Thursday, February 01, 2024

Vale Labor Luminary Michael Egan, NSW’s longest serving treasurer, dies aged 75

Everyone who knew Michael (Mick) felt his big heart and giving nature. He will be missed especially by his former staff and parliamentary staff on all side of politics. He admired Vaclav Havel and he met many samizdat writers when he visited Prague in 1980s. I had a few insightful conversations at the bar at the bear pit … he was a generous politician and was my referee for several taxing roles including the Public Accounts Committee role Humble and Charming as Chancellor

In the last 5 years we used to meet at wakes or graduation ceremonies (with amazing Opera singer) at the Macquarie University - to this day Michael is likely the only person to read Cold River twice … by the way, the image at the wordsmith’s -GF funeral captures the inner sanctum of the NSW Labour powerhouse 

ABC NSW's longest-serving treasurer Michael Egan dies aged 75

Michael Egan, NSW’s longest serving treasurer, dies aged 75

 I make a brief contribution on the condolence motion for Michael Egan. I speak not just as a Labor colleague but as a relative of Michael. It is not widely known, but Michael and I were cousins. My grandmother on my mother's side, Emmeline Margaret Egan was sister to Stan Egan, who was Michael's father. Emmaline, Stan and their seven brothers and sisters were born in the Burragorang Valley, which was flooded in the '50s to make way for Warragamba Dam. That saw my mother's clan—a very large Irish clan—dispersed across Sydney and New South Wales. Michael was first cousin to my mother Mary. At a gathering one day, many years ago, I suggested to him that that would make us second cousins. A technician on such matters, he corrected me that that we were, in fact, first cousins once removed. In any event, I am proud to share some great Irish genes with this great man.

My mother speaks fondly of her memories of Michael's mother and father, Uncle Stan and Aunty Jean, from her visits to Burragorang Valley. My mother, Mary Carlon, as she was then, recalls Michael's mother Jean being what she called "a stunningly beautiful woman". Michael was an only child. He was a lovely, private man— dynamic, opinionated, confident, fearless and loyal. He was a very funny man who was always looking to amuse, even on difficult occasions—in fact, probably more so then. He would make light of a seeming disaster. He loved it when his enemies came for him. He was always ready for them and bested them on most occasions. He was full of stories. He was quick to give advice, and his advice was usually crystal, formulated from an incisive mind infused with deep experience and passion. He went into public life because he cared about people.

I remember talking to him in the early '80s, when I was a much younger man with some ambition. At a quiet moment, probably at the funeral of a relative, while he was puffing away on a cigarette and he and I were sharing a chardonnay, I asked him for some advice for a young player on the way up. I will never forget it. He gave me one piece of advice at that time. He said:

Speak slowly. Watch your pace.

He spoke to me at this slow pace, and he said:

When you think that you are speaking to someone, and you think that the pace that you're speaking to them with is uncomfortably slow, that's exactly the right pace because they will be hearing it at the pace you want them to.

… I was seconded out to Cronulla Workers. I thought that was one of the best gigs ever. Michael was president; that was all right. But it was more the fact that they had INXS, Little River Band, Dragon, Cold Chisel—the list went on and on. It was a pretty tough place in those days. Quite a few dramas happened outside in the street, but Michael tried his best with that.

Parliamentary Tributes

NSW’s longest-serving treasurer and Labor heavyweight Michael Egan – who helped deliver the Sydney Olympics and bring down significant government debt – has died, aged 75.

Egan, who died on Wednesday night after a long illness, was the state’s treasurer for almost a decade and also Macquarie University’s longest-serving chancellor officiating over the graduation of 43,000 students between 2008 and 2019.

He entered politics in October 1978, as the member for Cronulla, before moving to the upper house where he served for more than 18 years. When he announced his retirement from Macquarie Street in January 2005, Egan said: “After 35 years of political combat, I think it’s time for me to move on.”

In a statement, Premier Chris Minns said Egan, who was the first treasurer to serve in the upper house, dedicated his long career to serving the people of NSW.

