Dear NSW Liberals and your media mates: judge not lest ye be judged!

Let me begin this post with a sad, potentially very sad, story which turned out to have a happy ending.

A 13 year old boy, tragically bereaved of his father, turns to illicit drugs, develops the disability of herion addiction and, whilst still a minor, becomes ensnared in trafficking. At 19 he is arrested and goes to jail for just under three years.

Then, after serving his time, he finds the inner strength to completely turn his life around. He recovers from his disability and goes to university where he earns both a degree and the love and respect of a very admirable woman. Eventually he becomes both a very successful and highly regarded public administrator, and a father to two small children who sets a shining example to other men through his engagement with his kids and his sharing of domestic duties with his partner.

The man in the story is Michael Coutts-Trotter, who has been appointed Director-General of the NSW Education Department. His appointment has been controversial for two reasons, only one of which can be regarded with any respect. There has been some discussion about whether his qualifications specifically in relation to education are better than those of some others who might have been appointed to the position. I make no comment on this matter other than noting (a) that it is a legitimate issue for debate and (b) that it is not this issue which has attracted the attention of the NSW Liberal Party and its bloviator mates such as Gerard Henderson. The NSW Liberals & Co. are equalled only by their US Republican compatriots in the dark art of trawling the lower depths of the human soul in the quest for political advantage, and so they have made an issue of the tragic teenage past which Michael Coutts-Trotter has transcended in his adult life. According to Henderson:

Well, everyone is entitled to make good on their past and so is Mr Coutts Trotter. But, the question is whether you should put someone who has a conviction for drug trafficking as head of the Education Department, and I think that’s most unwise. I mean, Alan Bond has done his time, but I don’t think anyone would make Alan Bond head of the Treasury Department… I think, on this occasion, the Iemma Government in New South Wales has crossed the line of acceptability. It’s unacceptable to appoint someone with a drug conviction as head of the Education Department. It is unacceptable to appoint someone who has an allegation of domestic violence to the ministry as was the case with Paul Gibson.

There are a number of points to be made in response to this sort of thing.

1. We should be deeply disturbed that Australia’s most prominent Liberal-aligned intellectual can’t see the difference between an orphaned teenager who goes amiss in tragic circumstances and then develops a psychiatric disability from which he subsequently recovers and builds an exemplary life for himself, and grown men who, when in positions of responsibility, knowingly and wilfully commit gross crimes of dishonesty and/or violence.

2. The authentic Christians among us will be disturbed that the Conspicuous Christians of the NSW Liberal Right have such an idiosyncratic interpretation of Christian morality. There is the preccupation with enforcing the secondary Christian virtues in relation to the “sex, drugs and rock & roll” suite of issues whilst blithely disregarding the primary Christian virtues of love, charity, social responsibility and non-violence as they apply to issues like the IR laws, global warming, the war in Iraq, welfare “reform”, indigenous rights, refugees, etc. And then there is the most un-Christian judgementalism of their treatment of Mr. Coutts-Trotter, the presumption of the right to damn the man for all time, and the rejection of the central Christian focus on the capacity of all human beings for redemption.

3. Once again we see the monumental intellectual inconsistency and moral hypocrisy of mainstream conservative opinion on the issue of drugs. The biggest, most destructive, illicit drug trade in Australia is not heroin, ice or ecstasy. It is the sale of alcohol to under-age and intoxicated purchasers. It has been estimated that half the liquor sold in the United States is sold to under-age or intoxicated patrons. As statistics show that Australians hit the stuff harder than Americans, it is plausible to suggest that the than half the liquor sold in Australia is sold to, and more than half the money made from its sale is taken from, intoxicated and under-age customers. Are the grown men and women who ply this trade held in the same execration as hapless teenage smack pushers? If Michael Coutts-Trotter were a publican who took a very liberal view of what constitutes intoxication and who was a poor judge of people’s ages, or was the CEO of a brewery or distillery, would the NSW Liberals be demanding he be banned for life from holding public office? More likely they’d be fawning over him in the hope of a five- or six-figure donation to party coffers.

