Michael Egan: A true ALP conservative

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. 

Just look at some of the Treasurers in NSW since Egan. Berejiklian. Perrottet. Mookhey (who?). Andrew bloody Constance. Matt Kean! Egan is starting to look like Churchill.

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.

TROOPER

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.

MOOKHEY

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.

QUIRKY

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

Paul Collits

NSW’s longest-serving Treasurer

MAIN PHOTOGRAPH: Micheal Egan. (courtesy The Guardian)

3 thoughts on “Michael Egan: A true ALP conservative

  1. From A Thesis by Paul E Loughnan at University of New England, Armidale – A History Of The Askin Government, an extract;

    The essence of the Askin corruption myth is that Askin patronised organised crime in Sydney from 1967-8 until he retired, and that he and Police Commissioner Hanson were each paid $100,000 per year to allow illegal casinos to operate uninterrupted. The allegations were made by a young journalist David Hickie and published in the National Times on 9 September 1981, the day before Askin’s funeral. The allegations were further embellished in Hickie’s book The Prince and the Premier. Hickie described his anonymous source as impeccable. As a result, the notion that Askin was a corrupt politician has become received wisdom.
    The emergence of the Askin corruption myth and the political environment and the circumstances that were conducive for it to be propagated have been examined and analysed. The evidence and the commentary over the past thirty two-years has been reassessed; this included an interview with Hickie and an interview with Bob Bottom, the investigative journalist who was instrumental in the establishment of the first Royal Commission into organised crime in NSW. Hickie’s anonymous impeccable source turned out to be Perce Galea who was a known criminal.
    There is no suggestion that Hickie harboured any doubt as to the integrity of his impeccable source; rather his lack of balanced scrutiny of the evidence was a result of his inexperience as a journalist. It is concluded that the allegations were based on innuendo, hearsay and uncorroborated allegations and that the evidence, particularly that of Hickie, is of poor quality and cannot be relied upon. Further research into the history of investigative journalism would add to the body of knowledge concerning the Askin
    Page 349
    corruption myth. Possibly decades into the future, when the libel laws no longer apply, a more forensic study might explain the motivation of the protagonists who propagated the myth. As it stands the Askin Government does not deserve to be shrouded in the legacy of the Askin corruption myth. The argument contained here is that the received wisdom is unfounded.
    The main focus of this dissertation was on Askin’s leadership. Although significant legislation was examined, it was in the context of the Askin Government.. Therefore an analysis into the degree to which the legislation reflected the wants and needs of the community with particular emphasis on social reforms was neglected. From a political science viewpoint, it would be worthwhile to analyse the legislative output of the Askin Government and compare its reforms with the previous 24 years under Labor. The schema used by David Clune in his doctoral thesis was developed by Burton and Drewry and modified by Helen Nelson for a study of federal and state legislative outputs. There were more than 800 pieces of legislation during Askin’s premiership and they would need to be categorised into machinery amendments and major policy initiatives.158
    Askin’s leadership was essential to the Coalition becoming a long-term government and not just a one-term novelty in a Labor state. His leadership was underpinned by his temperament and tactics. The study of Askin’s leadership through this prism has provided a more substantial understanding of his leadership success. The debunking of the Askin corruption myth presents a rational and reasonable assessment compared to the predominant received wisdom, that Askin was little more than a corrupt premier.

  2. It would be interesting to read the basis on which this comment was made – “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.”

    When the Wran led Opposition campaigned for the 1976 NSW State Election one of the main policies Neville Wran presented was to deliver new trains and buses if elected, ignoring that they were both ordered after a tender process was completed and delivery expected in the near future. Wran Labor also claimed that there had been corruption during the Liberal’s terms in office since 1965.

    But no acknowledgement of the deeply rooted corruption while Labor were in government for twenty years earlier – example NSW Police 21 Division, the late Roger Rogerson who dies in gaol recently and others an example, see the video series “Blue Murder”.

    I am aware of many of the rumours and that the Liberal Premier Sir Robin Askin was often accused of being corrupt, but was he? He was a keen horse racing follower and punter and he did like gambling at the illegal casinos operating for a very long time and well before election of the Liberal Government he led. I remember that the ABC and other media including the Sydney Morning Herald alleged corruption soon after Askin died but also that when pushed to produce evidence to back those claims none was forthcoming, even after the SMH asked for readers to send in information.

    The background stories are many and varied, the Askin Government inherited corruption and Labor did their best to pin it on the Liberals.

    However, I agree with the comments about Michael Egan, he was a good bloke.

    1. Regarding the former NSW Police Special Branch, I believe that the last most senior officer was the late Inspector Fred Longbottom and that he personally conducted an interview with people close to the Askin Government and was assured that the Labor corruption allegations were baseless.

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