“While Labor to his bootstraps and not one to altercate in undertones, Michael cherished our democratic institutions and always acted to ensure they deserved the public’s trust,” Minns said.

“Impatient with theorists and purists, he excelled at producing economic and social reforms through the messy compromise of politics.”

Minns said that, on becoming treasurer, Egan “rapidly returned the NSW Budget to surplus and kept it there, building the Carr Government’s reputation for economic and fiscal competence”.

“During his stewardship, NSW all but eliminated net government debt while also investing heavily to improve essential services and infrastructure and hosting the Olympic Games,” Minns said.

In March 2022, Egan received an honorary doctorate in Macquarie’s Michael Egan Hall.

“He boasted he had personally graduated more than 43,000 students, a record – like his tenure as Treasurer – unlikely ever to be broken,” Minns’ statement said.
Egan was also chairman of the Australia Day Council of NSW between 2006 and 2010, and chairman of the Centenary Institute of Cancer Medicine and Cell Biology since 2009.“Michael will be greatly missed by all who knew him,” Minns said.

(Raised in the shire, Mr Egan was the first student enrolled at St Patrick's College, Sutherland in 1956.)

In early 90s Labor’s credibility on economic management was zero - disasters in WA, VIC, SA. My govt elected in 1995 had to show Labor could manage budgets. Enter Mike Egan as Treasurer: …
Vale Michael Egan - Bob Carr remembers

With princes or peers, Egan was always a fighter

Michael Rueben Egan had not long been a member of the NSW Parliament when duties of office took him and his colleagues to Sydney's Wentworth Hotel, where they were intended to be the wallpaper for one of those government-sponsored civic receptions for overseas VIPs.

In this case, in the late 1970s, the visitor was considered very important. Just before his minders were about to whisk him away to some other dreary meet and greet, the VIP approached Egan and invited him to tell something of himself.

"It's simple," the new MP for Cronulla [he had won it on his fourth attempt] ventured. "I'm Irish, I'm Catholic, I'm Labor, I'm Republican."

That ought to do the trick, thought Egan, self satisfied with his succinctness. But the guest thought Egan was tautological. "You only needed to have said you were Irish," the Prince of Wales quipped back.

The anecdote might seem to expose more of the prince's capacity for quick wittedness than much about a minor political player who, 2 decades later, would announce the end of nearly 10 years as NSW treasurer, the longest (and probably one of the shorter) holders of the job in a century and a half of parliamentary democracy in this state.

But it says much about the Egan character, too. His response was simultaneously polite and combative, a demonstration that he is not easily overawed, that he regards himself as forged by his roots; a man genetically bound to the temporal aspiration of the Labor Party as much as to the spiritual pursuits of the Roman Catholic church.

Pen portraits often rely on adjectives such as caustic, abrasive, penny-pinching and tenacious. They all fit the man, but too much emphasis on these characteristics might suggest a misanthrope.

That would be a wayward caricature of Michael Egan. In reality, he retains a romanticism with politics, like many others placing too much store in the capacity of political initiative to deliver optimally beneficial outcomes, to serve the greatest good to the greatest number. More than most in the NSW Government, Egan genuinely relishes a feisty scrap. But he also can be charmingly disarming and generous towards suspected foes as well as notional allies.

He can infuriate his own and tempt opponents to beckon for more when in full flight with his eccentric barbs. In upper house debate he took to lampooning the Liberal Brian Pezzutti as "Tutti Frutti" and giving discourses on obscurity as if to punctuate his boredom with the legislature's role. It was not unusual to be subjected to long-winded stories about some pet dog or the nature of human frailty.

Egan had his own instances. Two events involving him often get confused even among Labor veterans. Why? Because Egan generates as much antipathy within the party as he does admiration.

Scene one: the ALP state conference at the cavernous Sydney Town Hall in 1994. The dominant Right faction plays the numbers too smart by half and calculates it can snap up all winnable positions on the party's upper house ticket for the state election the next year. Unusually the ballot is ill-disciplined, and Egan, Labor's upper house leader, is dumped temporarily from the No. 1 spot to the then unwinnable ninth spot. That gets tongues wagging about an anti-Egan conspiracy but a stuff-up is more plausible. Had it happened two years later, the payback-Egan version would have been irrefutable.