4. Finally, this case once again calls for us to think hard about the way we think about substance dependence and those of us and our fellow citizens who suffer from this disability. Conventional morality (including religious morality) regards excessive consumption of, and addiction to, intoxicants as a moral failing to be denounced, rather than (as I have cast it here) a disability or a health problem to be addressed rationally by medical and psychiatric science and by well-designed public policy. However, certain kinds of substance misuse and addiction are rife amongst the conventionally and religiously moral. (I am reminded of the night in December 1994 when a friend and I had to rescue a paralytic Catholic hospital chaplain from staggering under the wheels of traffic in a busy inner-Brisbane thoroughfare, and then half-carry him to the hospital to spend the night as a patient.) This means that many of the conventionally and religiously moral have a bad case of guilty conscience about their own weakness for booze, fags, pills or whatever, and this unresolved guilt is then projected censoriously and unforgivingly onto those whose “sin” of substance addiction takes (or, in Michael Coutts-Trotter’s case, took) an unconventional form such as shooting smack. If we were to all get into the habit of thinking of substance dependencies as disabilities or illnesses to be treated, rather than sins to be (selectively) condemned, the debate about drugs and their consequences, and how public policy should attempt to deal with them, would benefit greatly. And there would be one less sleazy nook in the lower depths of our souls for the NSW Liberals and US Republicans to plumb in their quest for political advantage.

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Posted in Disability, Federal Elections, health, Howardia, media, politics, religion, State/Territory Elections
31 comments on “Dear NSW Liberals and your media mates: judge not lest ye be judged!
  1. Rebecca says:

    I think people are missing the point entirely on Coutts-Trotter. He is unfit to hold the office, not because of all of this, but because he’s a political appointee. Coutts-Trotter’s main qualifications for the job are being a former chief-of-staff to a Labor pollie and being the husband of Tanya Plibersek. I very seriously doubt that was the best candidate they could find.

  2. patrickg says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with your post, Paul, and with your point that alcohol is one of the most destructive drugs in use in Australia.


    As statistics show that Australians hit the stuff harder than Americans, it is plausible to suggest that the than half the liquor sold in Australia is sold to, and more than half the money made from its sale is taken from, intoxicated and under-age customers.

    This is a very misleading statement. You know very well that the age limit restriction in the United States is twenty-one, three years higher than Australia’s. The age limit has a huge impact on underage drinking.

    I’m not trying to downplay Australia’s large under-age drinking problems, both its ubiquity and the quantity consumed by under-age drinkers, and the amount of liquor sold to intoxicated patrons (though to my [limited] knowledge there is no real hard data about this in Australia).

    But, it’s a misleading half-truth, and I don’t think you need it to make a strong argument in this case.

  3. Chris says:

    In the media coverage that I saw, it was more the education union who really getting into Coutts-Trotter rather than the liberals. In fact the liberals opposition seemed rather muted and they concentrated more on his experience rather than his criminal record.

    I found it quite concerning that one education union spokesman was claiming that he was a bad role model for students, whereas if anything I thought he would have been a great example to students that if they do get into trouble, its not the end of the world for them. What is the real reason they are so opposed to him?

    Similar to Rebecca, I think that the aspect that should be most closely looked at is whether or not his appointment is just one of those “jobs for the boys” rather than on his experience and capabilities and not his criminal past (which is a long time ago).

  4. observa says:

    Personally I don’t have a problem with political appointments to run key Depts and get things done the way the incumbents want them, but they have to be prepared to wear the scrutiny like politicians too.

    Generally the Libs are right to question the background of political appointees. Streuth my 20 yr old daughter needs a police clearance to coach school netball, as do so many who are involved with kids nowadays. How does Mr Coutts-Trotter pass this sort of muster? However Paul’s right that given his age of offending, the circumstances and subsequent performance, the Libs are barking up the wrong tree in this particular case. It’s called political judgement.

  5. Kim says:

    Excellent post, Paul.

