Baird Quits: NSW Libs’ One Chance To Get It Right

THE RESIGNATION of NSW Premier Mike Baird today was not really unexpected; with several immediate family members gravely ill, Baird’s decision to quit to enable himself to help more is entirely in character. But NSW’s Liberal government — arguably two years from defeat until this morning’s news — now gets one chance to aright itself under a new leader. Either way, the instability that marked 16 years of ALP rule continues apace.

Yet again, the half-finished piece on the Turnbull government is being delayed on account of things that just happen, and yet again, I am going to be circumspect: not through any shortage of time for a change but because really, the political ramifications of today’s change can be well and truly picked apart over the coming few days. It is probably a little more decent, in the circumstances, to keep discussion of those to a minimum.

But the news that NSW Premier Mike Baird has decided to call time on his decade-long career in politics — including three years as Premier — was to be expected; the poor health of his mother and father has not been a secret, and the revelation his sister Julia has relapsed in her cancer battle is very sad indeed.

Whatever people think of Baird, his devotion as a family man is the stuff of legend; a deeply religious man not always comfortable with personal interactions, he has been misrepresented at times as aloof or dour (or as one newspaper piece put it today, “a dictator).

I have consistently argued in this column that MPs of every stripe, love them or loathe them, are human beings first and foremost: and whilst some have sorely tested my inclination to treat them as such, and others proved undeserving of such basic courtesies at all (Bill Shorten, please note) the fact is that bad things happen to people from all walks of life, and our elected representatives are no different.

I wish Baird the very best for a happy and healthy retirement from public life, and I hope he enjoys the extra time he has to spend with his kids (you don’t need to be in politics to have too little of that). He can walk away knowing that despite the political difficulties that have lately engulfed it, he was jointly the leader of a government that over six years has restored NSW (and Sydney in particular) to the position NSW people believe they should occupy as the drivers of Australia’s economy and the engine room of the country’s growth.

(I could say something viciously parochial as a ferociously proud Melburnian about everything that is wrong with Sydney, but I won’t. This time).

It is always upsetting when elderly relatives enter declining health, and in this sense — with parents only slightly younger than Baird’s — I both sympathise and can relate. Bruce Baird (again, agree or disagree with his political views) was, like his son, a gentleman of politics, and widely liked throughout the Liberal Party. Clearly I know nothing of Baird’s mum, but to have both parents seriously ill simultaneously is a cruel blow.

Add in his sister too, and the Bairds have had more than their fair share of grief to deal with, quite literally.

We wish their family the very best as they work through these very grave health issues.

Despite the successes the NSW Coalition is able to point to in terms of outcomes, it has also mishandled an adequate number of issues to suggest that provided the opposition Labor Party can get its…self…together, the Liberals’ second term in office might well be its last.

Council amalgamations and the ridiculous attempt to ban greyhound racing — along with stunts like the lockout laws in Kings Cross, which have merely transferred drunken and miscreant behaviour to other parts of Sydney in the wee small hours — have added up, and the Coalition now trails in reputable polling of state voting intent just six years after winning two-thirds of the two-party vote at an election.

To date, there is little to suggest the attempts to fix these mistakes has cut much ice with the NSW electorate.

And whilst the junior Coalition partner, the Nationals, has had three leaders of its own in six years (and lost one of its safest seats anywhere in the country through the Orange By-election), the selection of Baird’s replacement — almost universally anticipated to be the treasurer, Gladys Berejiklian — will signal the seventh Premier of the Premier State in just ten years.

The rotating door on the Premier’s office in Macquarie Street, which spun like crazy during the 16-year tenure of the ALP and was credited as a contributing factor to that party’s demise in 2011, is still revolving now: and it is to be hoped that whoever replaces Baird will, election results permitting, stay in the one spot for at least five to seven years to provide some sorely needed stability.

As I said, however, we will leave the politics of today’s announcement for another time; aside from this brief recap, it’s really not the time to explore these issues thoroughly.

But in closing, I think Baird’s departure buys the NSW Liberals one chance — and one chance only — to aright the ship and retrieve their standing under a new leader.

For reasons that extend well beyond the state’s borders, they had sure as hell better get it right.

Premier Of NSW: The More Things Change…

NEW SOUTH WALES — by sunset today — will have its sixth Premier in nine years; whilst this column has enthusiastically endorsed Treasurer Mike Baird to take on the top job, it is to be hoped that whatever decision is made by NSW’s Liberal MPs signals the injection of some stability into the upper reaches of government in the Premier State. Pulling on the ballot to favour one candidate over another is not a good sign.

First things first: I want to clear up something that has been the subject of several telephone calls since I posted on the resignation of Barry O’Farrell yesterday.

It seems some readers have misinterpreted my remarks as having accused O’Farrell of corruption; this is simply untrue, although in the fracas that exploded around the issue yesterday I think it’s probably fair to say a lot of insinuations and accusations have been flung about injudiciously in many places and forums, and there is a need for some perspective.

O’Farrell has resigned, in short, because he misled/falsely testified/lied to (take your pick) a corruption inquiry that he had been called as a witness to, not because he was corrupt. There is a world of difference.

