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The Original True Believer

Sydney Morning Herald,

1 September 2007

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John Della Bosca doesn't like talking to the media. The last time he ventured out he paid a high price for his candour . or was it indiscretion? Andrew Clennell writes.

The day before Paul Keating's surprise election win in 1993, John Della Bosca sent the then prime minister a fax to wish him good luck. "I'm confident of victory for the true believers," read the fax from the then general secretary of NSW Labor.

About 7.30 on election night, Della Bosca repeated the line in a telephone conversation with Keating after a series of results showed Labor was on the way to victory. "We just talked very casually . and I just said again it was a victory for the true believers," Della Bosca says.

It's now the stuff of legend that Keating got up just before 11.30pm and said: "This is the sweetest victory of all. This is a victory for the true believers" - to celebrate a win achieved primarily because of John Hewson's proposal to introduce a goods and services tax.

Della Bosca did not like talking to journalists as general secretary (he always says he favours "the Gough Whitlam aphorism, which is that a good machine runs silent") but one of his lines found a place in national political folklore.

Fast-forward seven years to 2000 and the dishevelled Della Bosca, who always looks like he doesn't know how to use an iron and is renowned for his lack of punctuality, had become a leading light in the Carr government.

As general secretary, he had helped deliver Bob Carr into office in 1995, and led the successful re-election campaign in 1999. He had entered Parliament at that election, became special minister of state to Carr and went straight onto the influential cabinet budget committee. He was running for the post of ALP national president and seemed destined to win the job. He even got the odd mention as a possible successor to Carr.

Enter Maxine McKew, who met Della Bosca in Phillip Street for an interview for her Bulletin column. Over lunch, accompanied by lemon, lime and bitters and water, the man referred to most as simply "Della" slipped over the GST as if it was a banana skin.

Speaking just a week after the introduction of the tax - which had helped Labor win in 1993 and which was a key plank for Labor's election prospects in 2001 - Della Bosca said most people would have a "so what?" reaction to the GST.

He betrayed the "rollback" policy of the then federal Labor leader, Kim Beazley, and actually said: "The fairest thing to do would be to reimpose the GST on food." The interview ended his chances of grabbing Labor's national presidency.

Even now, Della Bosca looks slightly pained when the subject is raised. One of his friends suggests he might have thought the conversation was off the record - which McKew steadfastly denies. But she says: "I thought he paid a bloody high price for it - too high a price for a moment of candour."

McKew thought at the time that Della Bosca might be leaking a change in federal ALP policy.

"Oh, look, I've said everything about this I intend to say. At the time there were a lot of issues and discussions about it. I've kind of let it go," Della Bosca says.

"The only thing that's important now in terms of Maxine's public life and my public life is that we're both very committed to making sure John Howard doesn't become prime minister . or the member for Bennelong after the next election."

Seven more years on and Della Bosca - after years largely in the background and the backrooms in portfolios such as commerce and finance - has emerged in a seriously front-line portfolio. Morris Iemma has given him education.

He admits there are significant problems in schools: "I'd have to say I feel the challenge to do better on school maintenance, there's no doubt about that, and we will be doing better."

Della Bosca still has the industrial relations portfolio - a manure sandwich of working with unions to keep public sector wage rises at 2.5 per cent, in line with targets set by the Premier and the Treasurer, Michael Costa. (The average rise over the past 10 years has been more than 4 per cent a year.)

One Labor figure says that Della Bosca's negotiating style is so effective he could go into a room with someone, cut off their fingers and they would leave feeling happy with him and bearing no grudges.

He will need all those negotiating skills - and more - to meet the wages target.

Carr's former chief of staff, Bruce Hawker, says Della Bosca is "becoming the social conscience of the Government", pointing to his recent work in the disability services portfolio, where he helped deliver new funding of more than $1 billion, and on his industrial relations campaigning. When told of the comment, the minister can't help but smile.

Della Bosca has an uncle who still works in the coalmines in Lithgow and several cousins who worked in the mines. He is familiar with human frailty and suffering after watching as a teenager his father's mental breakdown after splitting with Della Bosca's mother.

