Chairman of Infrastructure NSW
Born in: Hungary
Home Town: Sydney
If there's one man who can really change the face of Sydney it's former Liberal premier Nick Greiner. As head of the newly-created Infrastructure NSW he looks set to drive all the state's most important decisions. And he's already giving his boss Bazza a hurry-up.
Last month he sent a public message to Premier O'Farrell to say the Liberal government absolutely has to raise $20 billion by privatising electricity, if the state is to build the new railway lines and hospitals it so desperately needs.
"It's obvious ... asset sales are ... unavoidable," Greiner told a business lunch, admitting he was already feeling "impatient" over the pace of reform.
Greiner's gripe elicited a shocked reaction from another former NSW premier, Kristina Keneally, who told The Power Index, "It raises questions of which premier really has the final say and which premier is really making the decisions about asset sales and infrastructure."
Having talked at length to Greiner we're pretty sure we know the answer. But we also believe it's a brave move by O'Farrell—and possibly a clever one—to give his predecessor so much power and responsibility. The Liberal government will be judged by whether it can fix Sydney's transport mess, and Greiner looks like he's the best man for this difficult job.
"I'm a leader and a doer," says Nick. "I don't want to sound immodest, but I'm the ideal person, the natural pick."
Perhaps it's a shame that he isn't premier. It would certainly make for more interesting times.
It was Greiner who introduced urban toll roads to Sydney back in the early 1990s and it was Greiner who pioneered private funding of public projects, which is just about the only way to get things built nowadays. He also chaired the construction company, Bilfinger Berger, which built the Cross-City Tunnel (losing a fortune), and has worked successfully across public and private sectors.
In a landscape littered with former premiers, Greiner has made easily the best transition to business, with Rothschild, Citigroup, Natwest, BAT, QBE and Coles Myer among the many household names he has helped to run. But that's partly because he was never a typical politician.
"It was an accident," he told The Power Index, "I would never have gone into politics if my father had let me run the family business. I had the choice of going to the timber company picnic or Liberal pre-selection for Bradfield, so I went to the pre-selection, and I didn't get in, but I thought, 'I quite like this'."
Greiner's father was a timber merchant in Hungary, whose business was seized by the Russian Communists after World War II and was thrown in jail. At the age of 8 months, young Nick was whisked out of the country to Vienna on his mother's Slovakian passport. Two years later, his father managed to escape from prison "at the second or third attempt" and joined them there. They came to Australia as wealthy refugees in 1951, when Nick was four. "You can imagine my views on asylum seekers are something to the left of Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott," he says with his trademark grin.
Greiner has since made millions of dollars on his own account, and is much in demand as a director, so why is he risking his reputation by re-entering public life? "I'm doing it because I want to help Sydney, which has dropped way behind Melbourne, and also behind Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide on many measures," he says.
Sydney's transport system is a shocker, says Greiner, because Labor did nothing for 15 years and spent $500 million on rail projects that got scrapped. "And those projects failed because the politicians and transport department decided to do things (like the metro) but never got Treasury and Planning onside."
Infrastructure NSW is designed to solve this problem by getting everyone to work together.
Greiner's board includes the NSW Treasury Secretary, the Director General of the Premier's Department, and the heads of Trade and Planning, plus John Howard's former chief of staff, Max Moore-Wilton and four other top people from the private sector, including champion networker David Gonski. Greiner hopes they will be able to thrash out plans to present to Cabinet, with Treasury and all major departments already on board.
O'Farrell has told The Power Index that he will accept the board's recommendations or "explain why not to parliament and the public".
If it all goes to plan, Infrastructure NSW will effectively bypass the normal political process and "create some angst" among public servants, ministers and politicians. But Greiner is not one bit concerned. "Our job is to give the government independent advice," he says, "and we will be fearless in doing so. There are a lot of risk-averse people in politics. We need to be pushing hard. Barry can do the politics."
That, of course, is where it might all come unstuck. If O'Farrell can't get it through parliament or sell it to the electorate, Greiner's plans might just gather dust. But Old Nick won't go down without a fight.
"Nick's new role takes him into all departments, and he doesn't hesitate to take on ministers and bureaucrats," observes Liberal powerbroker Michael Photios, adding, "He's very active in the party and very active in government."
"There's a power vacuum at the moment, and Greiner will fill it," says former premier Kristina Keneally. "He knows how to run an agency, work the system and push an agenda."
Greiner is already suggesting that parts of the NSW rail network should be privatized, and arguing that Sydney needs a congestion charge. But he also wants to talk about the future of the city. You can't build good infrastructure, he says, without deciding how you plan the city, how people work and where they live: "If you want everyone to have a backyard they'll soon be living in Bathurst".
Greiner thinks it's good to have "people with hard-edged views" front-running the government, and is adamant that O'Farrell knows what he's let himself in for. "Barry's very brave and courageous. He's willing to give up some control to get a better result," he says.
Certainly, the former premier won't be holding back if he feels the need to embarrass the current premier with more public statements. "Maybe twice a year," he muses. "Only rarely, but hopefully, well timed."
Not surprisingly, some are already asking whether Greiner sees himself as leader again. "There is no way in the world I want to do that or be that," he told the Power Index, before admitting that he "would be a better premier" than he was 20 years ago.
So what has he learnt since he was voted out in the early 1990s? "I think I've mellowed compared to the brash 39-year-old I was when I became Premier," he says. "But I'm not mellow," he adds, "I'm relatively impatient".
So, can he get results? He's hoping to have light rail into Randwick within 3 years, and the North West Rail Link built in 8 years. It's a big ask. Let's see whether he can deliver.