    Re – political appointee – I don’t think clearcut judgements like this can be made. Australian public services have become much more politicised for almost two decades – the “Washminster” model – where DGs and Secretaries of Departments effectively hold office at political pleasure (similar to what goes on in Washington). We should debate that, rather than assume that someone who’s been a political staffer is unqualified for the policy and managerial functions of the head of a department. The “jobs for the boys” angle is pretty simplistic when you think about it.

  6. Spiros says:

    “Coutts-Trotter’s main qualifications for the job are being a former chief-of-staff to a Labor pollie and being the husband of Tanya Plibersek.”

    Actually, his main qualifications for the job are that he successfully ran the Department of Commerce in the NSW Government for the past two years.

    Having succeeded in this job he was promoted to running a bigger and more important department.

    The fact that he is married to Tanya Plibersek was neither here nor there. If anything, it might have counted against him, since she is in the Left faction, and the ministers who decided Coutts Trotter’s career advancement (Egan, Costa, Della Bosca and Iemma) are all in the Right.

    All the jobs-for-the-boys conspiracy theorists and the shock-horror-he’s-a-convicted-criminal moralisers should stop and think that perhaps there is a simple explanation for Coutts Trotter’s appointment: he is a highly skilled public service manager.

  7. Antonio says:


    Your post is quite strawman in its attack. I wasn’t aware that Coutts-Trotter was being attacked by the NSW Liberals on the grounds of breaching standards of Christian morality etc. Given that, why the heavy reference in your post to “redemption” and other such theological myths? Sure the NSW Libs have a few crazy Christians, but I wasn’t aware that theology was part of their attack on Coutts-Trotter! No point bringing religion into a debate unnecessarily – isn’t that what we secularists believe?

    Secondly, the narrative rhetoric about Coutts-Trotter’s life is irrelevant. Without reading his psychologist/psychiatrist’s file, I believe it is highly inappropriate for anyone to speculate on exactly why C-T turned to drugs in the first place or eventually how he was “redeemed”. Stories about the abandonment of a father etc are speculative and irrelevant here. We have to be alert to the potential for any “life story” to be rhetorically manipulated for sympathy or enmity. The way that Paul assembled C-T’s biography was highly charged with an intent to elicit empathy. I remain unconvinced of how such accounts (on either side of the argument) are relevant or necessary to this case of employment suitability.

    Finally, the relationship with Plibersek is concerning and this is the angle I would be querying the appointment. I could care less C-T’s prior conviction vis a vis his employment. However the principle of a public service seen to be at arm’s length from the government of the day is a crucial one which I believe is compromised in this case.

  8. Antonio says:


    How do you know that C-T ran the Department of Commerce in NSW competently? Can you please produce some quantifiable evidence of his improvement to the Department?

    Two years as an HOD is actually a fairly short time. It is possible that he may not be being promoted as much as being pushed out.

  9. Spiros says:


    I was responding to Rebecca’s comment that his main qualifications for the job were that he was Egan’s chief of staff and that he is married to Plibersek. Clearly that is not so. His main qualification is that he ran another department.

    Did he run the DoC competently? Dunno. I haven’t seen his performance evaluations. Have you?

    But I think the presumption has to be that he did. Education is an extremely politically sensitive portfolio and the department of education is extremely hard to run. Iemma would have to be nuts to put a dud into that job. If it was just a matter of finding a job for a mate, there are plenty of ways to do that. If he wanted to push him out, he could’ve made him chairman of the bee-keepers board.

    Iemma doesn’t want education to blow up in his face. He might even want to make some meaningful reforms. He needs someone good running the department, and he knows it.

  10. Kim on 13 April 2007 at 2:53 pm

    The “jobs for the boysâ€? angle is pretty simplistic when you think about it.

    Dont be so naive. This is NSW ALP political machine, remember. Their motto is “You scratch my back I’ll scratch yours”. The contemporary NSW ALP is full of careerists seeking fast track to plum public service jobs and contracts for themselves and their mates, or “partners” as they call them these days.

    Social Democrats should be very wary of political appartchiks being appointed to positions of high professional value. His starting salary is $375k.

