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In New South Wales, the return of politics as usual?

4 October 2016

A slump in popularity highlights the challenges for Mike Baird’s brand of leadership


Good luck but middling management? NSW premier Mike Baird with treasurer and deputy party leader Gladys Berejiklian. Beau Giles/Flickr

Good luck but middling management? NSW premier Mike Baird with treasurer and deputy party leader Gladys Berejiklian. Beau Giles/Flickr

When Mike Baird succeeded Barry O’Farrell as premier of New South Wales in April 2014 he was praised inordinately and his predecessor correspondingly (and unfairly) denigrated. After his comfortable re-election in May 2015, “Magic Mike” could do no wrong; there was even speculation of a move to Canberra. About the middle of this year, though, when Baird began to encounter political turbulence, the tone of media coverage switched rapidly to almost hysterical negativity. While the media regularly lament the lack of principles in politics, the premier was suddenly being criticised as too principled. The reality was never as good, and is now not as bad, as some journalists would have us believe.

Much of Baird’s early success was a result of good luck as much as good management. His government faced an unappealing and unelectable opposition leader, John Robertson. His rise had corresponded with an economic boom that put New South Wales ahead of all the other states. He had an effective model of government, formulated by O’Farrell, to follow. And treasurer and deputy Liberal leader Gladys Berejiklian was a supportive and capable colleague.

This is not to denigrate Baird’s contribution. His open, appealing countenance and boyish grin resonated with voters. He projected honesty, concern and competence – basically because that was the reality. He certainly had a baptism of fire, with ICAC cutting through the ranks of his MPs like the Grim Reaper, but he survived with his reputation intact. He sought re-election last year on an electorally risky policy of electricity privatisation and was easily returned.

The first thing that went wrong for Baird was the replacement of Robertson as Labor leader by Luke Foley in January last year. Foley emerged from the ensuing election campaign as a credible alternative premier leading a party that was once again electorally competitive, though not yet on the verge of office.

An obstacle of the premier’s own making was his decision to embark on large-scale local government amalgamations. An economic case for action certainly existed, but the number of vested interests involved makes this traditionally a high-risk battleground, from which few emerge unscathed. While it is hard to gauge the overall impact of the issue – the amalgamations seem more politically damaging in rural than urban areas – a lingering doubt emerged about Baird’s priorities and judgement.

This came to a head with the premier’s reaction to a report on greyhound racing by former High Court judge Michael McHugh, which revealed systematic maltreatment, including large-scale killing of dogs. Instead of regulating the industry to the point of extinction, Baird decided on a big bang. Legislation was passed in August to ban greyhound racing in the state from July 2017.

For some of his colleagues, particularly in the National Party, it seemed like feel-good self-indulgence at their expense. In fact, Baird was motivated by genuine abhorrence of the cruelty involved. Encouraged by his electricity privatisation victory, he may also have believed that voters would applaud a strong, principled stand. Instead, he faced a growing public backlash.

Even those not directly affected saw the closing down of the industry as an unnecessary overreaction. It seemed too much like big government interfering with the little person’s pleasures. Foley moved quickly to maximise the government’s difficulties by opposing the ban.

Also controversial was Baird’s preference for “green” and “smart” solutions (some of dubious effectiveness) to a growing number of shark attacks. Surfers and many others have a problem with the idea that sharks should be able to eat them, rather than the other way round, and resisted the premier’s approach.

Foley has astutely exploited Baird’s problems. He has characterised the government as high-handed, uncaring and out of touch. And he has opened up a potentially damaging attack on Baird’s centrepiece privatisation program, accusing the government of being addicted to asset sales while allowing basic services such as education and health to decline. Other critics of the privatisations have argued that the focus on maximising sale prices means that the longer-term implications have been ignored.

Widespread condemnation of the government has taken its toll. September’s Newspoll showed that since December 2015 the government’s two-party-preferred vote has declined by four points to 51 per cent. Satisfaction with Baird’s performance has slumped from 61 per cent to 39 per cent, though Baird still leads Foley as better premier 42–24.

All of this throws into sharp relief the issue of Baird’s “conviction politics.” Some commentators have even attributed the problems to his strong Christian beliefs, as if beneath the smiling exterior lurks a Cromwell determined to impose rigid puritanism on the state. Certainly, Baird believes there is no point in being in politics if he can’t achieve things. He made it plain during the election campaign that he was prepared to put his job on the line over electricity privatisation because he believed in it. And it is quite plausible that he could unconcernedly walk away from politics if he no longer found it fulfilling. There is an echo of former Liberal premier Nick Greiner’s disastrous determination to implement his policies regardless of the political consequences.

Most would agree that a conscience is a desirable quality in a politician. But so is pragmatism. To jeopardise a government’s fate over strong convictions on one or two issues is self-defeating and irresponsible. If leaders are to leave a legacy, they need to be able to get into the mud and blood of politics and survive. Baird’s canny predecessor would never have got himself into the greyhound imbroglio. If by some mischance he had, O’Farrell would have adroitly extricated himself (a talent that seemed to desert him, fatefully, just once).

An obvious way for Baird to do this would be to admit he had miscalculated and apologise. An independent inquiry could then be established to forge a compromise. A little humility goes a long way with the voters, and worked well for former Labor premiers Neville Wran and Bob Carr.

On balance, it is far too early to write off the premier. His slump in popularity has the air of an inevitable return to a real contest. Stubbornness rather than arrogance seems to be his current problem, but it’s likely he has the ability to learn from his errors. If he can get the government back on track, most voters will have forgotten about greyhounds by the 2019 election.

Labor still has to grapple with the lamentable record of its post-Carr administrations, and the misdeeds of Eddie Obeid are guaranteed to keep making headlines. The strength of the NSW economy is a big plus for Baird, with asset sales leaving the state virtually debt-free. The government’s massive infrastructure program is starting to produce tangible results. A frequent comment among Sydneysiders is exactly the message the premier would want to hear: “At least this government is doing things.” •

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