by PAUL COLLITS – THE news came through this week that former NSW ALP Treasurer Michael Egan had passed away, in his mid-seventies, after a long illness.
Probably a blessed release, then, despite his youngish age.
I liked Michael Egan. He controlled NSW’s purse strings in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Unlike many of his Labor successors, or his boss Bob Carr, he wasn’t annoying. He was no Leftie, despite his earlier revolutionary period in the 1970s as a Whitlam Government staffer.
In fact, he was a bit of a neo-liberal in later political life, no doubt infected by the NSW Treasury. His successor, Michael Costa, as a result of whose ideologically-driven actions we no longer have trains to Lismore, was a real, out-there trooper for the free market, with a picture of Ronald Reagan on his office wall.
Michael Egan was nobody’s fool, as his later long service as Macquarie University’s Chancellor demonstrated.
He had an independent mind. No lightweight. One enjoyed his intelligence. A nice, polite man, to boot.
He was no thug, which was an achievement in a Party controlled by thugs like Graham “Richo” Richardson.
He didn’t feel the need to bang on, or even to talk, about his life as what we used to term a “confirmed bachelor”. A blessed low profile in these OTT gay times.
Having worked as a public servant on his watch, and spent many useless years (I will never get back) writing ministerial drafts for his ministerial signature, I occasionally saw him up close.
I loved the fact that he openly flouted the non-smoking rule in his offices.
Egan was also Minister for State Development. He once responded to a letter I had prepared for him.
“Great letter”, he said in response. His only change was to remove the one positive, specific comment I made on page three.
He wanted the letter to say absolutely nothing! Most of that letter was printed, verbatim, on the front page of the Grenfell Examiner!
I had been attempting, on the Minister’s behalf, to convince country people that the government in Sydney cared a jot about them. I guess I was collaborating in a decade long lie and I’m glad I got out.
Egan was no Paul Keating. A treasurer of substance, consequence and sublime style. But then, just look at some of the Treasurers in NSW since Egan.
Berejiklian. Perrottet. Daniel Mookhey (who?). Andrew bloody Constance. Matt Kean! Egan is starting to look like Churchill.
These are the good bits.
There is another view of his tenure. More sadly, he spent a decade of his life working in a useless neo-liberal, do-nothing government.
He came to worship the Triple A credit rating. I wonder if he lay in his death bed thinking, if only I could have been more neo-liberal.
That meant he and his government spent almost nothing in sixteen years.
Perceptive readers will know that I am no fan of big government. But State governments in Australia have one job, basically. That is to build infrastructure to keep up with population growth.
Egan’s boss, Carr, lamented endlessly the mass immigration that made “full Sydney” even fuller. All true. The one thing Carr got right.
But simply doing nothing has made Australia’s so-called “global city” an overpopulated slum. All for the Triple A credit rating.
Given that the whole world, run by central bankers, prints money we do not have, and whose governments spend like inebriated matelots, it was a heroic effort by one minor player in a relative backwater.
Even worse than this, Egan’s Treasury-driven sit-on-thy-hands approach to spending on infrastructure meant that his successors in government, the NSW Liberals, a truly corrupt, perverse lot who (inexplicably) ruled us for twelve long years, looked like champions for building new roads and train tracks.
They were lauded for doing what all State governments are meant to do. It means these repulsive people will have legacy they decidedly do not deserve. Egan’s fault.
For a bright guy, this was a major, defining career blunder. A legacy crusher, alas.
One thing Michael Egan did that probably no one else will mention; he finally saw the previously unfinished spires built at St Mary’s Cathedral.
Centuries after the original was constructed, incomplete. He does have a physical monument, after all. A magnificent one, at that.
One of Egan’s quirky, personal decisions was to rehabilitate his then media guy, Michael Coutts-Trotter, a reformed (and convicted) drug dealer.
Possibly the only convicted drug dealer in the history of the Western world to become head of a Premier’s Department.
Egan didn’t give a stuff what people thought of this. Good for him, in one way. Coutts-Trotter delivered a heartfelt, audibly emotional and very humorous commentary after Michael’s death.
The brief clip says a lot about the man (Egan) and his utter generosity. Not something one can assume in politics or life.
Ironically, perhaps, Coutts-Trotter (aka Mr Tanya Plibersek) is now the Secretary of the NSW Treasury.
The inevitably sympathetic Sydney Morning Herald summed up Egan’s achievement as “nine balanced budgets and an Olympics”.
The balanced budgets were a chimeric gain, and the Olympics, whose benefits for Sydney and NSSW were themselves illusory, had little to do with Michael Egan.
I don’t mean to be churlish, but his policy achievements were decidedly modest.
He received an honorary doctorate from Macquarie. And had a building named after him there.
For once, in these times of faux professorships and other assorted academic baubles for retired Lefties, richly deserved.
Rest in peace, Michael Egan. A truly good man.PC