Perrottet best throw of the dice is gambling reform

Feb 7, 2023
Australia NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet (cropped)

NSW goes to the polls at the end of next month, and Labor must be regarded as a very clear favourite. Recent polls have put Labor 12 points ahead — 56 to 44 –of the coalition. Even allowing that the Opposition leader, Chris Minns must win back seats before he builds a majority, it suggests a quite comfortable win over Dominic Perrottet.

It’s what you would, and probably should expect. The coalition has been in power for 12 long years. Its age, weariness and increasing lack of inspiration and energy shows. I have argued before that it is usually desirable to send governments out for a spell after three terms, unless the alternative is unthinkable.

The coalition won power in 2011 when Barry O’Farrell, a remarkable straight moderate Liberal leader defeated a Labor Party daily showing itself to be deeply corrupted by power. The Labor premier, Kristine Keneally may have been personally unstained by many of the all too familiar shenanigans of the NSW Labor Right. But she had been installed in a leadership coup by some of its worst players. This may have been, as she might insist, because she was about the last well-known and presentable cleanskin candidate that the dominant NSW faction could muster. But her presence, and her desperate campaigning was not enough to rescue her party from the widespread perception that many of her colleagues were up to their necks in corrupt and dishonest abuses of power. As ever in NSW, most scandals involved land development, insider trading on government licences, discretions and widespread abuses of the patronage system.

The electorate rightly perceived the collective as a bunch of scoundrels who had lost any humility or sense of decency since the last time they had put it in the sinbin. ICAC was enthusiastically engaged in holding inquiries into some of the worst rorts and excesses. But to the disappointment of the incoming government, ICAC soon shifted its focus to the new players. It quickly found that a fresh set of urgers, chancers and wide-boys – equally smelly and focused on their personal interests — were determined to exploit their connections with (and their donations to) the coalition. The evidence coming out in public was appalling. It showed some Liberals and Liberal mates and cronies were as larcenously minded as the previous lot. Had ICAC not been slowed by legal challenges, the hearings might soon have retrieved Labor’s reputation as being not much worse.

Alas the hearings miscarried, and the only victim proved to be the new premier, Barry O’Farrell, who resigned in 2014 when it was shown that he had forgotten once receiving a gift of a bottle of Grange Hermitage from one of those hoping to capitalise on a dodgy privatisation of a part of the Sydney water system. If sin there was it was venial, but O’Farrell was a man of honour who thought that the reputation of his profession (including of some of his unworthy colleagues) might be enhanced if it were seen that some accepted responsibility for their mistakes. [His sacrifice did not prove to serve this purpose, whether in NSW or elsewhere.]

O’Farrell was followed by Michael Baird, another decent man. On his resignation in 2017 to return to merchant banking, class goody-goody Gladys Berejiklian succeeded him. In many respects an able and popular premier, who (like Baird in 2015) then fairly comfortably won an election. Neither government was free of pratfalls or scandals, but, in some marked contrast with the deeply divided and factional federal coalition government, both Baird and Berejiklian were essentially moderate and pragmatic in their governing style. Just as important – perhaps still — was the popular perception that Labor had yet to show that it had learnt the lesson of its dismissal by voters in 2011, and had reformed and renewed itself organisationally as well as a parliamentary party.

Has NSW Labor actually learnt from its rude, and well-deserved, ejection 12 years ago?

Indeed, it did not even seem to require much in the way of coalition dirty tricks to keep the spectre of entrenched Labor corruption before the public. Own goals saw the scandal of the dodgy $100,000 cash donations in the ALDI bag, and the focus that put on internal party governance. Six Labor ministers, including two right-wing powerbrokers Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi had received adverse findings from ICAC, and the aftermath, including a virtually non-stop parade of allegations, charges, trials, and appeals by former Labor powerbroker, Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald kept much of the dirty linen in full public view. All of those steeped in scandal are now well out of the party and public office; the question is whether the smell about the party has yet disappeared.

Perrottet has made more than his share of public blunders. Some touch on his management, such as his disastrous privatisation of the state public service compensation body iCare. Some on his personal judgment, such as his wearing a Nazi uniform at his 21st birthday party. He’s good at contrition as well as promising to investigate and act. Yet, though a powerful factional player in the Liberal Party right wing, he has recently proven a failure in exercising much of an influence over the party’s organisational side. His views over preselections and efforts to recruit more women candidates have been rejected. That has undermined both his authority and his legitimacy, even if he was proactive in facing head-on some hinted blackmail, or payback, over Nazi uniforms.

