The next NSW election, due on 23 March 2019, increasingly looks like being a tight one, and that means last Saturday’s Wagga Wagga by-election was not a good omen for the government of Gladys Berejiklian. The Liberals lost the seat, which they had held since 1957, to independent Joe McGirr with a swing of almost 30 per cent.
But there were extenuating factors, particularly the widespread anger at the behaviour of the federal Liberal Party during last month’s leadership change. Local voters were further alienated by the conduct of former Liberal MP Daryl Maguire, who was forced to resign in disgrace after being implicated in corrupt conduct by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
And the government has things going for it. According to CommSec’s January 2018 State of the States report, New South Wales is still “the best performing economy” among the states and territories, “at or near the top of all indicators.” In the June budget, treasurer Dominic Perrottet unveiled a series of numbers that many of his predecessors could only have dreamed about. “Our surplus for 2017–18 stands at $3.9 billion — with surpluses averaging $1.6 billion projected in each year over the next four years,” he told parliament. “Our Triple A credit rating is affirmed. Net debt is negative for the third year running. Operating expenses per capita are the lowest of the mainland states, as is our debt to gross state product. And when it comes to net worth New South Wales is now the first ever quarter-trillion-dollar state.”
A large-scale infrastructure construction program is under way, with spending over the next four years taking in $51.2 billion on roads and transport, $8 billion on health and $6.8 billion on education, all of it largely funded by the sale of assets (chiefly electricity). The O’Farrell–Baird–Berejiklian government will undoubtedly leave a significant legacy of new infrastructure.
The premier’s performance is an overall plus, too. Politically, Gladys Berejiklian has proved to be astute and resilient. When there have been mistakes, her damage control has been prompt. In spite of Liberal factional divisions and friction with the Nationals, she has been able to maintain at least a facade of unity. She has the positive if unglamorous image of being competent, hard-working and sincere. According to a March Newspoll, 43 per cent prefer her as premier over her opposition counterpart, Luke Foley, on 25 per cent.
But although Berejiklian has buried issues like the amalgamation of local councils, which contributed to Mike Baird’s departure from the premiership, she faces some serious difficulties. One of her own making was the decision in November 2017 to demolish and rebuild the former Olympic stadium at Homebush, now ANZ Stadium, and Allianz Stadium, formerly the Sydney Football Stadium, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Faced with a price tag of $2.5 billion, the public reaction was overwhelmingly negative, the common theme being that public funds of that magnitude should not be spent on rebuilding two relatively new venues. Foley responded with the effective mantra of “schools and hospitals before stadiums.”
Realising the damage the controversy was causing, Berejiklian backed off. In late March she announced that the ANZ Stadium would be renovated rather than rebuilt, though the rebuilding of the Allianz Stadium would still proceed. The government had listened to the public, she said, and had taken a more detailed look at the figures. The revised plans are expected to cost $1.5 billion. This retreat went some way towards neutralising the issue.
Despite its long-term benefits, the government’s infrastructure program has short-term costs resulting from the disruption and inconvenience caused by construction. In this respect, the WestConnex motorway and the southeastern and CBD light-rail projects have been particularly controversial. The CBD rail line is also significantly behind schedule and over budget.
A related and growing problem for the government is the damage to Sydney’s suburbs wrought by high-rise development. As the Sydney Morning Herald commented in May, the consolidation of the city is widely perceived to be “haphazard and uncontrolled” and to “serve the interests of get-rich-quick merchants, rather than communities… Over-development is not just a barbecue stopper: it is potentially the biggest political sleeper ahead of the state election.”
Opposition leader Foley has been adept at exploiting the government’s problems. Like his federal counterpart, Bill Shorten, he is focusing on inequality and disadvantage. His theme is that the government is obsessed with privatisation and infrastructure while allowing the services the community depends on to run down. Labor, by contrast, will “rebuild TAFE, protect the environment and put schools and hospitals before stadiums,” he told parliament in June. Under Foley, Labor has rebuilt after the devastating defeat of 2011, and the taint of the Eddie Obeid years has faded. The last time Newspoll surveyed statewide voting intentions, in March, the government and opposition were each on 50 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote.
But Foley has his own problems. The dominant NSW right will never be comfortable with a leader, like Foley, from the left. He has also fallen out with his deputy, Michael Daley, who has leadership aspirations, and the party’s powerful state secretary, Kaila Murnain, who is said to have been canvassing alternative leaders. Some of his colleagues are reported to have reservations about his judgement and conduct.
In the electorate, there is a level of disenchantment with the government. As with any administration, the longer its period in office, the greater the number of disgruntled, disappointed or alienated voters. Whether this low-level irritation will become sufficient by polling day for a majority of the electorate to again trust Labor is hard to predict.
The government holds fifty-two of the ninety-three seats in the Legislative Assembly, with Labor on thirty-four. Gaining a majority is a formidable task for the opposition, particularly as it picked most of the low-hanging fruit at the last election. Complicating the picture are the seven crossbenchers in the lower house: three Greens, a left-leaning independent, a Shooter, and two other independents who are more conservatively inclined. If all, most or even more of them are re-elected in 2019, a hung parliament is a distinct possibility. It is hard to see Labor picking up enough seats to form a minority government even if it has substantial crossbench support. A narrow Coalition victory or a minority Coalition government, on present indications, seem the most likely outcomes. ●