Tarnished Crown Jewel
By ROSS FITZGERALD
With Malcolm Turnbull hanging on by a one-seat majority federally, the devastating result in the Western Australian state election leaves the Liberal/National Party coalition in power in only one mainland state in Australia.
The party jewel that the conservatives retain is a significant one, the government of the biggest, wealthiest and most powerful state, New South Wales.
Media reporting of the Liberal/National government there generally has been benign; memories of the debacle that characterised the previous Labor governments in NSW still represent fresh wounds in the memories of many commentators.
An objective look at the current state government’s record and recent performance, however, doesn’t create much reason for optimism for the incumbents retaining authority after the next state election.
Barry O’Farrell led the Coalition to victory in 2011. Given the appalling performance of Labor in the run up to that election it was not surprising that the victory was massive, with some predicting that Labor would not return to power for a lifetime.
But soon things began to unravel.
It did not take long for former deputy Liberal Party leader and former Minister for Resources and Energy Chris Hartcher to cease being a party member. He firstly moved to the cross bench and then resigned from NSW parliament following the finding at the Independent Commission Against Corruption that he had ‘engaged in conduct with the intent of evading electoral laws’.
Along with a number of state Liberal members, Hartcher found himself facing accusations that he had accepted ‘donations’ from Central Coast property developers. Other Liberals brought down by that scandal included former police minister Mike Gallagher as well as Tim Owen – who had only entered state parliament at the preceding election.
The scandal included allegations of wads of cash being delivered in traditional form, the infamous brown paper bag. The former parliamentarians involved all claimed that the money so provided all went to election costs rather than personal expenditure and, in the absence of evidence to the contrary we’ll have to accept that. However the outcome was that the ranks of the Liberal/National government were severely thinned in the coalition’s first term.
This crisis was not the government’s worst. Premier Barry O’Farrell stated boldly that he had not received the gift of a bottle of Grange Hermitage worth something more than three thousand dollars to help him celebrate his election win. Not only was there testimony that it had been given to him but his hand-written note of thanks was produced.
O’Farrell who also had to resign from power in ignominy, was replaced as premier by Mike Baird, possessor of an engaging smile and an engaging voice. Baird quickly became the Australian politician with the highest approval rating. His image was enhanced when he took the bold step of announcing a partial sale of aspects of electricity generation in his state. By many, he was seen as an honest risk taker. But Baird resigned at the start of the year. His remarkable decision, taken virtually unilaterally, to ban the racing of greyhound dogs in NSW was seen as the root cause of the government’s loss of what was formerly a Nationals stronghold in the seat of Orange.
Some commentators believe that the anti-Baird reaction was not only based on a love of dog racing as contempt for the view that a premier, arrogantly, should attempt to impose his moral principles on the electorate.
Many denied that this is what he had been elected to do. Others noted that the wave of road building on which Baird had staked his political reputation had destroyed inner city trees and parks, denuded some much-loved suburbs and turned many citizens out of their homes on the provision of grossly inadequate compensation. It was not lost on others that since the partial privatisation of electricity, supply prices in NSW have risen sharply and supply is no longer guaranteed. In the face of community anger and disapproval Baird departed parliament, soon accepting a very highly paid banking job, and giving the NSW Liberal-National government its third premier in around six years.
Baird’s replacement, Gladys Berejiklian, has her reputation tightly tied to the success of the creation of a light-rail line from the eastern suburbs of Sydney into its CBD. Again this process has seen the destruction of invaluable public space and hundreds of large and ancient trees. Some now question whether the project as planned will improve movement in the city, or make it worse. The new premier told parliament that a cost blow-out of more than half a billion dollars was the result of project improvements. But others claim that documents, if released, would demonstrate that the original cost of the project was totally botched under Berejiklian’s watch when she was Minister for Transport. But so far the current premier has refused to release the relevant documents to parliament.
The reality is that, in many ways, the coalition government in NSW has delivered the same sort of instability and bungling characterised by the Labor governments it replaced – with the exception that, when in power in NSW Labor turned no one out of homes and didn’t destroy masses of parkland and trees. Yet credit where credit’s due, it’s important to acknowledge that it was the Coalition that turned the NSW economy around and that’s a huge difference from the previous Labor years.
Meanwhile voices in rural and regional NSW claim that all the assets sold belonged to the citizenry and that they can’t see what country areas have achieved in the way of improved service and other provisions as a result of the sales.
Already there are rumours that some of the current NSW government’s best performers are looking to move on to greener pastures. It’s sad to say, but short of a much-needed and genuine conservative renaissance, it’s hard to see the Liberal Party retaining its remaining jewel for very much longer. Indeed don’t be surprised if, on April 8, the Liberal’s lose a by-election for the seat of North Shore caused by the resignation of disgruntled ex-NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University and the author of 39 books, including the political/sexual satire GOING OUT BACKWARDS: A GRAFTON EVEREST ADVENTURE.
The Spectator Australia, 25 March 2017, p xii