Shortcuts / 23 March 2023

The NSW state election

Australia’s most populous state heads to the ballot box on Saturday, so in this week’s Squiz Shortcut, we take a look at the vibe after 12 years of Coalition government, the relative newbies battling to be Premier, and the big pitches and promises of their campaigns.

Umm, I need a reminder about who the NSW Premier is …
It’s Dominic Perrottet, but it’s a fair question as the NSW Liberals have had an extraordinary churn of leaders over the past 12 years. To put this in perspective – because of COVID, most Aussies will have heard of Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews. He took on that job in 2014, and since then the Libs have burned through 4 leaders in NSW.

My memory needs jogging again…
So at the beginning of 2014, the NSW Premier was Barry O’Farrell. Mike Baird took over later that year but he resigned in 2017. Then Gladys Berejikilian took over. She quit in 2021, meaning the current Premier, Dominic Perrottet, has only been in the role just shy of 18 months.

That’s quite the revolving door…
It is, and Berejiklian was the one who was meant to have been taking the Liberals to this election. But then ICAC – the anti-corruption body – launched a probe into misconduct allegations regarding the awarding of millions of dollars of grants to community groups in regional NSW.

What was that about?
The nub of that was whether that was a conflict of interest because at the time she was in a relationship with the Liberal Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire.

What did that inquiry find?
ICAC still hasn’t released the findings of its investigation – those hearings were held 18 months ago. And at the time, Berejiklian said even though it was against her instincts, she had to resign because it was impossible to continue as Premier while such an inquiry was taking place.

It was a pretty big bombshell…
Yep, and it was right in the middle of the pandemic – she was pretty popular in NSW for how she handled it. But what makes what happened to Gladys more compelling was that her former boss was another scalp claimed by ICAC just a few years before her.

Do tell…
So Barry O’Farrell led the Liberals to power in 2011 after 16 years of Labor government. And just 3 years into the job he got asked by ICAC about receiving a $3,000 bottle of Grange from a lobbyist. He denied on oath that he had received that bottle of wine but was forced to resign after his own thank-you note to the lobbyist was tendered as evidence.

That’s quite the backstory…
And that revolving door of leaders is why this election battle in NSW is shaping up to be such an interesting one, as there’s no advantage of incumbency. When you look at the popularity of state leaders like Dan Andrews and Mark McGowan during the pandemic, it’s unlikely this election would be much of a contest if Berejiklian were still at the helm.

Hasn’t NSW Labor had its own revolving door of leaders?
Yep – between 2018 and 2021, Labor has had 5 different Opposition leaders in NSW. Chris Minns is the latest and he’s the guy who’s leading Labor to this election.

And he’s in with a shot?
He’s really come from nowhere to Labor now being the favourite to win with the bookies and in the polls. But few think it’s going to be a landslide – there’s lots of talk of a minority government and Labor just scrapping over the line.

What do the major parties need to win?
Well, you need 47 seats to hold government in your own right and the Libs have actually gone backwards since the last election and only have 46 seats. So they have to hold all of those to have a shot at forming government. Labor needs to win 9 more seats to govern in its own right.

So it could be tight?
It’s looking that way… Pollster Jim Reed says Labor remains the favourite because it’s more likely to get over the line with preferences from minor parties and independents. But he also reckons things could change because voters haven’t really decided on Perrottet and Minns.

Tell me about Perrottet…
So one thing most people know about the NSW Premier is that he has 7 kids. He actually took parental leave when he was only a few months into the job after his wife gave birth.

What about the man himself?
So he’s 40yo and is one of 12 kids. He’s got a law degree from Sydney Uni and was raised in the Hills District in Sydney’s northwest by parents who were part of the ultra-conservative Opus Dei branch of the Catholic faith.

That’s something that’s been talked about a lot…
It sure has – Perrottet’s had to answer a lot of questions about how much that faith drives his decision-making in politics. But during his premiership he has allowed a conscience vote on voluntary assisted dying laws and promised to ban gay conversion therapy. He also received praise from the trans community for funding Sydney’s first queer history museum, Qtopia.