Perrottet’s lack of clout is a particular problem because the odour of the organisational party in NSW is low and helped bring down the Morrison government. It would suit some narratives were it to be accepted that the main reason the coalition lost federal office was because of the chaos and dysfunction of the state branch. That involved some federal factors, including the personality and weirdness of Scott Morrison, the bizarre actions of Alex Hawke, leader of Morrison’s faction (a right-wing grouping in opposition to Perrottet’s) and the party’s failure to adapt to the times, especially over climate change, which saw the advent of the teals.

By contrast Perrottet has been generally progressive on environmental matters – perhaps more so than most Labor state governments. Much of the spirit of frustration with the Liberal Party from voters who gave their support to economically conservative but socially progressive women at the last federal election persists. But it does not appear to have inspired a movement capable of ejecting state Liberals from their base on the Sydney North Shore.

Perrottet, like all state and Territory leaders carries the burden of a party which has appeared to be consciously forfeiting support. As the report on the Liberal performance at the election in May last year showed, Labor, at federal level, leads the Liberals in every demographic. The younger voters are, the more they are likely to favour Labor. The Liberals have lost favour with women, with people in all educational groups, and among the professional and managerial classes. Some Liberals insist that the party lost favour by becoming too wimpy and wet, and not conservative enough. But the evidence suggests that the party can win only by vying for the middle ground of politics and by winning back some of the groups it has most alienated. Certainly, the evidence suggests that the more overt conservative federal leadership of Peter Dutton has not won any popular support, in any significant demographic. Whatever guides the Dutton strategy, including over the Voice or the environment, does not appear to be motivated by a search for instant votes.

Covid unlikely to provide an incumbency advantage, as it did in the Labor states.

Voters are well able to distinguish between state and federal factors, and, in any event, the Covid pandemic put them on display.

But perhaps NSW, under Berejiklian and Perrottet did not differentiate enough. That was presumably mostly from loyalty to the federal coalition. It received considerable funds and favours from Morrison and the Commonwealth Treasurer, John Frydenberg as a reward. This included privileged access, ahead of any of the Labor states to greater proportional quantities of vaccines through the distribution mechanisms organised by the recently decorated General “JJ” Frewin. In NSW itself, premiers seemed to work to ensure coalition constituencies got softer treatment and more useful medicine than Labor constituencies. In Victoria and West Australia, and Queensland, tough Labor resistance to federal policies saw Labor premiers returned in landslides. The perception of favouritism to NSW at Victoria’s expense was also a factor in Josh Frydenberg’s loss of his Melbourne seat last year. South Australia saw the Liberals turfed out.

Whether as Treasurer or as Premier Perrottet played the pandemic for short-term political advantage, including resistance to lockdowns. He may on this account expect deep enthusiasm from papers, for what that is worth. But probably not either deep gratitude from the electorate as a whole, or credit for peculiar NSW successes. Indeed, sooner or later, quite possibly before the end of next month, it may dawn on the electorate that both state and federal management of Covid since the beginning of 2022 has been an absolute disaster, with a terrible casualty rate. Anthony Albanese and the Commonwealth, including its medical advisers, deserve most of the blame for this. But surely the whole pandemic experience demonstrated the significance of a strong regional leadership that seems now to have disappeared.

It can only get worse on a number of fronts. Gladys Berejiklian got into deep trouble in the latter part of her term when she showed that she was willing to pork barrel and abuse grants systems for crude political purposes. In this she was simply following the unashamed and unembarrassed example of the federal Liberals. But her unembarrassed defence of partisan grants, including her insistence that “everybody does it” brought particular attention on her actions. It drained her reputation as a cleanskin. The look was even worse once it emerged that a particular beneficiary of her largesse with taxpayer money was a secret lover. Public ICAC seminars made clear the ICAC view that pork barrelling and partisan grant making were potentially corrupt rather than minor peccadillos. NSW Auditor-General reports, the latest this week, made clear how widespread the rorting was, even when the coalition could legitimately claim that it held most rural and regional seats, the primary beneficiary of many of the pork barrelling schemes.

Berejiklian resigned once it was clear that ICAC had her in its sights. She was not forced out, but, while claiming complete innocence, recognised that the distraction of being before hearings would make carrying on as premier impossible. It is amazing, and unforgivable that ICAC has yet to report on her and will not before the election.

Perrottet succeeded amid a lot of fearmongering alleging him to be a doctrinaire Opus Dei follower with sinister designs on public morality, exemplified by conservative obsessions with abortion, same sex marriage and euthanasia. These fears have not been borne out. To the fury of the Catholic hierarchy, he almost immediately agreed to a free vote in the NSW parliament on Euthanasia – thus allowing it to become law. He has been moderate and generally liberal on most social issues, and if still generally conservative in his economic approach, has eschewed ideological flourishes, and has as his treasurer, and deputy, a strong moderate, Matt Kean. The Perrottet government has intervened in markets to protect consumers against abuses.

