There is no doubt that Nick Greiner was one of the best premiers of any Australian state in the second half of the twentieth century.
The New South Wales Government he led from 1988 to 1992 introduced a range of worthwhile reforms in areas including financial management, industrial relations and education, as well as beginning to privatise some state-owned assets.
Greiner was clearly more principled than the average politician. His new biographer Ian Hancock describes how, at times, Greiner was so blasé about the political consequences of his reforms that he even alarmed some Treasury officials. Yet, while Greiner was principled, he made it clear that he ‘wasn’t an ideologue in the Thatcher sense’ and rebuffed attempts by journalists to categorise him as a supporter of ‘small government.’ Greiner was what some might call a principled pragmatist. In the jargon of the 1980s, he could be considered an ‘economic rationalist,’ but with different motivations to many others to whom that description was applied. Soon after he became Opposition Leader in 1983, Greiner appointed Gary Sturgess to his staff. In Quadrant that year, Sturgess explained the difference between himself as a libertarian, bringing a rights-based philosophy to the consideration of policy and those, like Greiner, who were ‘consequentialists.’ The latter group may have come to many of the same policy conclusions, but did so because they could see practical benefits.
In many ways, Greiner’s outlook is summed up by the title of his 1990 Deakin Lecture ‘Australian Liberalism in a Post-Ideological Age’, a title with a touch of the Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ about it. In that lecture, Greiner referred to laissez-faire as a ‘silly dogma’ and argued that liberalism needed to remain ‘largely non-ideological’. On the other hand, he also made it clear that he was opposed to populism, as exhibited by his predecessors from both side of the political divide, Bob Askin and Neville Wran.
Greiner saw government as akin to a corporation and described himself as the Managing Director of NSW Inc. Hancock describes how the experience of doing an MBA at Harvard made Greiner receptive to ‘managerialism’. Introducing this practice delivered benefits such as making government departments focus on outputs, rather than process, but it also had some misguided aspects. Greiner followed the example of the Cain Labor government in Victoria by creating a Senior Executive Service within the public service. There are undoubtedly examples where SES level public servants have increased the quality of the public service, but the biggest legacy of the change is that public services around the country have become top-heavy with highly paid bureaucrats, whose contribution to the public good is probably no greater than their more humbly paid predecessors.
There were definitely practical benefits to many other Greiner reforms with reduced debt and significant efficiencies in government trading enterprises. The very fact that Greiner initiated a commission of audit and then after three years had a review to assess how the government had performed against the audit was itself a level of accountability that had been sorely missing until then. While pursuing industrial relations reform, Greiner also recognised that vested interests lurked in plenty of places outside the trade union movement and hence attempted measures like the deregulation of conveyancing to break the lawyer-monopoly.
In the period when Greiner was premier, one of the best chances for significant reform of the Australian Federation came along as Labor prime minister Bob Hawke pushed for a New Federalism. Being neither a strident supporter of states’ rights nor a centralist, Greiner was able to bring an open mind to this debate and worked well with Hawke. Hancock rightfully devotes a whole chapter to New Federalism and regards it as the best hope for a more rational model of Commonwealth-state relations. Unfortunately, New Federalism became a victim of the leadership contest between Hawke and Paul Keating, as the latter used the process as a stick with which to beat the former.
On social policy, Greiner was an instinctive liberal, for instance he supported Neville Wran’s 1984 private member’s bill to decriminalise homosexuality, not, as Wran argued, to bring the law in line with contemporary standards, but because ‘he saw the existing law as wrong in principle, irrespective of time and context.’ Greiner opposed there being ‘some common morality enforced by the State,’ instead arguing that there should be ‘mutual tolerance of different moralities.’
Another important aspect of the Greiner legacy was the new approach he adopted to campaigning, bypassing the Liberal Party organisation and using his own hand-picked team. One can have some sympathy for his view that there were some underperformers in the organisation, while still seeing that there were grave risks in having your campaign run by a group of fifteen, only two of whom were party members. A classic of the genre of the non-party type was Ian Kortlang, who may have brought military precision to aspects of Greiner’s campaign, but showed that he lacked some political smarts with his role in the dumping of John Howard as federal leader in 1989.
In the end, Greiner’s own downfall came from an aggregation of poor political decisions. He allowed his wife to be put forward as a director of Elcom, the government-owned electricity retailer; he appointed another MP, whose seat was abolished in a redistribution, as agent general to London and, above all, he called an early election. There are many analogies with Jeff Kennett and the 1999 Victorian election. In both cases, the poor result was not a result of policy rejection, but poor politics, with a premier making too many decisions that looked arrogant. Presented with a hung parliament, Greiner was able to successfully negotiate with independents and continue in government—unlike Kennett.
However, worse was to come post-election through the person of Terry Metherell. Metherell had been forced to quit Cabinet in 1990 when charged by the Tax Office with failing to declare interest on a lump of assessable income. He had expected to be reinstated after the 1991 election, but Greiner did not do so. A few months later, Metherell spat the dummy and announced he would become an independent. Given the hung nature of the parliament this was highly inconvenient, so a couple of former colleagues and continuing friends of Metherell came up with the idea that he might resign his safe seat in exchange for a senior role in the public service.
Amazingly, this hare-brained scheme was sanctioned by Greiner, and once announced, unsurprisingly died a pretty quick death in the court of public opinion. The problem for Greiner was that this was not the only pseudo-court he had to consider.
As part of his plan to differentiate himself from the previous Labor government, Greiner had set up the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). Its head, Ian Temby QC, decided to investigate Greiner. He found Greiner guilty of corruption, a finding which was later overturned, but by then Greiner had been forced to resign.
The best question about the ICAC decision was asked by the Independent who was most supportive of Greiner, Tamworth MP Tony Windsor. Windsor wondered if ‘given the Temby decision, had he, Windsor, been guilty of corrupt conduct in using his position to secure concessions from the Greiner government?’ It is clear that if the ICAC ruling was consistently applied then no MP would be able to claim a political win by bringing services or infrastructure to their electorate at the expense of another. Maybe Temby was onto something!
Hancock is a generally sympathetic biographer, although he certainly recognises faults in his subject, as indeed does the subject himself who participated in many interviews with the author. The book is called ‘a political biography,’ but it has a significant amount of personal material. There is much about the influence of his family and how certain Hungarian influences remained in an overall assimilationist environment.
When this book is added to his earlier work on John Gorton, Hancock must now be considered in the first rank of Australian political biographers. There is so much dross written about politics that it is a delight to read a book by an author who combines detailed research with an understanding of politics and tells his story in a logical chronological narrative. Not only does Hancock deserve praise, but so do the Public Policy Institute of Australian Catholic University and Connor Court Publishing for their Government, Policy and Politics series of which this forms a part. Nick Greiner: A Political Biography will be hard to beat as the best Australian political book of 2013.