The reason this has rendered his position as Premier untenable is twofold: firstly (and despite suggestions to the contrary from some of his misty-eyed colleagues yesterday), giving false testimony to ICAC — on a scale of relative equivalents — ranks somewhere near misleading Parliament in terms of the gravity of the deed; it is, however inadvertent or well-intentioned, a serious act that runs counter to the very notions of honesty, openness and probity that a body such as ICAC exists to facilitate in the first place.

Secondly — and intertwined with the first point — is the political damage that would surely follow O’Farrell had he attempted to tough it out and remain in office: having campaigned incessantly from opposition on a platform to clean up New South Wales and root out corruption and other forms of malpractice, the fact he misled ICAC would have weakened his authority, perhaps fatally; damaged the public standing of the office of Premier of New South Wales; and potentially compromised the ongoing campaign to clean up the murky and often sordid mire that passed for government in NSW under the ALP.

All of that, mind, is before we even consider the really political stuff: already, opposition leader John Robertson is making public overtures about “an invitation” to the new Premier to “join him in cleaning up NSW together;” for a man who has admitted failing to report a $3 million bribe offer — presumably to protect a “maaate” by using his (questionable) judgement in the matter instead — Robertson seems to have too much to say all of a sudden by holding himself out as some shining beacon of squeaky clean governance.

Just imagine what he and some of his less-than-saintly cohorts would do to O’Farrell if he continued in office. It would be a crucifixion, a ritual slaughter, a bloodbath. Labor would emerge with blood on its hands but the Liberals would fare worse. The public would react with revulsion, as it would be entitled to do. The opportunistic Clive Palmer would swoop at next year’s election, picking up undeserved parliamentary sinecures like a vulture does carrion. None of this will occur now O’Farrell has (rightly) pulled the pin.

I do agree that it’s a bit ridiculous that a bottle of wine — no matter how expensive — has brought a state Premier down. Yet standards are standards, and under a system of responsible Cabinet government (in the real sense of the word) O’Farrell has taken the only appropriate course open to him, and fallen on his sword. To have done otherwise would be to render himself no better in stature or deed than the crooks in the ALP he rightly fought so hard to jettison from the government benches.

And whilst I have been scathing in my assessment of what O’Farrell has done with his time in the Premier’s office, that criticism is by no means personal: there are far, far worse blokes in politics than Barry O’Farrell, and the reality is that circumstance has conspired — if I can safely use that word — to terminate his tenure, which I believe needed to be ended in the interests of both the state of New South Wales and the Liberal Party, and at a time when no other mechanism to do so was apparent.

About the worst thing you can say of O’Farrell personally out of this episode is that he’s been a bit of a dickhead. He’s paid the price for it, too.

All of that aside, NSW will have a new Premier this afternoon, and not next week as initially reported; it seems that forces around O’Farrell (if not O’Farrell himself) have pulled the party meeting forward by a week in a move that appears designed to favour the lead candidate of the party’s moderate wing, Transport minister Gladys Berejiklian.

It doesn’t augur well, and it sends a typical but poor signal moving forward.

Berejiklian and O’Farrell are close, with the former spoken of in some quarters as the heir apparent; certainly those whose only concern is to see a woman elevated will be cock-a-hoop. But I don’t think, on balance, that she is the best candidate for the role.

Whilst a number of names have been bandied about in the media, this really is a two-horse race; unlike Berejiklian, Treasurer Mike Baird draws support from both the moderate and conservative wings of the party and thus — from a factional perspective — represents a more balanced candidate around whom the party can coalesce and regroup.

It would be naive to think such things do not occur, but lining a factional ally up behind O’Farrell to take over from him — especially in view of the difficulties NSW has posed for Tony Abbott — hardly amounts to the most constructive approach to co-operation with the federal government.

And whilst both ministers have been solid performers, it is difficult to argue that Baird hasn’t been the better of the two: he has made a very reasonable fist of a portfolio that was an absolute debacle when he took it on, and with Treasury at the heart of any government it has fallen to Baird to breathe life into the sleeping giant that is the NSW economy: an enterprise he has handled well, and which is increasingly showing signs of bearing fruit.

Whoever wins tomorrow (and I want to be careful to avoid spending too much time endorsing Baird — assuming, that is, that he even stands), the first objective of the new leader must be to restore some stability to government.

With nine Premiers in 25 years — including whoever becomes the ninth today — there’s obviously a real problem here; it’s been fun to joke about the “NSW disease” and the “revolving door of leadership” under the ALP, but that door spins a little further this afternoon when Liberal MPs vote on who next gets to walk through it.

Former Premier Kristina Keneally, meanwhile, has been briefing journalists in the past day or so to the effect that ICAC will uncover far more evidence of wrongdoing than it already has, and that more public figures in NSW will be dragged into the mire; and it does bear noting that three backbench Liberals based on the NSW Central Coast are also awaiting their day in the star chamber at ICAC to face allegations of official misconduct of their own.

The more things change, the more they stay the same; it is to be hoped — fervently — that no matter who emerges as NSW Premier this afternoon, that unhappy cycle can be disrupted, if not indeed broken altogether.