Perrottet declared at the start of his premiership that he would stop the pork barrelling instinct. He might have been trying to achieve this in seeking to facilitate the departure of National party leader John Barilaro as arch-and unashamed pork barreler to a sinecure in New York. But during the efforts to achieve this, several of his ministers and senior public servants messed everything up. Not much mud ever sticks to Perrottet, but the whole affair suggested that the government and the bureaucracy was affected by a peculiar amateurishness when skulduggery was afoot. (This was not usually a matter of conscious sabotage by the good guys so much as a desirable consequence of the sort of good governance that ICAC tries to enforce, particularly about good record keeping. I am happy to predict that the first Labor ministers and minders caught out by the new Commonwealth Integrity Commission will go down as a result of their deliberate failure to keep proper records, perhaps so as to avoid FOI requests. Instead, a lack of proper record keeping will come to be seen as prima facie evidence of impropriety of purpose.)

Perrottet can’t run a fear campaign on Labor’s economic credentials. But he has room to manoeuvre over Labor’s thrall to big gambling interests.

It seems unlikely that the economic management style of a Minns government would be greatly different from that of the Perrottet government. Each has shown itself to be fairly middle of the road, neither likely to do much to frighten the horses. While that is, for Perrottet, a better position to be in than if there were marked differences of style, it is not necessarily to his advantage. Voters may perceive that the coalition has had its go and is looking a bit blowsy; time to give the others a try. That management of state budgets and state-style services limits the scope of political differences.

The best campaigning point that Perrottet has involves his proposal for a cashless gaming card. It helps that his instincts are right, rather than simply opportunistic. The size and extent of the NSW poker machine industry, and the exactions it puts on working class taxpayers is an international scandal. There is police advice about the extent of money laundering through clubs and poker machines, with more than a running innuendo that many club officials are in it up to their necks. Club lobbyists have long been browbeating governments, and showing they mean business with organised campaigns. But the jig may be up. The Perrottet policy has much stronger public support than the counter- proposals put by Munns. Put simply, the Minns proposals are a construct by the powerful and ruthless club and poker machine industry. They are designed to look tough while providing the minimal possible impediment to business as usual. What hurts Minns is not his weaker policy as such, but the perception that he is gutless on the matter, unwilling to do the right thing for fear of his personal political future. He has the most marginal Labor seat in the state.

It has long been known that NSW Labor is rather more a wholly owned subsidiary of the gambling and liquor industries than the creature of the industrial labour movement. It is notable that unions are not supporting Minns on the matter. Anyone in any doubt about the malign influence of clubs should look at the careers of any number of Labor politicians (state and federal) and their end-up point as highly paid lobbyists for alcohol and gambling interests. They are prostituting their access and old influence over “mates” to secure the regular serious mulching of some of the state’s poorest citizens.

Perrottet can be assumed to be entirely sincere in his desire to reduce the scourge of poker machines and stop money laundering. But he is also being entirely political. It is not merely Minns who is perceived as soft-headed about the problem. That’s a perception that has been out there for Labor for a decade. Julia Gillard was cowed by poker machine interests into welshing on a deal about curbing poker machines a decade ago. She did not rat on the bargain she made with Andrew Wilkie because it was impractical or bad policy. She ratted because she could not stand up to the organised power of the club lobby. Much of that was orchestrated by Labor lobbyists passively supported by leading figures MPs from the NSW right. And she quailed before the threats that clubs would lobby all club members against any attempt to restrict their industry, all of whose profits, of course, went to wonderful community purposes.

Minns is ambitious, handsome and personable, but essentially colourless and without much in the way of firm convictions. He is straight out of Sussex Street central casting. He is not without his individuality, but the clubs debate has shown him, and his party, at its weakest. One must ask if Labor has learnt anything from its past, including about the dangers of close (even supine) associations with people who do great damage to the community and mean Labor voters no good. One does not have to play the wowser or want to see bans on alcohol and gambling. It is the scale of it – taking many billions a year from pay-packets at a rate greater than anywhere else in the world – that is the fundamental problem and the fundamental social evil.

No one wants to close down clubs or pubs as places of popular resort. But governments – responding to industry pressure – have made the value of clubs and pubs and their incomes something to be established by the number of gaming machines they have, and by their success at keeping members hypnotised by them. The clubs have destroyed many more people than they have employed. They have broken up many more communities than they have nurtured. On this at least, it’s time. As well, probably as the only and thus the best chance Perrottet has got.

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