NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and her Coalition partners are fond of declaring that they are free of factions. But factionalism is alive and well.
“There is no factionalism in our Government,” is a recurrent boast of Cabinet Ministers and backbenchers. “We are all members of one team.” The real story is very different.
Factional warfare in the NSW Coalition is alive and well. It is creating a toxic atmosphere in the Liberal Party and its junior partner, the NSW Nationals.
Premier Berejiklian and her army of minders are spending precious time hosing down factional divisions. Every time they move the political conversation to policy and gleaming infrastructure projects, a row breaks out which reveals the glaring divisions in Coalition ranks.
The result is that Ms Berejiklian, the Liberal Party’s best electoral asset, has become grumpy and angry. Gone is her previous image of a plucky, immigrant success story, a self-made woman who leads from the front exuding empathy, honesty and hard work.
Luckily for Ms Berejiklian, most voters and commentators are currently consumed by Federal politics and not taking much notice of the whacky sideshow in Sydney. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his cabal of chancers and second-raters are providing a litany of bungles, misjudgements and howling policy failures. It is creating a field day for the media which has concluded that Morrison and his Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack are duds; their blood is already in the water attracting a shoal of sharks.
NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance, Liberal MP for Bega, signalled the latest split in the ranks when he went back to his South Coast constituency (from his occasional residence in Sydney) to devote time to bushfire and flood relief.
It followed reports from the Premier’s Office that the favoured candidate to become the next premier is NOT Constance but Dominic Perrottet, current Treasurer and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party.
The irony is that Constance, the most loyal of Berejiklian’s Ministers, belongs to her “wet” faction and in sunnier times he was favoured candidate to become the next premier. But when she dumped Constance in favour of Perrottet the succession game changed dramatically and Constance “retreated” to Bega to plan his bid for the NSW premiership when Ms Berejiklian decides to quit.
Ms Berejiklian’s three-year premiership has been a study in an uneasy balance between her party’s right-wing faction led by John Howard and Tony Abbott and the “wet” faction led by Trent Zimmerman, Federal MP for North Sydney, previously held by Joe Hockey.
Her legacy includes winning the March 2019 State Election; supporting legislation to decriminalise abortion; calling the bluff of right-wing Liberal backbenchers Tanya Davies (Mulgoa), Kevin Connolly (Riverstone) and Upper House MLCs Damien Tudehope, Matthew Mason-Cox and Lou Amato who threatened to bring down the government; drastically watering down the “lock-out” laws which made a joke of the Coalition’s claim to turn Sydney into a “global city”; and easing criminal justice procedures for night courts, drug courts and Aboriginal legal services.
But she was obliged to “purchase” each reform by making a concession to her right-wing faction, and they moved tanks onto her front lawn. By the start of this year, Premier Berejiklian had become the prisoner of her own Cabinet. While she was nominally in charge, right-wing Ministers were calling the shots by using all their media contacts in newspapers, commercial radio and television to harass her government with malicious gossip, fake news and damaging leaks. Most of it was true.
Meanwhile, Labor’s new leader Jodi McKay was pursuing another course. She was creating a women’s Opposition. While her intentions are good, her policy has managed to enrage the parliamentary party’s left and right because women of questionable talent or experience are being promoted while male MPs aren’t.
Will this be a winning strategy at the next State Election on 25 March 2023? That is another story for another time …
Alex Mitchell is former State Political Editor of The Sun-Herald and President of the NSW Parliamentary Press Gallery, 2001-2007. In 2011 he published Come The Revolution: A Memoir. His latest book, Murder in Melbourne: The Untold Story of Aiia Maasarwe, is available at http://cometherevolution.com.au/murder-in-melbourne/