    The factional spoils system was created to negotiate and enforce political favours over time, without the need for signed contracts. Political appointee “power couples” swarm all over the apparat. Hogg and McKew, Nori & [Fill in the Blank]. Now Pilbersek and Coutts-Trotter. Not wrong in itself, but one must raise an eyebrow.

    And lets not start on the political-industrial complex eg Developers, Hoteliers, Financiers. Anyone remember how Maquarie Bank made off with most public assets for a song under this party?

    Maybe Coutts-Trotter is good enough to do the job. But he is not indispensable. Others, less tainted with political connections, could do as well. High ranking public service jobs within the gift of the minister must be like Roman Matrons, not only be reputable but seen to be reputable.

    I am all for redemption and the parable of the Prodigal Son. I just don’t like the tendency of modern socialists to use the state as a gigantic nepostic feeding trough.

  11. Antonio says:


    I recall that you claimed that C-T HAD run the Commerce Department competently. Now you back away from that claim and merely assert it as a presumption. This is a poor employment evaluation approach.

    I have no evidence that C-T is competent or otherwise. Surely, the onus is on those who support his appointment to demonstrate a proven track record of excellence. I personally cannot see it myself based on the evidence in the public domain.

    In the interests of accountability and transparency of appointment, I think that given C-T’s obvious connections to the cabinet of the incumbent NSW government – he should stand aside and seek employment in the non-government sector.

    It really is crucial that the public service is seen to be at arm’s length from government – WHICHEVER political side is in power. Whilst C-T continues to occupy a prominent position in defiance of this principle, he remains a legitimate target of community scrutiny.

  12. Kim says:

    Antonio – I read Spiros as saying none of us are competent to say how well anyone would have run the NSW Department of Commerce – because, we’re just not. Ministers are responsible for the department’s performance – but I wouldn’t have a clue what it does in the first place because there’s no obvious analogy in Qld (State Development maybe? Dunno) – but presumably if anyone was actually interested, as opposed to scoring political points, the Department’s annual report would be on the public record.

  13. Kim says:

    It really is crucial that the public service is seen to be at arm’s length from government – WHICHEVER political side is in power

    Righteo. Max Moore-Wilton or whatever his name was, turning up at Howard’s victory party in 2001?

  14. Spiros says:

    The evidence that C-T did a good job in his previous role comes from the Opposition.

    Theu haven’t criticised his performance. Since this would have been the most obvious line of attack, there must be nothing to criticise.

    And, Antonio, senior public servants have not been at arms length from the party in power, either state or federal, for at least 20 years.

    That idea went out with the manual typewriter.

  15. Antonio says:


    Max Moore-Wilton attending a political shindig is inappropriate and if asked I would have said so at the time. Despite the fact that I am a Liberal, I still believe in the principle of an independent public service. I am afraid that the praxis of “they do it so why can’t we?” is a cop out and I am frankly surprised that progressive people seem to be defending it.

    Annual Reports are obviously available and of some partial use here in making an assessment of performance. My point on C-T’s performance was that we shouldn’t immediately presume that he was competent in the role without some evidence.


    Without examining the NSW parliamentary record, I can make no claim about whether or not the NSW Libs have attacked him or not in the past. That said, the NSW Libs anyway seem to be far more effective at attacking each other than the ALP – so I wouldn’t put too much faith in a lack of prior scrutiny over C-T.

    The real question is – do progressive people on the Left really believe that C-T’s public service appointments were incidental to his relationship with Plibersek? If there is even a whiff of “jobs for the boys” then he should be removed immediately.

  16. Antonio on 14 April 2007 at 9:45 am

    The real question is – do progressive people on the Left really believe that C-T’s public service appointments were incidental to his relationship with Plibersek? If there is even a whiff of “jobs for the boysâ€? then he should be removed immediately.

    It is Michael Egan, not Pilbersek, who is C-T’s patron. But matronage or patronage are equally bad.

    With the collapse of the Old Left’s utopia (USSR) and the tired and tarnished image of the New Left’s rainbow coalition (Refugees, Republic, Reconciliation) it seems that progressive people are rapidly approaching ideological nihilism. The only things that really motivate them are the philosophy of Howard-hatred and the practice of distributing the spoils of political office to mates.

