When John Robertson emerged from caucus in March 2011, elected unopposed as the new leader of the NSW Labor Party, many of the party faithful let out a collective sigh of disappointment. Perceptions of Robertson were that he was emblematic of the nepotistic, factional culture of the NSW Labor Party that had consigned them to opposition just weeks earlier.
Robertson was a trade union official who had used his extensive network of connections to push his way into the NSW upper house, then to parachute himself into one of the few remaining safe Labor seats in NSW. With his broad accent, bald crown and a swiftness to perspire; Robertson neatly fit the caricature of the unattractive faceless man , pulling the strings from behind the scene and his ascension to the party leadership was welcomed accordingly.
When news emerged that he had authored a letter on behalf of Martin Place gunman Man Haron Monis many felt that their antipathy towards Robertson had been vindicated. The letter was held out as a tangible example of Robertson’s lack of judgement, his associating with undesirables and general untrustworthiness. But the letter was just a pretext, Robertson has been chopped down because he was performing poorly in the polls and some of his colleagues labour under the delusion that their own political abilities are such that if they were leader the NSW Labor Party would be on track for victory in four months.
Robertson, like Brendan Nelson before him, is a victim of coming to the leadership at the wrong point in the electoral cycle. They both were faced with the unenviable task of trying to unseat figures who had just been elected off the back of flamboyant crusades against cronyism. When the new governments set about clamping down on corruption, profligacy and jobs for the boys the poor opposition leaders were boxed into a corner, faced with either supporting the government or defending the indefensible.
After failing to make in roads into the government’s lead, Nelson brought on a leadership spill after less than 12 months and was narrowly defeated by Malcolm Turnbull, but Robertson fought on. First for a year, then two, then three. While the press and the general public largely ignored him, the Member for Blacktown kept plugging away with greater energy and enthusiasm than was ever demonstrated by Kristina Kenneally or Nathan Rees. To the very few people that were prepared to listen he would talk incessantly about his new plans and mechanisms for stamping corruption and nepotism out of the NSW Labor, how as a lifelong union man he was angry on a personal level by the misappropriation of funds by the HSU. He was setting up third party committees, the membership of which would be determined by arms length adjudicators; everything was going to be transparent and above board. Slowly but surely Robertson was repairing the party to the point where it was a once again a plausible party of government in NSW.
In 2013 the O’Farrell government’s lustre began to peel away and Robertson began to close the gap from the historical lows that Labor had attained under Keneally. A roaring victory in the Miranda by-election suggested that Robertson had –to a degree –cleansed Labor of the odious stench left behind by the Obeids, the MacDonalds and the Roozendaals. In 2014 the resignation of Premier O’Farrell and a string of other MPs over ICAC findings saw hope and optimism return to the party room for the first time since Morris Iemma was Premier. But with it came the burden of expectations and Robertson’s more ambitious colleagues began to envision glory in leading their party to the 2015 election.
A Newspoll slump in late 2014 sealed it for Robertson. It might have been a honeymoon period for the incoming Premier Mike Baird, it might have just been a rogue poll but it left the Opposition Leader exposed and highly vulnerable. While his colleagues in Victoria were celebrating unseating a first term government(albeit with a swing of less than three percent), Robertson appeared to be losing ground from a losing position. For the scavengers in the NSW Right, they just needed a circuit breaker as a pretext to remove the flagging Opposition Leader.
Nobody seriously believes that Robertson would be a worse Premier because he wrote a letter on behalf of someone who committed a crime several years down the track, but the scandal came at a time when he was wholly and utterly defenceless. Even an over the top, sensationalised nothing story like the Monis letter was enough to bring on a confidence motion.
And that was the way of it for John Robertson. Having spent most of his life as a factional apparatchik, he spent the last three and a half years working relentless to restore his party to a position of competitiveness. For three and a half years he endured all manner of mockery and criticism with an easy going grin and continued about his business. Contrary to the reports that he was en route for an electoral shellacking, the polling trajectory had him narrowly getting pipped by Baird after having taken over the leadership of a party on the brink of oblivion four years earlier. Now, his career in parliamentary politics is all but over, disqualified from the race within sight of the finishing line. It’s brutal, but then Robertson was equally brutal in the role he played in the assassinations of Morris Iemma and Nathan Rees.
But it’s unfair to portray his leadership as disastrous. It was bland and uninspiring. Perhaps someone like Carmel Tebbutt could have put a little more pressure on the government and narrowed the gap to 53-47 by now but Robertson was not a train wreck! To claim he was would be very unfair.