Bribing voters is a principal weapon in every politician’s toolbox, but blackmailing voters is a very different matter.

Throwing caution to the wind, New South Wales Premier Mike Baird is employing both bribery and blackmail to gather votes for the next state election on March 28. This week he launched a $20 billion spending splurge, the centrepiece of his re-election strategy to win a second term for the Coalition.

He doesn’t have the funding yet; it will be raised from the sale of 50% of the poles and wires in the state’s power network. But here’s the catch: the massive infrastructure program will not start unless voters return the Coalition to office. As Baird told a press conference on Tuesday: “If we don’t win, not a cent will be spent.”

Bribe? Sounds more like blackmail. You might even call it a stick-up.

Baird’s re-election pitch is set out in a 23-page booklet called Rebuilding NSW — State Infrastructure Strategy 2014” containing $20 billion worth of infrastructure promises, $10 billion of them in the critical electorates of western Sydney.

In the past 48 hours Baird, the new Deputy Premier Troy Grant and senior cabinet ministers have been carpet-bombing the media with glittering projects to “turbo-charge NSW”: $7 billion on Sydney Rapid Transit providing a rail link between the CBD and Bankstown; $1.1 billion on the WestConnex tollway extension to North and Southern Sydney; $1 billion on metropolitan and regional schools; and another $1 billion on metropolitan and regional hospitals. It pays to read the fine print; you’ll discover that Baird’s plan will open the door to the extension of private hospitals and schools, a key ideological aim of the Abbott government.

The list of gifts goes on and on. It’s as if Santa Claus has come early for NSW voters.

  • Deputy Premier Troy Grant, MP for Dubbo, announced $6 billion would be directed towards regional infrastructure, including $3.7 billion on regional road and bridges;
  • Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian promised $8.9 billion for public transport projects to “transform Sydney forever”; and
  • Roads Minister Duncan Gay pledged $2.4 billion on the Western Harbour Tunnel from Rozelle to the M2 Motorway “to smash congestion on Sydney roads”.

Amid a flurry of press releases, the $20 billion expected from the partial poles-and-wires sale vanished into a bottomless pit of infrastructure spending. Would all these projects really be planned, started and finished by the Baird government? Call me a cynic, but I somehow doubt it.

While Baird has probably judged that the voters are now ready to accept the sale of yet another tranche of the power industry that the public once owned, he has packaged the sale and the multibillion-dollar spend into a process that is too clever by half.

To try to bribe/blackmail voters into voting Liberal or National at the election on the promise of an infrastructure bonanza is risky because the projects seem little more than a wish list.

Furthermore, in this day and age, when Prime Minister Tony Abbott breaks election promises with casual abandon, how many voters will believe that the Baird government will deliver?

The old joke has become a truism:

Q. How do you know when a politician is lying?

A. His lips move.

Buried in the final pages of the “Rebuilding NSW” report is a vague reference to allocating unspecified funds to cultural institutions, including the Sydney Opera House, Walsh Bay Arts Precinct and the Art Gallery of NSW. Baird has declared that his own preference is to proceed with the relocation of the Powerhouse Museum from Ultimo to Parramatta, another bribe to western Sydney voters.

Victorian Premier Denis Napthine is trying to woo voters in Saturday’s Victorian election with his $8 billion East West road tunnel. Mike Baird and his anxious election strategists will stay up on Saturday night to see whether it works.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey