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Walkin’ The Walk, Now Talk The Talk

By Daniel Brooks on August 3, 2011 in Other

On July 12 the O’Farrell government marked its first 100 days in charge of NSW. It is the first time for over 20 years that a Liberal government has marked its first 100 days following a change of government in NSW.

A government’s first 100 days in office has become a common checkpoint at which to measure post-election action against pre-election promises. The symbolic significance of the 100-day period comes from American president Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, whose first 100 days produced an incredible 15 pieces of major legislation in response to the calamity of the Great Depression. Whilst the 100-day mark is historically specific, its continuing usefulness comes from the underlying truth that new governments are generally more effective when they first take office, when the aura of victory is most powerful, and when their leadership is still fresh and new.

This remains the case for the O’Farrell government, whose first 100 days mirror the characteristics of the Premier himself: solid rather than stirring; and diligent more than dashing. For his part, Mr O’Farrell believes that the first days of his administration have been the most productive of any NSW government in modern history. This may be true. Paul Sheehan recently complimented Mr O’Farrell’s early record of action with a one word summary of his term: “Done”. It is certainly true that there have been some important early reforms: putting planning decisions back in the hands of local governments and rationalising payments for public servants who don’t work anymore, are standouts.

However, despite these achievements, the Premier is likely to receive a lukewarm response from NSW voters on his first 100 days. Why? For two reasons: first, because these actions have not directly addressed the most visible issues facing most NSW residents – particularly in all-important western Sydney – namely, stifling traffic congestion, soaring energy prices and entire suburbs of over-inflated house values; and second, because voters in NSW have unreasonably high expectations of what this government can immediately deliver. Taking these together, the biggest challenge of the first term of the O’Farrell government must be to successfully manage expectations. This is important politically as well as in terms of policy formation. NSW is in its current mess because planning and long-term vision has been non-existent since the Sydney Olympics. Successive Labor governments were far more intent on being seen to deliver results than on actually delivering them. What this produced was an unbroken downward spiral of piecemeal policy announcements and a succession of bandaid solutions.

Long-term planning is far more difficult because it is complicated and takes time. The media, and therefore the electorate, much prefer regular announcements. However, a weekly program of announcements drastically reduces the likelihood of proper consideration, cohesion and comprehensiveness. NSW is paying for a decade of this behaviour from its governments. The antidote to this, of course, is communication. In Mr O’Farrell’s case, it takes the form of properly explaining the extent of the problems, and the road to their solutions. The O’Farrell government must explain to NSW voters often and in the clearest terms that the solutions to a decade of neglect are not actionable overnight. Moreover, it must be stressed that it is not in NSW’s interest to rush another series of bandaid solutions.

The significance of the 100-day mark’s passing is that this government still has a great deal of goodwill at its disposal thanks to the torturous incompetence of its Labor predecessors; voters are willing it to succeed and will allow it some time. However, this time is now, and is fast running out. The longer that there is no concrete action and that expectations remain high, the greater the danger to the O’Farrell government. This is when government’s resort to bandaid solutions. Communication of these plans to the electorate and the management of its expectations have been inadequate so far; these must be the urgent priorities of the government’s next 100 days.