Barry O’Farrell got one thing right in the lead-up to the NSW election – he stopped his Coalition team-mates from making a lot of big promises that they’d inevitably have to back away from once they were elected.

Of course, the lack of policy detail has come under attack. The Labor Party ran a scare campaign, warning voters that the Coalition had a reason for concealing its policies, and cautioning them not to give O’Farrell a "blank cheque” in the form of a massive parliamentary majority.

And former Coalition leader Peter Debnam – who is not recontesting his seat of Vaucluse – chimed in, questioning O’Farrell’s strategy in running a small-target campaign. But O’Farrell shrugs off the criticisms. His vision, he says, is for an honest, stable government that works competently in the interests of the people in the state.

And that, quite frankly, is probably about as good a vision statement as one can possibly expect from a future political leader.

Gone are the days when politicians could win office by making grandiose promises of new hospitals, schools and transport systems, and then could go off and borrow money to fund these opulent schemes. The global financial crisis put an end to all that.

At the same time, rapidly ageing populations means that governments around the world are faced with rising health, pensions and aged care costs, while the number of taxpaying workers is declining. And with public sector finances fraying, investors are showing an increasing reluctance to lend to big-spending governments.

Increasingly, the biggest challenge that politicians now face is to work out ways to manage their existing resources better. This requires them to devise strategies that enable them to improve the quality of government service, while spending even less money. And they also have to take the tough decision to scrap policies and services that they simply can’t afford.

The battle to improve public sector finances inevitably brings politicians into conflict with powerful union interests. In the United States, a slew of states are laying off staff, and trying to whittle back public servants’ pension entitlements.

In the case of NSW, O’Farrell will have to take on the unions, particularly the teachers, if he wants to boost productivity levels in the public sector. Interestingly, NSW was achieving – and publishing – huge gains in public sector productivity up until about a decade ago. But the numbers mysteriously stopped being published in 2003. The reason? Productivity levels had begun to slide.  

Efficiency is also improved by handing back a lot of decision-making power to local schools and hospitals. Under 16 years of Labor government, decision-making has become highly centralised. But O’Farrell will have to reverse this trend and allow hospital and school boards to have a greater role in hiring staff, and deciding how to allocate their resources.

He’ll also have to find cost-effective ways of improving public transport. For instance, Sydney’s abysmal public transport system could be improved by increasing the number of articulated (bendy) buses, and introducing clear bus-only lanes. And, with the state’s finances under pressure, we’re likely to see an increase in the number of major new infrastructure projects where the private sector role is given responsibility for financing and construction, in exchange for charging users a fee or toll.

In recent years, the rapid turnover of ministers combined with the tendency to award high-paying sinecures to Labor mates has sapped morale in the senior ranks of the NSW public service.

O’Farrell needs to take urgent steps to remedy this. Along with his cabinet team, he needs to set out clear strategic objectives. Senior public servants should be in little doubt as to their performance targets. What’s more, ministers should regularly review whether or not they are meeting their objectives.

Through the election campaign, O’Farrell has shown good sense. He knows that voters are deeply cynical about big spending promises from politicians. Instead, they’d prefer governments that are honest, stable and well-managed.

The big test now – both for O’Farrell and his Coalition team – is whether they can deliver.

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Considering O'Farrell would not support the sale of the various electricity assets when Bob Carr was premier, I really don't have much faith in the guy (See Raining on O'Farrell's parade, March 25).
I suppose the only saving grace is that he'd have to be really bad to be worse than the government we currently have. Yet I fear he will unleash the Christian conservatives in his party – and won't that make Fred Nile a happy camper.
A good article, except for the idea of introducing bus-only lanes to improve transport (See Raining on O'Farrell's parade, March 25).
That is one of the worst things that can be done to improve transport around Sydney. Closing off general traffic lanes and making dedicated bus lanes is one of the biggest reason there is so much traffic congestion in Sydney today. Sounds to me like an RTA policy rather than a proper traffic management/improvement policy.
O'Farrell should start right there and get rid of two thirds of the RTA – especially the policy makers implementing bus lanes, bike lanes and speed cameras – and put people in place who genuinely want to improve traffic flow, not people who want to do the reverse and then plead for higher budgets next year as the problems are getting worse!
The Labor Party could be right in saying Barry has a reason for not making big promises. That reason would be that he has to rectify Labor party's huge debts before any promises can be met (See Raining on O'Farrell's parade, March 25).
Just a theory, but could it be that increasing centralisation is a response to demands that governments take responsibility for every element of public sector performance – which includes the cost of providing unprecedented levels of public accountability? These demands wouldn't have come from the champions of smaller government by any chance? It seems the converse, increasing regionalisation and devolution of responsibility for decision making about services, is a strategy to shift responsibility for performance on to community based bodies – your school and hospital board – and away from government. Who you gonna blame now? (See Raining on O'Farrell's parade, March 25.)
Well, in this new paradigm, government is well above explaining performance in grade three spelling or time waiting to stitch that cut or for the train. Now it just sets the policy – "everything is local" –and having shifted the goal posts, sits on the sideline and points.
But if you're not responsible, what role are you playing? Is the Tea Party right? Close government departments (and dispense with expensive ministers for this and that – big breath everyone) and demand the regions and the communities and the individual service delivery units (that would be hospitals and schools and police stations, to you and me) get on with it. And if at that level they can't cut it, well it is their fault – and so the blame game goes.
And into the bargain comes Maley's suggestions on how to do it better. Well ,back to the future we go – Brisbane's Lord Mayor Campbell Newman closed the bus-only lanes that his predecessor introduced for Coronation Drive. To improve traffic flow! And he tried public-private partnerships for toll tunnels. And when the Clem 7 tunnel failed, he triumphantly announced that the city had got cheap infrastructure on the back of that failure and the shareholders. How do you like them "make decisions local" apples? O'Farrell could try both of these, but he'll get away with them just the once, I would guess.
Excellent article (See Raining on O'Farrell's parade, March 25). Difficult to see how honest, stable government that works competently in the interests of the people in the state is not a policy. It certainly would be a change.
Barry O'O'Farrell doesn't actually need to carve deeply into the front-line public service headcount (See Raining on O'Farrell's parade, March 25).
Each public sector employee ought to be asked to write down what they actually do for the taxpayers of NSW. There will be a lot of job descriptions that encompass "oversight", "formulating policy", "reviewing" and similar non-activites. This is the reason why government has become constipated and difficult (to be polite) to deal with.
There are simply too many "invented" jobs that don't do anything. My favourite remains the Country Rail Infrastructure Authority, whose role is apparently to own (but not manage) the rail lines that have been leased to ARTC. There's a whole quango that does nothing except exist and incur cost.
As for the introduction of bus lanes, which city do you reside in, Karen? Not only do we already have bus lanes, we even have entire bus-only carriageways in the west and north-west.