So he has a few fans…
Yep, and Paul Keating is apparently one. The former Labor PM praised him for reigning in the scale of development down at Barangaroo near Darling Harbour. He said, “Thank God for the Premier… states get lucky. They get people with a civic conscience, and we have one with the Premier.”

Okay, gimme the lowdown on Chris Minns…
He only came into NSW Parliament in 2015 but he’s been in the Labor Party his whole adult life. Like Perrottet, he’s a practising Catholic, and Minns has a Master of Public Policy from Princeton University. He’s married and has 3 young sons.

So he’s quite ambitious, then?
You could say that. Even though he’s just 43yo and was only elected to parliament in 2015, he made his first tilt for the Labor leadership in 2018. His mates inside Labor always thought he was destined for greater things. One of his closest confidantes over the past couple of years has actually been South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas. They were both Opposition leaders together a couple of years back.

A handy friend to have…
He is, and he and Minns actually decided midway through the pandemic they couldn’t be constantly critical of their respective governments – they just needed to ride it out. Minns has also been studying the Malinauskas playbook when it comes to focusing on Aussies’ everyday concerns during his election campaign.

How popular is he in his own electorate?
Well, he’s actually walking a tightrope in his own seat of Kogarah in Sydney’s south, which he holds by a slim margin of just 0.1%. Minns doesn’t reckon this is one of those situations where Labor could win Government and he could lose the seat. He thinks he’ll be there if Labor wins – and on the flipside, if he loses, Labor won’t have gotten the swing it needs to win Government.

What kind of promises are being floated in the leadup to the election?
The first one to mention is what’s really been the Liberals’ signature election policy – what they’re calling the Kids Future Fund. They are promising every child under 10yo in the state will get an account containing $400, and parents can add up to $1,000 a year into that fund, $400 of which will be matched by the government.

Before you get too excited – it’s only when those kids turn 18yo that they can access the money, and it can only be used for education purposes or purchasing a property. That policy has plenty of both fans and critics – the Opposition says it will widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

I’ve also heard a lot about anti-gambling reforms…
Yeah, so just to set the scene for this one – gamblers in NSW lose $7 billion every year on the pokies and there are some 80,000 machines around the state. It’s about 5 times more than people lose on sports betting – so it’s a real scourge affecting a lot of families.

And it’s provided a windfall for pubs and clubs…
For sure, and they have been very vocal against any change that would stop people pumping more cash into the pokies. So it was a pretty big deal when Perrottet announced all pokie machines in the state would become cashless if he’s re-elected.

How would that work?
So before people load up their gaming cards they would have to nominate how much they are prepared to lose. Once they’ve set that amount they can’t change it for a week. The card can also be programmed to ensure players take breaks and can’t be topped up from a credit card.

Does Labor back that idea?
Not completely – Minns says he’ll run a smaller-scale trial of these cashless cards before deciding, which is interesting given it was the NSW Crime Commission that actually recommended the state go cashless. But if he needs the support of the crossbench to form Government, they’ve made it clear this is a key policy for them so he might need to negotiate.

What are Labor’s big election pitches?
It’s put public ownership of key infrastructure at the heart of its campaign – it’s been really critical of the Coalition’s sell-off of state assets, saying it keeps costing the public more every year. Minns says the Libs are planning to privatise Sydney Water, though Perrottet denies this. He wants to change the NSW Constitution to help to keep it in public hands.

So the Labor vibe is kind of ‘It’s time’?
Yep – at the campaign launch, Minns said it was “time for a fresh start” – he’s banking on the public being worn down by government in-fighting and scandals. The Libs are running with the line that voters should stick with them due to their experience and economic management.

We’ll find out what voters think soon enough…
And of course, we’ll bring you all the results in your Monday morning Squiz Today.

Squiz recommends:

ABC election analyst Antony Green on where the NSW election will be decided

Deborah Snow’s feature profiles on Dominic Perrottet and Chris Minns

Squiz Shortcuts - A weekly explainer on a big news topic.

Get the Squiz Today newsletter

It's a quick read and doesn't take itself too seriously. Get on it.