Mike Baird

Real estate is the major topic of conversation in NSW, just as it has been since the First Fleet arrived at Sydney Cove in 1788. While Melburnians talk about football and Brisbanites are obsessed by the weather (forecasts, rain, clouds, floods and fires), Sydneysiders discuss the price of land and property.

The two principal barbecue-stoppers are:

  • 1) The hard-luck story of someone who was offered a suburban house for $26,000 in 1970 and it just sold at auction last weekend for $1.2 million; and
  • 2) The lucky story of someone bequeathed several hectares of bushland in western Sydney when his/her parents died in 1980 and has just had the property compulsorily purchased by the state government for $10 million to build a motorway, rail corridor, shopping centre or airport.

This backstory helps to explain the acute tension within the NSW Coalition government over its much-delayed report on compulsory purchase of private property.

In May 2012, former premier Barry O’Farrell commissioned the review and upper house MP Greg Pearce, the then-finance minister, named taxation barrister David Russell SC to head the inquiry.

Russell is a Member of the Order of Australia for his service “to taxation law and legal education” and been awarded the little known Order of the Rising Sun with Gold Rays and Neck Ribbon for services to Australia-Japan relations.

Although his report was completed more than two years ago — in February 2014 — it has never been tabled in Parliament, nor released to the public.

[NSW cops wind back oversight measures]

Informed sources told Crikey that Russell concluded that the rules of compulsory purchasing were out of date and urgently needed reform. The current rules fell into disrepute following a series of scandals dating back to premier Robert Askin’s era in the 1960s and ’70s, when government ministers approved compulsory purchase deals with relatives, business cronies and mates.

In recent months, speculative landholders have launched a protest campaign, claiming that the Baird government is unfairly offering compensation that is hundreds of thousands of dollars below their expectations.

As the volume of noise rises, it is difficult to separate genuine householders with a bona fide complaint from multi-titled owners who are simply chasing a golden, publicly funded pay-out.

The mainstream media appears not to be interested in explaining the difference (anything for a story, particularly if it is “agin the government” because it sells papers and raises ratings).

When leaked letters about delays to the Russell report surfaced in Parliament this week, Finance, Services and Property Minister Dominic Perrottet shifted responsibility onto the Premier’s Office.

Perrottet, a right-wing Liberal MP from Tony Abbott’s faction, said:

“I have previously committed to release the Russell review in full and intend to keep to that commitment.

“This is a sensitive issue for those affected, and this government will continue to work carefully through the issues and will release and deliver its response shortly.”

Perrottet, who previously urged Baird to delay the report’s publication because of “adverse impacts” on infrastructure projects, had changed his mind. Why?

A political motive has been suggested. By recommending major reforms to eliminate corruption scandals in the compulsory purchase process, the unredacted Russell report will produce a furious response from developers, investors and opportunist landholders who dream of making a killing.

[The ballad of Baird: how Teflon Mike became the big bad wolf]

Baird will be the main target of their fury. Accidental? No, it is part of an ongoing campaign by right-wing Liberals and Nationals to destabilise Baird.

With his Ausgrid sale to Chinese interests blocked by federal Treasurer Scott Morrison, Baird’s Treasury is nearly empty, and his big-spending infrastructure program after 2017 is in ruins.

Every department has been ordered to pinch pennies, reduce staff and overheads, outsource and privatise to pay for new projects.

The new mantra from Treasury to ministers and departmental CEOs is: if you want to build new projects then find the money within your existing budget because there will be no help from us.

With his popularity plunging, the “good-time” Premier is heading for leaner and meaner times. Maybe we’ll now be able to learn how much meat is on Bambi.