be sustained.
In the immediate future Rees’ enemies might keep their heads down and nurse their wounds but if he fails to significantly recover in the polls they’ll be waiting with sharpened knives. And the list of enemies, now including John Della Bosca, Ian Macdonald, Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi, is growing.