Lightweight Libs threw in the towel
Cover by Sarah Dudley, illustration by Ben Davis
1 April 2023
Well, that went well. From the perspective of the Liberal party in New South Wales, it’s hard to imagine a worse outcome. Seats falling left, right and centre – OK, mainly in western Sydney; it was an electoral rout. We won’t be hearing much more from the big man, Dom Perrottet.
In conceding defeat, he was so gracious that he seemed to be urging ex post facto a vote for Labor. Minns was going to be such a fine premier that it’s a wonder he didn’t urge a vote for him during the campaign. It reminded me of B1 (Chris Bowen for those who haven’t been paying attention) telling every-one in 2019 to vote for the other side if we didn’t like his policy. Plenty of voters took his advice.
Election nights are something of a ritual in our house – early dinner, decisions about which channel to watch (yep, a bit of channel-hopping often goes on), short-term, acquired knowledge of the voting patterns of particular booths in particular seats: you know the sort of thing. For my money, it can be better value than watching a tight football match – select your preferred code here.
Being in Victoria, we were however limited to ABC 24 with that eternal bore Antony Green and the coverage on SkyNews. I quickly began to regret the exit of Leigh Sales as host of these ABC rites. Sarah Ferguson is just so annoying and lacking in real knowledge. The trouble with SkyNews was the inclusion on the panel of some blonde politician I had never heard of and who was clearly from the Kean faction. In her mind, you can never be too green and you can never give away enough of other people’s money.
It turned out that this person, Natalie Ward, had been the Roads Minister in the Perrottet government. She is in the upper house, which of course doesn’t really count. Evidently, there had been some sort of effort to lob her into a safe seat in the lower house but the party had not cooperated. On the face of it, that looks like a very wise decision.
The sad truth was that the composition of the panel made for poisonous viewing. Ward wasn’t going to allow the insightful Peta Credlin to get a word in without the benefit of Ward’s alternative point of view that her friend and colleague, Matt, had effectively saved a lot of seats because of his greenness and his largesse. According to Ward, the alleged $25 million that the trade unions had contributed to Labor’s victory was decisive.
The trouble with this interpretation is that the unions always contribute big licks to Labor’s election campaigns. It hadn’t managed to turn the dial in the previous three elections in New South Wales or, for that matter, federally most of the time. Think here the 2019 federal campaign when opposition leader Bill Shorten was supported both financially and organisationally by the unions – thank you, Sally McManus – but still managed to lose.
Having done over that faux conservative, Dom Perrottet, last week, I pose the question: what should we make of Chris Minns? On the evidence to date, he was a good choice to lead state Labor. He’s from the right, is presentable and sounds both caring and sensible at the same time. I can’t remember the name of the woman he replaced, but it’s pretty clear that he was a far better prospect to be premier.
His pitch was simple enough: more public sector workers, removal of the public sector pay cap, lower road tolls, no privatisations, fixing up schools and hospitals. The truth is that it’s much easier to list these aims than to achieve them. The link between this list and the demands placed on Labor by its union mates and financiers is all too clear.
It’s all very well and good saying the state needs to employ more nurses and teachers; it’s just difficult to recruit and retain more of them without breaking the bank. And notwithstanding the supposedly conservative approach to budget management of the twelve years of Coalition government, public finances in NSW are not in great shape.
It is certainly true that former premier and banker, Mike Baird, engaged in some profitable transactions which involved flipping assets for big bucks in order to invest in other assets, particularly infrastructure. In this way, state net debt looked very low for a while. There are however serious question marks over some of these transactions for the anti-competitive concessions made as part of the deals – think here ports.
Having set up the state for years of expensive and unreliable energy, Matt Kean had also taken on the role of state treasurer when Dom became premier. Last year, Kean managed to deliver a budget deficit of over $11 billion – it was initially expected to be only $3.6bn – and net state government debt is forecast to rise to $115 billion or 14 per cent of gross state product by the middle of the decade. In other words, it’s not a great time, fiscally speaking, for Minns to be taking over.
Removing the cap on public sector pay rises is a potential highway to problems down the track. And as the largest state, the Reserve Bank will be watching these developments in NSW carefully lest a wage-price spiral is initiated that will require even higher interest rates to throttle inflationary pressures.
Of course, all the talk about the electoral demise of the Liberal party is essentially guff, similar to the conversations that took place when the Ruddster and Labor premiers ruled the land. Having said this, there is no doubt that organisationally the Liberal party in NSW (and in Victoria and South Australia and Western Australia and Queensland) has to acknowledge some key weaknesses. Far too much time is spent on fighting about the spoils of parliamentary office rather than engaging with (and enlarging) the membership and undertaking some vigorous debate about policy. To delay pre-selections, as happened in NSW and federally, is surely unforgivable.
There is an issue whether times of widespread cost-of-living pressures suit truly centre-right parties that correctly focus on tight controls on spending and do not favour handouts. In the short term, there is certainly some electoral value to measures designed to help households (and to a less extent, businesses) cope with higher price pressures – rebates, free kindergarten, vouchers and the like. It’s only when these measures don’t lead to much lower inflation overall that the penny finally drops for the public that piecemeal measures actually make the inflation problem worse.
It will be a challenging time for the new premier, Chris Minns. But whether the opposition, possibly led by Kean (groan), can take it up to the Minns’ government seems unlikely at this stage.