Next Monday marks the first anniversary of Gladys Berejiklian becoming the first female to be elected Premier of NSW, and the Liberals’ third straight victory.
She has already broken Barry O’Farrell’s record (three years and one month) as the longest serving Liberal Premier since Bob Askin (10 years: 1965-75).
If they go their full term (and, thankfully, we have fixed four year terms in NSW), the Liberal/Nationals will become the longest serving conservative government in NSW history, with 12 years all-up (breaking the Askin/Tom Lewis/Eric Willis record of 11 years, from 1965 to 1976). It’s a statistic which won’t surprise historians, and Labor romantics, who view NSW as a “Labor” state, based on the 24 years of Labor governments prior to Askin’s win in 1965, the near 12 years of Wran/Unsworth and the 16 years ushered in by Bob Carr in 1995. Labor was in power for 52 of the 70 years before it lost office in 2011.
Labor and its connections were as entrenched and “entitled” as leftists lament the conservatives are now. The big end of town in those days was mostly south of Park Street: the Sydney Water Board, the Sydney County Council, the Australian Gas Light Company, the State Electricity Commission, whose boards were loaded with people nominated by Trades Hall on Goulburn Street.
That was then. History is there to be rewritten.
Berejiklian is the Liberals’ third leader (after Barry O’Farrell and Mike Baird) in this era of dominance for them. Each won an election; none has lost one. Labor has had four leaders in the nine years since its 2011 election loss (John Robertson, Luke Foley, Michael Daley and, now, Jodi McKay). They’d had three in the six years prior to that: seven leaders in the 15 years since Bob Carr retired in 2005. Only one, Morris Iemma, has won an election (2007).
Gladys’s victory last year can be seen as the electorate endorsing her competence, and condemning Labor’s lack of it. Now, despite being let down by the whiff of scandal from several of her ministers (Stuart Ayres, John Sidoti, David Elliot, among them), and some factional and ideologic dust ups between the coalition partners (John Barilaro, Matt Kean, others – over climate, water, nuclear power), Gladys looks reasonably unruffled and unscathed.
Her performance during last summer’s bushfires and, so far, in the current coronavirus crisis, has been solid and not likely to have cost her any support. She certainly hasn’t been subject to the anger, frustration and ridicule directed at PM Morrison over the same period, on the same issues, from which he might struggle to recover.
Her “personal profile” appears authentic: the hard working, slightly nerdy daughter of migrants, dedicated to little other than her job. She seems to have managed that image with balance and without cynicism or careful crafting.
The Premier’s greatest vulnerability will be the fallout from what is also, arguably, the coalition’s greatest achievement in office. The infrastructure boom, much of which Berejiklian engineered in her time as Transport Minister, has been plagued by cost overruns, delays, inefficiencies and questions about the appropriateness of several of the projects.
Think Eastern Suburbs Light Rail (which doesn’t interface with the Inner West Light Rail), Sydney Football Stadium, Northern Beaches Hospital and the inexplicable decision to build a metro rail system which doesn’t interface with the existing rail network, among others. Most of this is funded by the $10b-plus sell-off of State assets, notably the Land Titles Registry, for $2.6b, but also including public housing and even schools.
Taken together with the environment of crisis these last few months, political wisdom might suggest a powerful case could be made against a government “selling everything we own” to build stuff of dubious utility which they can’t deliver on time or on budget – notwithstanding the benefits of the economic activity involved, and the need to “catch up” in the provision of roads and railways – even if it created so much demand that the construction contractors’ prices inevitably went up.
So, where is Opposition Leader, Jodi McKay, in all this? Granted it’s notoriously difficult for a new opposition leader to make an impact early in a parliamentary term, and her mission was made harder, delayed three months while the Labor Party undertook the democratic but snail-paced process of installing her as leader.
But Jodi McKay has been near invisible. Those with long memories might suggest that Labor is effectively neutered on infrastructure issues, given its own patchy record in doing so much less than might have been expected during its 16 years in office from 1995 to 2011. Notwithstanding selling off a slew of assets, itself, and privatising most of what it built (freeways), Labor’s list of big projects is looking ordinary in comparison to the coalition’s frenzied output.
Like Anthony Albanese in the federal sphere, as an opposition leader during times when “bipartisan unity in the face of great challenges” is expected, McKay would do herself few favours with too much carping around the edges of the government’s response to emergencies. But, one quarter of the way on the journey to her shot at becoming the first Labor leader in 16 years to win an election in NSW, Jodi is playing catch up, and needs to get a wriggle on. Otherwise Labor in NSW will find itself down more dark historical alleyways from which it might never return.
Richard Whitington was a member of Gough Whitlam’s staff from 1974 to 1977. After a subsequent career in advertising, corporate communications and executive recruitment he retired in 2019 to do some freelance writing. Website: richardwhitington.com