    They have run out of ideas themselves. The Greenies are the only new politics that is keeping progressivism afloat. But the popular part of the Green ideology is ecological conservatism, not sociological constructivism.

    My casual observation that “jobs for the boys” is rife in the NSW ALP was confirmed in spades by this article. It turns out that Egan’s press office is a nursery for ALP placemen.

    Mr Coutts-Trotter was chosen as his state’s top education bureaucrat without the position being advertised and without full screening checks. He was the preferred choice of Education Minister John Della Bosca. The pair had worked together, with Mr Coutts-Trotter serving as departmental chief in Mr Della Bosca’s previous portfolio of commerce.

    That was the start of a career push to the top in which he crossed the divide from being an ALP apparatchik to becoming a public service mandarin paid to run a department with a quarter of the state’s budget.

    It’s not just that Mr Coutts-Trotter is married to federal Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek, he also began his government career as a media adviser to former NSW Labor treasurer Michael Egan in 1996. The office of Mr Egan has proved a boon for several budding bureaucrats.

    The new departmental chief on $387,000 a year is just one of a hand-picked group of senior NSW public servants with impeccable NSW Labor Party credentials. [These include] Mark Duffy…John O’Neill…John Whelan…Chris Ryan…Todd Clewett…and Aldo Pennini

    Charming. These are your modern progressive people: fast tracking their professional careers whilst happily flogging off state assets to Maquarie Bank for a song. And cultivating unsettled ethnic ghettos as rotten boroughs to replace the working class electorates they were elected to support. I shudder to think what WG Spence, Ben Chifley and Kim Beazley Snr would make of them.

    But so long as progressive movers and shakers dont like Howard’s national cultural identity politics everything is okay.

  17. monaro says:

    I’m sure he’ll do a great job. John Fletcher had no retail experience when he was appointed CEO of Coles and look how well they’re doing.

    The NSW Liberals & Co. are equalled only by their US Republican compatriots in the dark art of trawling the lower depths of the human soul in the quest for political advantage, and so they have made an issue of the tragic teenage past which Michael Coutts-Trotter has transcended in his adult life.

    I notice you couldn’t actually name anybody in the parliamentary Liberal Party who criticised Coutts-Trotter’s appointment based on his criminal record.

    Get your hand off it Paul.

  18. FaceLift says:

    Ah, but what a surge of hope for all Ausie people who have fallen and somehow been restored. A brave appointment socially.

  19. Bring Back CL's blog says:

    He is actually a good role model given his redemption however he is patently not qualified for this position nor his previous one at Commerce.

    He has a Journalism degree!! What significant administrative experience can he actually talk about except for his five minutes of sunshine at Commerce.


    It is merely another example of mates on the payroll.

    Make him press secretary by all means but head of the Department!!!

    By the way no wonder this department is stuffed. Notice how many heads they have had in 7 years?

  20. John Ryan says:

    Gee Jack I,m so glad your aganist Jobs for the Boys, maybe you can comment on the conga line of suckholes who Howard has promoted, to nice cushy jobs but then again thats the LIBs and never do things like that

  21. Fiasco da Gama says:

    Will nobody anymore stick up for the principle of ministerial accountability? I know it’s been shat on by both levels of government for decades, but really, attacking the DG without reference to his boss is ridiculous. John Della Bosca is the new NSW Education Minister, and it’s he who should get credit or blame for successes and failures—not the culture of the NSW ALP, not a generally-defined ‘progressive’ movement, and certainly not the public servants.
    As to qualificationism, he should feel free to appoint Tiddles the Cat as Director General if he thought that meaowing, furniture-scratching and biscuit-eating were prerequisites for running a large Department.

  22. Angharad says:

    This is what we should be concerned about – bugger the drugs conviction it was 23 years ago. More people in power should have a stint in gaol to find out what it’s really like on the other side in my opinion.

    As others have said, he’s a career bureaucrat following on from a line of D-Gs with little experience or commitment or experience in public education. I’d like to see someone with some grounding in education theory or practice in there myself. Someone who will manage the resources effectively so the Minister can passionately promote public education and show results.

