JOHN Robertson looked at the cameras with an expression resembling arrogance, appearing disdainful of the man standing on his right, the Premier, Nathan Rees, the man he helped to install in the top job.
The bunfight to fill two minor cabinet vacancies stretched over two months but, after finally achieving success in a caucus ballot, the former unions boss faced the media with Mr Rees yesterday. However, he did nothing to stem the turmoil when asked if he had aspirations to become premier.
“I’m happy to serve, and I’m honoured to serve in this Government,” he said.
Asked if that was a “yes or no” answer to aspirations to Mr Rees’s job, Mr Robertson said: “That’s my answer.”
By the afternoon, when the Herald called in for an interview with the new minister, Mr Rees’s press secretary, Korena Flanagan, was in his office.
The tune had changed.
“The fact is, it’s an absurd proposition. I’m in the upper house and I’ve got no interest. This bloke is the leader and … will be the leader all the way to the next election.”
Asked why he did not say the same thing in the morning, he said: “Well, quite frankly, it was the hype of the moment. As soon as I said it, I knew you’d be all over it. I’m in the wrong place, I’m in the upper house. You cannot be premier from the upper house and I have no aspirations at all.”
The elevation of Mr Robertson and Steve Whan was a great victory for the old Terrigals sub-faction led by Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi and a defeat for the faction led by the Health Minister, John Della Bosca, and anti-Obeid forces including the Trogs and the Macarthur Four faction.
It was also a loss for Mr Rees and Labor’s head office, who had appealed to Mr Obeid and Mr Whan for the latter to pull out of the contest in favour of Paul McLeay, the MP for Heathcote.
The Herald has confirmed Mr Rees did so as late as Wednesday night in a telephone call to Mr Whan, despite the Premier’s public protestations he was not backing a particular candidate.
Last night Mr Whan acknowledged having a conversation with Mr Rees, but declined to divulge the detail. Sources told the Herald Mr Rees was inquiring whether Mr Whan would accede to a head office request to pull out.
Portfolios will be announced today, and Mr Robertson is expected to be given the portfolio of emergency services and Mr Whan small business and regional development.
Mr Rees told a full caucus meeting – to a lukewarm reception – yesterday that it was time to put the party’s divisions behind it and get on with governing. Many MPs believe the divisions have just begun.
For Mr Robertson it is a case of one minute bringing down the former premier Morris Iemma over the electricity privatisation war in the party and a few months later being sworn into cabinet.
Yesterday he denied killing off Mr Iemma. “When it came to Morris I was not in the caucus; I didn’t get a vote. I have no axe to grind with Morris at all.”
He would not say whether he would seek a lower house seat at the next election. “Nathan Rees is the leader and he should be, and will remain, the leader until the next election. I am not going to get ahead of the next two years.”
A senior Right MP said there would be no split in the Right faction for now but many MPs remained “very worried” about the continuing influence and power of Mr Obeid and Mr Tripodi. HOW THEY VOTED
Each of the 49 MPs in the Right caucus cast two votes
John Robertson 34
Steve Whan 31
Paul McLeay 19
Tanya Gadiel 14