Premier Berejiklian’s last hurrah

Her planning was immaculate. She would vacate the Premiership, leave a strong economy, and install her Deputy Leader, Treasurer Dominic Perrottet, as the next Premier. Then everything fell apart.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian did not catch the COVID-19 virus but it caught her. All her carefully-laid plans to hand over the reins of government have been shattered by the pandemic.

The State’s budget is over-spent, its financial commitments are impossible to meet and its future revenue targets are a joke. Stamp duty and sales tax won’t make up the shortfall, and a new tax will throw the economy from recession into depression.

In State Parliament this week Labor MPs and others tried desperately to force Ms Berejiklian and Mr Perrottet to admit that tens of thousands of public sector workers were being screwed of their entitlements.

In the Legislative Assembly, Opposition Leader Jodi McKay tried to expose the Coalition’s phoney economy while in the Legislative Council, Labor leader Adam Searle, shadow Health Minister Walt Secord, Labor Whip Mark Buttigieg, Robert Borsak of the Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party, David Shoebridge of the NSW Greens and even Mark Latham, leader of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, peppered Coalition Government Ministers with savage questions.

If there is a tactic, and that appears doubtful, Premier Berejiklian and Treasurer Perrottet are throwing billions of dollars into new projects, unfinished projects and promised projects and also to paying the wages of millions of public sector workers who no longer have jobs to go to.

The scale of the splurge of money is historic. Don’t ask who is going to pay for it, because no one knows. The tightwads at the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) are giving the green light for this “spend, spend, spend” on the grounds that it will grow “jobs, jobs, jobs”.

But the big dollars will be going to developers and consultants, while the jobs will mainly be temporary ones in the construction industry.

Economics students at Sydney University and the University of Western Sydney will be writing about the outcome of this experiment with the lives of people for years to come.

Like a school mistress who forgets what she taught last week in a history lesson, Ms Berejiklian simply makes up another story and powers forward leaving a trail of untruths.

From Parliament House in Macquarie Street, Ms Berejiklian’s new narrative is that she wants her “wet” faction to mount a counter-offensive with the following objectives in mind: restoring the disgraced Don Harwin MLC to his former job as Arts Minister; promoting the careers of her factional allies, Rob Stokes, Minister for Planning and Public Spaces, and Matt Kean, Minister for Energy and Development; and encouraging the resuscitation of her faction, previously known as “The Group”, to arrest the influence of the conservatives headed by Tony Abbott and Damien Tudehope, both right-wing Catholics.

“The Group” does not include Dominic Perrottet who is playing a canny game of avoiding blame for Ms Berejiklian’s manoeuvres while waiting for the moment to make his move on the top job.

In his statement to Parliament this week on the budget update, delivered in lieu of a State budget for the coming year, he admitted that the economy is likely to contract by 10 per cent and that revenue would be down by $20 billion over five years, but gave no details about what areas of public expenditure would be slashed.

In the past fortnight, Premier Berejiklian and Treasurer Perrottet have formed a quaint double act. She makes daily announcements of grand infrastructure projects while he answers questions (when he can be found) about the economy.

But it is not providing Ms Berejiklian with the protection she needs. Reporters follow her everywhere and her popularity is plunging into negative territory. Every day she remains in office a new section of workers – macadamia farmers, oyster growers, bilby carers, reef watchers, cake makers, fashion designers – raise their hands to ask for compensation or damages. She gives the easiest answer which is “Give them what they want” and Treasurer Perrottet just groans.

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Alex Mitchell is a former Sydney Sun-Herald State Political Editor whose commentary appears every Friday. His latest book is Murder in Melbourne – The Untold Story of Palestinian exchange student Aiia Maasarwe.

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