Scene two: Labor is now in government and, as delegates assemble for the same state conference at the same venue, Bob Carr has backed off his enthusiastic endorsement of Egan's radical plan to sell the state's entire electricity system for a reputed $30 billion. It is Egan's most humiliating defeat. Union leader after union leader stands to pick flesh from the Egan bones. Although Carr is not there to lend the shoulder, his wider support for Egan is probably the difference in Egan surviving as treasurer.

Yesterday, Egan would say only the electricity privatisation - a policy that contributed substantially to the Coalition's thumping defeat at the 1999 state election - was no longer on the agenda. "In politics you've got to be prepared for the defeats and frustrations as well as the victories," Egan said.

The reality is that Carr has been Egan's chief supporter, despite having soldiered on opposite sides of the Left-Right divide in their youth before Egan jumped factions.

For one so senior and authoritative, Egan has been a man without a political network, surviving the jungle of politics on his guile and diligence and the chief's protection. He regards factions' infighting as the "obsession of people with too much time on their hands and not enough interest in policy".

However, Egan will be remembered and judged not for the content of his character or the quirks of his political manner. What will matter is the colour of the state's accounts under his stewardship as Carr's only treasurer.

He regards his two most significant legacies as debt reduction and tort law reform, in which the former assistant federal treasurer Helen Coonan and he led the charge. Both should have enduring benefits, but the effective elimination of general government debt - the equivalent of about 12 per cent of gross state product when Egan began his quest - about 15 years ahead of his own schedule is Egan's signature song.

High interest rates can, of course, play havoc with heavily indebted state finances. Egan's pursuit of debt through budget surpluses, privatisations and indebtedness on government trading companies, however, was probably also due to a well-grounded suspicion that ministers will squander public wealth and pass today's costs to tomorrow's generation if given access to the coffers.

Egan saw the problem but failed to always prevent it. His treasurership rode the wave of extraordinary economic growth. His budget-revenue forecasts were consistently conservative but too much of the additional income went on consumption expenditure instead of infrastructure investment or tax cuts. The political consequences of a dilapidated rail system, for instance, is now more obvious.

Egan rejects this analysis. Infrastructure spending, he says, is a third higher in real terms than in the 1990s and 60 per cent higher than in the 1980s. He also defends his switch of budget accounting methodology so that capital works are not counted as expenditure. He can blame no one else for cynicism when his own change of rules allows a budget to switch from red to black at the stroke of his pen.

However, whether by good fortune or good management, or both, the finances of NSW are among the most sound of any ship of state anywhere in the world.

But that they are unlikely to get any better for Egan's successor will generate speculation that he is jumping from a sinking ship and showing Carr the way. But the evidence must be stronger than that.

As it stands, Michael Egan is entitled to leave with his reputation as a sound financial manager intact, even given the frailties of political reality.

“Social miracles” are when “human beings, working together… make something possible although we cannot see how” — and apologies are one example of them, says Agnes Callard (Chicago)

Former NSW treasurer Michael Egan has died age 75

After serving almost 25 years in politics, Michael Egan has been remembered as an “accomplished public servant”.

NSW Treasurer Michael Egan in 1995.
NSW Treasurer Michael Egan in 1995.

The longest-serving treasurer of NSW, Michael Egan, has died aged 75.

Mr Egan had a parliamentary career which lasted almost 25 years before he moved on to work at Macquarie University’s chancellor from 2008 to 2019.

He served as treasurer from 1995 to 2005 under Bob Carr’s Labor government.

A statement from Premier Chris Minns and Treasurer Daniel Mookhey said: “NSW has lost a dedicated and accomplished public servant, the Honourable Michael Egan AO.”

“Michael dedicated his long career to serving the people of NSW,” the statement read.

NSW Treasurer Michael Egan has died. Pictured in 1996.
NSW Treasurer Michael Egan has died. Pictured in 1996.