"Both my mum and dad are people with a social conscience so they tried to encourage me into that, as Belinda [his wife, Belinda Neal] and I try to with our kids where we can. I'd have to give the De La Salle brothers [where he attended school in Cronulla] some credit for that. A few of them I think instilled the values," Della Bosca says.

The chairman of the Disability Council of NSW, Andrew Buchanan, says he found Della Bosca a compassionate minister. He admits he is still waiting to see whether the Government will deliver on its disability package, with many of the commitments due in the latter years of this term of government. But he says Della Bosca really came to grips with the problems facing the disabled when, with Buchanan, he attended a meeting in Tweed Heads in February last year.

The meeting was with the parents of disabled children, who were acting as full-time carers. "He actually went into that meeting thinking, 'I'll meet the parents of disabled children and they'll be about the same age as me'," Buchanan says.

"He saw they were in their 60s, 70s and even 80s . He just sat and listened."

How's this for Labor dynasties: John Della Bosca's first job in politics was as a research officer for a senator, Kerry Sibraa. Belinda Neal replaced Sibraa in the Senate in 1994. Steve Hutchins, one of Della Bosca's old school friends, replaced Neal in the Senate in 1998. Della Bosca's chief of staff is now Sibraa's wife, Julie. And Neal, as well as being the preselected Labor candidate for the federal, Liberal-held, seat of Robertson, is now chief of staff to Della Bosca's friend, the Lands Minister, Tony Kelly.

All the jobs, says Della Bosca, were determined on "merit". "People form relationships - they meet through their work," he said. "I mean, how many journalists are married to other journalists? How many bank employees are married to other bank employees?

"That sequence you read out, I wouldn't go so far as to dismiss it as pure coincidence but . all those people did what they did on their merits at the time."

Della Bosca's relationship with Neal has been the subject of much whispering in Labor circles over the years. While many move to praise Della Bosca, few will lavish such praise on Neal. She is seen as a fiery character who can give her husband a tough time.

A year after the McKew interview, Della Bosca experienced more grief when Neal was attempting to run for Robertson in 2001. She had left the Senate in 1998 to run unsuccessfully for the seat.

Beazley persuaded Labor's national executive to endorse another local, Trish Moran, as the candidate to stem damage to the party after Neal, who lost the preselection 87 to 85, questioned an irregularity in the voting process.

One former senior government staffer says: "She's tough. She hasn't always shown a good temperament for politics. I think their relationship . was pretty tense for a while. She was frustrated . disappointed . His star has never really been falling."

But Della Bosca will not accept that his wife is liked much less than he is, or that she has become annoyed that her political career has not reached the same heights as his.

"You've been ringing people about me but I can give you a list of people that will probably say . all sorts of good things about Belinda," he says. "She is quite well regarded by a lot of people. She's certainly bright, able, all those sorts of things.

"The most important point you're sort of hinting at is somehow that's [her lack of political success] been a problem for me or a problem for her - no, I don't think so. We've got a 21-year marriage. It's been a good marriage. Like every marriage it's had its ups and downs but I think that kind of comment is unfair and untrue."

When Neal talks to the Herald she says she does not want to talk about her personal life. She says leaving the Senate allowed her to spend more time with her two sons and not spend years in Opposition.

She acknowledges that Robertson, with a margin of 6.9 per cent, will be a tough fight, but internal Labor polling is understood to show Labor is ahead in the seat.

She says of being described as fiery: "I haven't really heard people say that. Certainly I'm someone who has the courage of my convictions. I'm prepared to stand up [for them]. There's no point representing a seat and not having a . strong voice."

Hutchins has his own take on whether Neal has had any effect on Della Bosca's career: "The only woman who's ever affected his career is Maxine McKew."

Della Bosca's initiation into Labor politics came at De La Salle College Cronulla. Hutchins, his mate since the age of eight, had joined the party and fellow students such as Michael Forshaw and Michael Lee later became Labor MPs. Della Bosca joined Labor in 1973, at the age of 16. He says he decided to do so after seeing Whitlam speak at the "Cronulla picture theatre" in 1972.