    The photo on the front of the Daily Tele earlier this week made me spew though.

  23. monaro says:

    John Della Bosca is the new NSW Education Minister, and it’s he who should get credit or blame for successes and failures…

    But if Barry O’Farrell dares criticise someone with an ‘Italian sounding surname’ the Treasurer, and Paul Norton, will accuse him of racism.

  24. monaro says:

    By the way, does Tanya ‘Israel is a rogue state’ Plibersek know about the “very admirable woman” he’s been seeing?

  25. Paul Norton says:

    There is an Irish proverb on a poster on the wall of the Grand Hotel in Esk which explains why I am not going to respond to monaro, beyond noting that Sunbird or P76 might be a more appropriate pseudonym.

  26. Paul Norton says:

    You know very well that the age limit restriction in the United States is twenty-one, three years higher than Australia’s. The age limit has a huge impact on underage drinking.

    I didn’t know that very well, patrickg. Thanks for pointing it out. And yes, it does make a dent in the validity of my guesstimate.

  27. patrickg says:

    That’s okay! As I say, I still fundamentally agree with your point. 🙂

  28. John Greenfield says:

    Given the simply atrocious lying and scare-mongering by the simply odious Pat Byrne, I think Australian school students have far less to fear from Coutts-Trotter than they do the AEU!

  29. John Greenfield says:

    I think Coutts-Trotter would probably be more appropriately placed as one of the “chaplains” the feds said they’d fund to clean up the mess of 1970s social engineering failings that litter the state comprehensive schools.

  30. Andrew E says:

    Coutts-Trotter was fine as an advisor to the NSW Treasurer. He was even fine as head of the Commerce Department. Everyone knew about his past and nobody said a word. The whole sin-and-redemption thing was working just fine – until he moved to Education.

    The issue is the fact that he’s head of an organisation in which you can’t get an entry-level job with a background like his. Will Coutts-Trotter act to kick down the barriers to other flawed humans? Will he bollocks.

    The Iemma Government has developed a reputation for putting the wrong people into key jobs. Coutts-Trotter may be good in some other capacity, but not as head of the Education Department. He was fine where he was, and he may go on to some role where his talents may be well used.

    The sin-and-redemption meme offers nothing to those who suffered as he suffered, but who chose not to become the self-indulgent wanker necessary to support any sort of addiction. The best thing you can do for a junkie is to stand up and say that you won’t indulge them any more: and so it is with MCT today. Get ye back to the Commerce Department, go to Canberra after your wife becomes a Minister; but you have no business in a job where you offer only excuses for those who did what you did at that age, and nothing to those with the courage and sense to avoid your life’s path.

  31. FunkyCheese says:

    i’m with kim. the ‘jobs for the boys’ line is too simplistic. i think it’s time to stop pretending that there’s much commitment to the Westminster conventions anywhere in government. in practice, Washminster is upon us, has been for some time. that’s not all bad: things (mostly necessarily) move glacially in govt agencies, so if a govt appoints someone who it knows understands its policy agenda and can make it happen, that can actually be good for the bureaucracy. i guess there’s an issue about how far down the chain of command political appointments should go, but in truth i don’t think that many advisers from ministerial offices would make the move for anything but a senior management job. i don’t quite know where that takes the debate about accountability of govt agencies, tho.

    and i’m not so sure the brad norrington article that jack cites proves anything much. it picks a handful of advisers who have gone on to work in bureaucracy. most don’t earn anywhere near the $375-$400K that MCT is earning. most could earn as much or more in other roles, and are usu at their most employable straight out of their minister’s office.

    i have worked in a meaningful way with a few of the men the article cites, and they are (or have been) stand-outs in their roles in government departments bc of their performance therein. committed managers, committed to delivering a good outcome for the taxpayers. that came as a surprise to me, bc as a public servant in nsw, you get used to a fairly low level of real engagement from advisers. i know, it’s naive to say that bc i’ve met some of them and they’re OK, that it means its OK in principle.

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