“Entering politics in October 1978, Michael served in the Legislative Assembly for more than five years as Member for Cronulla and in the Legislative Council for more than 18 years.

“During this nearly quarter century career, Michael held the honour of being the longest serving Treasurer in NSW history – for nearly a decade between 3 April 1995 and 21 January 2005. He was the first Member of the Upper House to do so.

“He also served as Leader of the Government in the Legislative Council, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Minister for State Development among many roles.”

More to come

Originally published as Former NSW treasurer Michael Egan has died age 75

Young Michael Egan at Cronulla. Picture by John Veage
Young Michael Egan at Cronulla. Picture by John Veage

Michael Egan once said Cronulla voters did him a favour when they dumped him as their state MP after five years.

Two years after that disappointment in 1984, he was in a position to replace Barrie Unsworth on his retirement from the upper house, and to become the state's longest serving treasurer.

Michael Egan AO has died at 75 after a long illness. 

Premier Chris Minns said "Michael dedicated his long career to serving the people of NSW".

While he was treasurer, NSW had all but eliminated net government debt while also investing heavily to improve essential services and infrastructure and hosting the Olympic Games.

"While Labor to his bootstraps and not one to 'altercate in undertones,' Michael cherished our democratic institutions and always acted to ensure they deserved the public's trust," Mr Minns said.

"Impatient with theorists and purists, he excelled at producing economic and social reforms through the messy compromise of politics.

"He drove changes to make NSW ports, energy, rail and water more competitive, reducing prices for households and businesses, improving living standards and creating jobs.

"After politics he continued to dedicate himself to serving his community, including as Macquarie University's longest serving Chancellor, from 2008 to 2019.

Michael Egan was the state's longest serving treasurer. Picture by John Veage
Michael Egan was the state's longest serving treasurer. Picture by John Veage

Raised in the shire, Mr Egan was the first student enrolled at St Patrick's College, Sutherland in 1956.

He was present at the opening of Sutherland Hospital in 1955 and proud as treasurer to provide funding for its $83 million redevelopment.

He told parliament he remembered "Mrs Partridge singing Bless this House". 

"I also remember telling [Health Minister] Mr Sheahan that I wanted one day to become a Labor member of parliament," he said.

"Mr Sheahan was the first of only two politicians [the other was Peter Costello] to pat me on the head, and the only one I remember fondly for it.''

Mr Egan stood for the seat of Cronulla in 1970 at the age of 22, won it on his fourth attempt at the 1978 "Wranslide", retained it in 1981, but was beaten in 1984.

"The good citizens of Cronulla did me a favour in 1984,'' he told the Leaderon his retirement in 2005.

His political career wasn't without its problems. 

The Liberals never stopped reminding him he was president of Cronulla Workers Club when it folded with big debts, and he had to apologise to, and pay the legal costs of, a shire motor dealer he wrongly maligned in state parliament.

Former Miranda MP Barry Collier said, as Treasurer, Mr Egan approved an unprecedented volume of government spending on much needed shire infrastructure, including the Woronora Bridge, Bangor Bypass, Miranda Five Ways, the Cronulla Tertiary Sewage Treatment Plant, Sutherland Hospital redevelopment and Cronulla line rail duplication.

"Beyond these projects, my lasting memory of Michael Egan was his visit with me to old, disused 5-hectare Sydney Water site in Bellingara Road Miranda, soon to be put up for sale on the open market," he said.

"There, we discussed my proposal that the land should be earmarked for a low cost, aged care village. Acutely aware of this shortage of aged care in the Shire, Micheal later placed such restrictions on the sale so that the site land could only be used for affordable aged-care accommodation of the kind we see there today.

"Michael Egan had the vision and the foresight to make funding decisions which would bring lasting benefits to the residents of the Shire, and we acknowledge and thank him for his outstanding contribution to us and the people of the State."

Mr Collier said Mr Egan was a friend and mentor to him, encouraging him to stand for parliament and opening his campaign offices in 1999 and 2003.