Written by Mitchell Collier, Media and Communications Consultant
It’s an old and worn out cliché to say that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. However, the events of the last few days demonstrate that a weekend can prove to be an eternity given the changes at the head of Australia’s largest state government. This past weekend was indeed a ‘long weekend’ in more ways than one.
On Friday afternoon, Gladys Berejiklian resigned as Premier of New South Wales and will exit parliament altogether. It follows the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) announcing it will investigate her over alleged conflicts of interest involving several government grants.
Just as the dust was settling on this bombshell announcement, Deputy Premier John Barilaro added to the frenzy by announcing his immediate departure from politics on Monday morning. While the Transport and Roads Minister, Andrew Constance, also announced over the weekend that he will quit state politics to run for the federal seat of Gilmore.
The new leadership team and their priorities
Dominic Perrottet easily defeated ministerial colleague Rob Stokes by 39 votes to 5 to become the 46th Premier of New South Wales. Although Mr Perrottet hails from the Right of the Party, he managed to secure support from many of the moderate-dominated faction including powerbrokers such as Matt Kean and Don Harwin. Meanwhile, Stuart Ayres was elected as the new Deputy Liberal Leader (replacing Mr Perrottet), however a replacement for Mr Barilaro as Deputy Premier is yet to take place.
The new Premier is just 39 years old and is the youngest ever leader of the State. He has already served in a variety of ministerial roles, most notably as Treasurer before his elevation to the top job. Prior to entering Parliament, he worked as a commercial lawyer.
Managing the current lockdown and delivering a strong recovery are obviously going to be the Premier’s key priorities. It is well known that Mr Perrottet favours taking a bolder approach to managing COVID, viewing lockdowns more as a last resort as opposed to a first. This was reiterated at his first press conference as Premier where he argued on the need to ‘live with COVID’ and that once New South Wales comes out of lockdown it will not revisit hard-line restrictions.
Although New South Wales is charging ahead with its vaccination rate, easily the highest in the country, there will still be challenges the new Premier will have to navigate on the pandemic front. This includes how businesses will operate once they reopen, negotiating the lifting of border restrictions (particularly with Queensland), and ensuring that Australia’s largest state makes a speedy economic recovery.
Losing three members of parliament in a week, no matter the circumstances, is never a good look for a government. But losing the Captain, the Vice-Captain and a senior player all at once is not good optics however you choose to spin it.
Not only do three by-elections provide the Opposition with an opportunity to grab momentum, it could have implications for the Government’s very survival. Should the Government lose all three by-elections (highly unlikely) it could see the votes on the floor of the parliament tied at 45 each (although the Speaker would then support the Government).
New South Wales has fixed terms, with the next poll not until March 2023. The new Premier will therefore be wanting to come out unscathed from the spate of by-elections, allowing him to then focus on bringing the state out of lockdown in a smooth manner. He will also be hoping the excitement of the long weekend just gone is not replicated over the next 18 months so that he can focus on providing stable government.