With the New South Wales state election in 11 days, Premier Mike Baird is desperately rounding up supporters for his plan to lease 49% of the state’s power distribution network to pay for $20 billion worth of infrastructure. His latest recruit is Glenn Byres, executive director of the NSW division of the Property Council of Australia, the lobbying arm of private developers and construction giants.
In the Sydney media, Byres has been spruiking support for the Coalition’s dubious power sale, saying its proceeds will build new rail and road projects deferred or axed by previous Labor governments. His comments have angered Labor supporters who remember Byres in his previous career as press secretary to premier Bob Carr and then to federal opposition leader Mark Latham. But times have changed, and Byres is now playing a prominent role in the re-election of the NSW Coalition and supporting its central policy of privatisation.
In a press statement, Carr and Latham’s former mouthpiece said:
“We can’t afford to kick the can down the road any longer as congestion is going to cripple the city — yet Labor is doing that with its refusal to lease the poles and wires. There is no case for halting investment when asset recycling will produce the funds needed to start work on the next generation of major projects. The rail and road projects to be seeded by asset recycling are essential in getting people to and from work, connecting markets and making Sydney a more liveable city.”
Byres singled out the second harbour tunnel crossing because of its capacity to enhance patronage through the CBD, which has a projected workforce growth of 100,000 over the next 15 years. He criticised Labor’s proposal to leave the WestConnex motorway “in limbo”, saying that the project was “crucial in servicing the expanding freight task” facing the city and the jobs growth in Sydney’s west.
Byres’ remarks were so generous they almost sounded like a campaign advertisement. And therein lies the problem. Under the Election Funding, Expenditure and Disclosures Act 1981, political parties are banned from receiving donations from property developers. As a majority of the members of the PCA are large-, medium- and small-scale developers, is it breaching the electoral laws by advocating support for the only party in the election that is advocating an asset sale to fund a massive infrastructure campaign?
Perhaps the NSW Electoral Commission should be invited to give a ruling on the PCA’s electioneering on behalf the Coalition.
Baird has welcomed the PCA’s generous support for his campaign, saying in a statement:
“The Property Council has proven a clear and consistent voice for good policy, both on behalf of its industry but also the broader needs of this city and NSW as a whole. It actively promotes the case for economic growth, modern infrastructure and stronger cities and regions. As we set about rebuilding NSW, the government looks forward to continued collaboration with the Property Council on solutions that help build a platform for jobs, investment and prosperity in NSW.”
Byres is not the only senior ALP figure who supports Baird’s sell-off and $20 billion public-private works spend. Right-wing MPs, retired cabinet ministers and ex-MPs have privately expressed their disappointment with Foley’s negative campaign strategy. “He is trying to balance between the Right wing and his own Left wing and he has ignored the centre,” one veteran MP told Crikey.
Writing about Byres’ time as Mark Latham’s press secretary, journalist Bernard Lagan wrote in his book on the maverick opposition leader Loner: Inside a Labor Tragedy in 2005 that Byres had “a sensitive political radar”. He wrote:
“In his early 30s, Byres liked a drink and a smoke and was an avid sport fan. (His father was the well-known international rugby referee, Dick Byres.) He had a reputation for being sharp and calm. Byres’ relationship with Latham was the best among the travelling staffers.”
Is that a favourable character reference? In any case, he’s clearly making his way up “the ladder of opportunity” with the Liberals and property developers.