The gap between spending announcements and “shovel-ready” projects can be very substantial in government. And according to NSW Right power-tsar Mark Arbib, his new role as the “political connection point for MPs looking for money for their electorates” puts him right at the centre of this process as the government unleashes a spending binge that even Gough Whitlam and his merry band of wide-lapel wearers would have been impressed with.
Arbib’s Parliamentary Secretary role has been something of a mystery to press gallery observers.
Some were more than a little confused because they’d been told (in some cases by sources very close to Mark) that he was to be the PM’s Parliamentary Secretary, potentially replacing incumbents Maxine McKew and Anthony Byrne.
That didn’t happen, but he did get a role answering to Rudd for government service delivery, which is certainly a wide-ranging brief, although arguably overlaps with the jobs of at least fifteen ministers.
So it appears that his focus will be on touring the nation on Rudd’s behalf and liaising with MP’s about what projects and monuments they might want erected in local schools and so on.
Arbib is a master of promoting his own achievements in the media and that could be used for good effect as the good news announcements flow like a mighty stream between now and election day.
The sensitive issue that Laura Tingle in the Financial Review touched on today though (probably deliberately to cause trouble) is the assertion that Arbib will be positioning himself as the PM’s eyes and ears and the backbench’s mouth.
Arbib is a senior figure from NSW and many other states like Queensland who have produced many of the MP’s that gave Kevin Rudd government don’t particularly want him to act as their spokesman. He’ll always prioritise his local powerbase in NSW, is their parochial view. Arbib’s friends have told VEXNEWS that he plans on a charm offensive taking him to visit many marginal MP’s seats where he will attempt to associate himself with the flowing funds and attempt to create an impression that he can deliver the loot or at least channel it to proposals of maximum political effect (sorry, community benefit). If this makes backbenchers in other states grateful to Mark and in effect extensions of his own NSW powerbase, this would not be an unfortunate by-product of Mark Arbib’s tireless travelling.
Equally, Rudd’s COS Alister Jordan is really the PM’s gatekeeper and his eyes and ears who works with him on an insanely close basis nearly 7 days a week. Jordan is a confident young man who is secure enough in his own position to not worry too much about who claims what. And he’s of course happy that the tricky and sound NSW operator is positioning himself as an ally of Rudd’s after so many NSW votes were with Beazley in the past leadership battles. It’s a welcome development as far as Team Rudd is concerned. But it’s a little silly to compare the daily interaction of a Gillard and Swan with PM Rudd with Mark Arbib’s, who while a powerful man in Sydney, would be lucky to get face-time with the PM more than once a month.
But perception of power can quickly become power and that’s a lesson Arbib and his spiritual successor Graham Richardson understood well. Richo had about the same clout as the Victorian Senator and Right numbers-man Robert Ray. But it was Richo you always heard about, he knew the value of boasting about his achievements to the Sydney press especially. This ultimately led to a brilliant book “Whatever it takes” and a radio show where he’d interview chum Rene Rivkin and a cast of colourful Sydney identities. Arbib is already going down that track perhaps, with a weekly column in the Sunday Telegraph and some hard work in promoting his activities in the press.
News Limited’s Glenn Milne is on the Arbib speed-dial it seems, in the Sunday Tele he wrote:
“You can’t help but hear the whisper of former NSW state secretary and now parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister,Mark Arbib, behind Rudd’s words.
Before fully committing to the Costello-as-leader counter strategy, Arbib and others in the Labor Party are watching what in the polling business is known as Turnbull’s “net dissatisfaction rating”. The headline out of the published polls is usually the approval rating of the respective leaders and the two-party preferred vote. But the “net dissatisfaction rating” is the figure which political professionals take notice.”
Arbib is certainly a political professional and his challenge will be to extend his political base beyond the former convict colony of NSW into the more genteel states. His strategy is simple yet could be highly effective: pretend to be closer to Rudd than he is, conjure up a myth in the style of Richo about what he can deliver in caucus and in terms of government outcomes, build up support in all corners of the country among marginal seat backbenchers, particularly any floaters in the Right and use that base to make a case with Rudd for his own rapid ministerial promotion ahead of other NSW chancers like Mike Kelly, Maxine McKew, Greg Combet and others.
By the standards of Sydney, this is a subtle approach. Others outside Sin-City see it as not very subtle at all. We believe it will probably work, showing that in Canberra it might be better to wield a sledgehammer than a croquet mallet.