Visiting De La Salle one day was Bob Carr, then an education officer for the Labor Council, who enrolled Della Bosca in a series of party workshops.

After school Della Bosca worked in a factory at Taren Point for a while, started an electrical apprenticeship and gave it up - "My great gift to occupational health and safety was not to pursue my electrical apprenticeship" - before becoming a staffer to Sibraa.

Carr says he still believes Della Bosca has the ability to switch from the Legislative Council to the Legislative Assembly and one day become premier, should he desire that.

But it seems Della Bosca's influence has waned under the Iemma regime. He does not control many numbers in the caucus, unlike the likes of Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi. Labor sources say the Premier occasionally privately questions whether he could have a slightly stronger work ethic. Della Bosca still sits on the cabinet budget committee and is in the inner circle of senior ministers, but other ministers, such as Costa and John Watkins, seem to get the ear of the Premier more often.

Another former Carr chief of staff, Graeme Wedderburn, foresaw a possible waning of influence for Della Bosca when there were talks in April and May 2003 about Carr moving to federal politics.

"When Bob and I and [Eric] Roozendaal were talking about whether going federal was in the best [interests of Bob and Labor] John knew he was talking against his own interests," Wedderburn says. "He'd always put the party's interests ahead of his own."

On federal election day this year Della Bosca will be watching the fortunes of both McKew and Neal closely. He will play his own important role in the campaign; he has been fighting a sustained campaign against the Howard Government's Work Choices, using NSW taxpayers' funds to do so.

"I say it as a bit of a joke sometimes - some people don't believe in God these days but with the industrial relations fight I just think 'This is the fight God made me for'," Della Bosca says. "Very few people I talk to want this vision of Australia . which is why I support Maxine McKew."

Dishevelled strategist focused on solutions

"More than any other individual, I owe becoming premier to Della Bosca," Bob Carr says. He rates John Della Bosca's performance as NSW Labor general secretary in 1991 and 1995 as nothing short of brilliant in helping the party make up ground when he says plenty were expecting a "Debnam-style" result from him as opposition leader in 1991.

Carr's former chief of staff Graeme Wedderburn goes as far as to say: "Of both sides of politics, he'd have to be regarded as one of the great political strategists of the last quarter century.

"You could spend a lot of money on polling or you could rely on Della and [former senior Carr staffer] David Britten's good instincts - I usually did the latter."

But the adulation for what is routinely described as a brilliant political mind makes almost no sense when you look at the dishevelled Della Bosca or hear him speak. He has a rambling, almost Kim Beazley-esque way of talking.

Bruce Hawker, another former chief of staff to Carr, recalls meetings involving Della Bosca where "he'd start off talking about a number of things and you'd think 'where is this going?' Through this process of distilling his thinking . you'd get down to the key message . in 1991 he talked about solutions, not promises."

One former staffer when Carr was opposition leader recalls a meeting when Della Bosca left with "baby vomit all down his back" after holding a young child.

"He was never a person who worried that much about his personal presentation."

The former minister Craig Knowles also praised Della Bosca's judgment, saying he was the "glue that held cabinet together" in the Carr years.

Where Della Bosca isn't comfortable is dealing with the media. In education that will be a challenge.

An old friend, Steve Hutchins, said an important aspect of Della Bosca's approach was that, to get a sense of the public mood, he would read Woman's Day and New Idea.

Carr rates Della Bosca's biggest achievements in the policy areas as reforming the Work Cover scheme, tort law reform and Green Slip third party insurance reform, which resulted in the provision of care for life to people badly injured in car accidents.

Della Bosca has often been reported to have ambitions as treasurer, but he tells the Herald he has wanted to be education minister since he came into Parliament.

"Education is the most important job I think that you can have . you have the best ability to impact on people's lives."

But the NSW Teachers Federation president, Maree O'Halloran, doesn't hold out much hope. "The constant change of ministers makes it very difficult for any systematic change," she says. "I hope he's going to fight in cabinet for more money in public education."

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