Gladys Berejiklian is undoubtedly one of the best-prepared candidates to take over the premiership of New South Wales in modern times. The Liberal partyroom confirmed her elevation as party leader and premier on Monday morning, with Dominic Perrottet to serve as her deputy.
Most of Berejiklian’s successful predecessors – Neville Wran, Nick Greiner, Bob Carr and Barry O’Farrell, for example – came to the job with much less experience of government, relying on strong performances as opposition leader. Berejiklian has successfully managed two of the most difficult portfolios – transport and treasury – with responsibility for the Hunter and industrial relations thrown in for variety. She also has experience as a senior member of the team that won a landslide victory over Labor in 2011.
However, being well prepared does not guarantee an easy time in office. Berejiklian inherits a Liberal Party that was losing public support in the last year of Mike Baird’s administration.
A vague smell of corruption over Liberal Party electoral funding practices also lingers. This is helped along by the Coalition’s recent decision to restructure the management of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) – a move many saw as designed to weaken the body that exposed those funding practices.
The NSW Liberal Party is still strongly factionalised at both the parliamentary and local level. O’Farrell was able to neutralise the influence of the radical right faction, while Baird promoted a raft of economic policies that were generally acceptable to the right.
If Berejiklian, who is from the left, wants to choose a different policy mix then she can expect the right will exert its influence. The right faction does not have any viable alternative leadership candidates of its own, but has a strong enough presence in the partyroom to make life difficult.
Berejiklian’s stated intention to concentrate on economic development issues should not have factional implications, although any more PR disaster projects like WestConnex will not be well received. One of the interesting questions is how well she will be able to stare down opposition in the partyroom.
Berejiklian will certainly face a much less compliant National Party. This is a result of the recent shock defeat of the Nationals candidate at the recent Orange by-election, attributed to a perception in rural areas that the Nationals had ignored the interests of rural communities when it allowed the Baird government to ban greyhound racing (a decision it later reversed).
As a result of the by-election loss the Nationals also have a new leader, John Barilaro. He seems to have learned the lessons of the defeat in Orange.
The first issue Berejiklian will face on that front is local council and shire amalgamations. There will also be pressure to take a greater interest in the provision of good schools, hospitals and roads for country areas, which she should be able to accommodate without difficulty.
Relations with the Nationals will be important as the next election approaches, since the Liberal Party is likely to be in deep trouble in its favoured electorates. The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party’s success in Orange will certainly give it a higher profile in lower house seats. And the resurgence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation will result in contests in most – if not all – rural seats.
There have been strong challenges in some electorates from local independents in recent state elections. There will be no safe seats for the Nationals.
Fortunately for Berejiklian, Labor is not in a position to profit from this situation. The “Country Labor” brand has made little impact in country areas in recent elections.
Nevertheless, given there is currently a swing against the Coalition, and a tight election is likely, a hung parliament after the next election is a real possibility.
Although Labor under Luke Foley has improved its position quickly after the catastrophic election defeat in 2011, it does not offer a great threat to the Berejiklian. Labor cannot win from opposition unless the government makes a complete mess of things – as Baird was threatening to do.
Berejiklian is a more instinctive political animal than Baird. She is less ideological, more pragmatic and prepared to compromise, so one would expect her to consult more and spend more energy on convincing the electorate of the value of her political initiatives.
Overall, while local press, radio and TV commentators prefer Liberal to Labor politicians, and were initially supportive of O’Farrell and Baird, any apparent mistakes will be jumped on. But this premier is female.
After the overtly sexist trashing of Julia Gillard by Tony Abbott, and of Hillary Clinton by Donald Trump – both enthusiastically supported by right-wing media outlets – one has to wonder whether a female premier in NSW will be treated fairly.
Media handling of the state’s first female premier, Kristina Keneally, wasn’t particularly friendly, but that was not primarily because of her gender. It probably helps that Berejiklian is on the conservative side of politics.
Shock jock Alan Jones has already fired one broadside against her. But on this issue – as on many others – we will just have to wait and see.
It used to be the case that participation in political life was considered to be a vocation, and that those who chose it were in it for the long haul, through thick and thin. The most prominent example of this in Australian history was Billy Hughes. Even after he lost the prime ministership in early 1923 he continued to be a member of the House of Representatives until his death in 1952.
That has all changed. Mike Baird’s resignation, both as New South Wales premier and from the state parliament, comes as somewhat of a shock. He is only 48, has been an MP for less than ten years and premier for less than three. One would have thought his best years in public life were ahead of him.
Baird has cited personal reasons for his decision to leave politics, and one can well sympathise with him in regard to the health of his parents and sister. Public life is demanding and invariably takes a toll on the personal lives of those who participate in it.
One should point out, though, that this is the case in many occupations, including the law, high-level finance and executive positions in the public service.
Baird is the fifth NSW premier in the last ten years, and only one of them lost their job as the result of an election. His predecessor, Barry O’Farrell, resigned in the wake of allegations he had failed to declare a bottle of Grange Hermitage as a gift.
One should ask if it is a good thing that the NSW premiership has been turned over so often in recent times. In this regard, it seems to resemble the turnover at the federal level.
Baird’s resignation was not caused by scandal or political machinations leading to him being overthrown. In his relatively short time as premier he has performed reasonably well. NSW has performed quite well in economic terms; there have been no issues in the area of power generation; and, as Baird points out, there has been infrastructure development.
Sure, there have been a few problems over the past year relating to council amalgamations and the attempt to close down the greyhound industry. Certainly 2016 was a much more difficult year for Baird than 2015.
One could argue, though, that the problems of 2016 could have been an important aspect of Baird’s political education, and one would have hoped it would make him a better and more effective premier. Alas, that is not to be the case.
Politicians like to argue that a political career is like any other career. This means they develop skills and capacities that make them good at their job. It also means they should become more effective the longer they spend in politics.
This was certainly the case with John Howard, who did not become prime minister until he had been in public life for more than 20 years.
In this regard we shall never know just how effective Baird might have been as a political leader. He became premier in 2014 and initially enjoyed considerable popularity. He won an election. And, like any political leader, he made a few mistakes that dinted his popularity.
At this stage, one would have expected that he would have taken advantage of his setbacks, as did Howard, to grow as political leader.
We will now not know the true capacities of Baird as a leader. Instead, a successor will have to take over and learn the ropes. It will be interesting to see how the NSW people react to yet another change in leadership.
The issue would seem to be that in the new world, for many politicians, a time in politics is just another stage in their careers as they progress to other things. This is not to deny that political life is a hard life. The problem may be the modern way of thinking of it as a career, as something one does just to satisfy ambition.
Australia, both federally and at the state level, needs good leadership if it is to thrive. Good leaders just don’t appear out of nowhere. They become good leaders by working hard and growing into their jobs.
The link below is to an article that reports on Australia’s Hillsong Church and its invitation to Mark Driscoll for its Sydney convention later this month. Mark Driscoll was lead pastor at the Mars Hill Church in Seattle, USA.