Thanks, Terry old mate. We couldn’t have got here without you. Imagine the state NSW would be in today if you hadn’t had your little dummy spit and tossed your toys (and us along with them) out of your pram. Would we be – as we once were - the Premier state in Australia? Maybe we’d be able to get to our place of work in under 90 minutes. Or I dunno – call me crazy, but I’d like to think we could take our kids to hospital and not feel like we’ve just walked into downtown Kosovo.
I like to think of Terry Metherell as our very own Gwyneth Paltrow. Not in looks, of course - I seem to remember Terry had the bland, inoffensive looks of an extra in Blue Heelers - but as a concept. Gwyneth, you may remember, found herself living two parallel lives after having hopped onto a train just as the doors were closing. (Warning: this sometimes triggers an unusual time warp effect, splitting your life into two versions.) In the film, we see the life Gwyneth was already leading – cheating boyfriend, dreary day-job etc, and then an altogether different version of her life – handsome fiance, cool job and so on. Two different lives courtesy of one split-second of indecision.
So let’s pop a blonde wig on Terry Metherell and see what alternative version of life awaits him – and us. The train-catching scenario is, of course, not credible in today’s NSW. If Terry now tried to brave some graffiti-ridden, garbage strewn platform in order to hop aboard a criminally under-funded train, a cancelled metro or a non-existent light railway he would find himself having to wait for a length of time beyond human endurance only to face a carriage bursting to overflowing when it finally arrived. So no sliding train doors for Terry. Maybe he could try and perform the same time warping trick by catching a commuter bus along Military Road. Heaven help him if he does.
So let’s just use our imaginations. Terry’s alternative life begins in 1991. It is a glorious Sunday morning, late in May. As the former Minister for Education in a recently returned Greiner-led minority Liberal government, Terry is in a good mood. OK, so his Education Reform Act wasn’t all that popular with the teachers, but it was a long-overdue and necessary piece of legislation. The door to the Premier’s office is swinging gently ajar. An invitation? Or a warning? Terry pauses. Unbeknown to him, inside that room only moments before, Premier Nick Greiner has decided to dump Terry Metherell from his front bench. No-one quite knows the real reason why, but this is NSW politics after all.
Terry hesitates for a split second. And then abruptly he goes in. As he does so, his – and our - futures split in two.
In version one of Terry’s future, he accepts his demotion with a disgruntled shrug of the shoulders and, mustering his dignity, withdraws to the backbenches like any sane demoted politician, content to concentrate on his golf swing and the odd lunch at Banq.
But in version two, Tezza throws one almighty tantrum. Hugely pissed off, he decides to embark upon a course of action that will have the most profoundly dire consequences for every single person living or about to live in New South Wales.
Firstly, he quits the government and becomes an Independent, thereby awarding himself Oakshottesque powers to hold his former colleagues - and the electorate - to ransom. Not content with that piece of mischievousness he then does a deal. Not any old deal, mind you, but a deal that (among the many exquisite ironies in this tale) is deemed sufficiently dubious that it sees both himself and the Premier hauled up before the very body they themselves have recently set up to fight assumed Labor corruption – the ICAC. The nature of the deal? In exchange for a cushy job with the Environmental Protection Agency, Tezza will stand down as an Independent to force a by-election that is a shoo-in for the Coalition, thereby restoring to the government the numbers the people of NSW had originally voted for.
Cut back to version one of our tale: Having perfected his swing, backbencher Metherell is now writing a fishing column for the Sunday Telegraph and enjoying doing the odd interview with polite, up-and-coming 2UE radio presenter Alan Jones. Unmarred by scandal, Greiner embarks on an ambitious long-term infrastructure program for NSW.
Meanwhile, in the suspense-filled version two, both Greiner and Metherell are forced to resign in disgrace. Despite winning the Olympics for Sydney, and jumping excitedly out of his chair, Nick’s hapless successor John Fahey is not wily enough to overcome the stench of the Greiner/Metherell scandal – despite the fact Greiner is belatedly found not guilty of any corrupt behavior whatsoever. Come May 1995, a new character enters the scene; an odd-looking individual with oversized ears and nerdy features who labours under the uninspiring name of Bob Carr. He wins government by one vote. And New South Wales will never be the same again.
Bob’s an ex-journalist, so he understands first hand how the press works. He immediately launches a ruthless era of manipulating the media that will end up contaminating not only state but federal politics too. Before long, sound policy no longer matters. Spin is king.
Quick cut to version one: Terry retires from the recently re-elected fourth Greiner government to “spend more time with his family” and enjoy the lucrative golden handshakes pollies receive from the public purse. Back in Macquarie Street, concerned about the states finances post the Olympics, and admiring of his colleague Jeff Kennett’s healthy balance sheet, Greiner decides to privatize the state’s electricity assets as his final achievement before retiring.
Back to version two: Emboldened by his mastery of the daily news cycle, and his coffers bloated by his brilliantly imaginative taxing of the late nineties Sydney property boom, Bob nonetheless ignores desperately needed funding of roads, hospitals and public transport. Questioned about the state’s ever-growing hospital waiting lists, Bob signs in blood a promise to resign if they don’t come down by half in 12 months. They don’t. He doesn’t.
Quick cut to version one: In belated recognition of the now widely-accepted success of his education reforms, Terry receives a gift of gratitude from the newly elected first female Premier of NSW, Kerry Chikarovski; front row tickets to watch Thorpie win Gold at Homebush. The press label it “When Kerry met Terry.”
Version two: Basking in the glory of the Olympics, Bob and his cronies decide NSW doesn’t need to invest in tourism promotion – or anything else for that matter – and set about ensuring their place in history by banning farmers from burning off on their own land and declaring half the state a national park - minus the funds to adequately maintain them. Scared off by the unions, Bob and co. shy away from selling the state’s electricity assets, and decide to leave that particularly thorny problem for someone else to take care of further down the track.
As the new millennium dawns, Terry in version one watches as his former colleagues capitalize on the success of the Olympics, swelling the government coffers as tourist numbers soar, thereby permitting the construction of more roads and hospitals. An Epping to Parramatta Rail Link is promised. And built.
Back in the action packed finale of version two, Terry has to visit hospital with a dodgy ticker. But he can’t get there by public transport. So he orders a cab. It takes forever through the clogged traffic and costs him an absolute fortune. Finally arriving, he learns the hospital ward was shut down six months ago anyway. Across town, with his media skills now honed to perfection and eagerly adopted by all of his Sussex street comrades, Bob retires to a cushy job at the millionaire’s bank, Macquarie. Eager to avoid the punishing NSW land taxes that he himself introduced, Bob and his wife purchase a stunning waterfront acreage to escape to - in New Zealand. Behind the scenes, intoxicated by the power of Spin, union bosses are keen to get rid of his anointed successor Morris, and replace him with someone more malleable. Nathan, perhaps? Or isn’t there someone pretty who’d look good on TV?
Cut back to version one: With NSW still benefiting from the healthiest economy outside the mining states, and the 2011 election approaching, Premier Chikarovski decides to hand the reins to her long-time deputy O’Farrell.
Version two: The attractive Kristina Keneally, struggling with the worst polls in history, in a state bloated by bureaucracy and burdened by taxes, weighed down by a staggering debt due largely to mismanagement and a string of broken promises, that relies primarily on speeding fines for funding, puts on a brave (and pretty) face as she goes to face the electorate.
Terry, what on earth were you thinking?
copyright Rowan Dean
Rowan Dean is a regular panelist on The Gruen Transfer and media consultant to Sydney Radio 2UE.