New South Wales Premier Mike Baird and Deputy Premier Troy Grant, leader of the Nationals, are both facing open revolt in their respective party rooms.
The overwhelming message from the rebels is: change course or we’ll change you.
The discontent is being driven by recent polling that shows the Coalition is neck-in-neck with Luke Foley’s Labor opposition, both on 50%, and Foley inching ahead as preferred premier.
What’s worse, all attempts by Baird’s media spinners — Imre Salusinszky, director of strategy and Clive Matheson, director of economic infrastructure and state priorities, both formerly of The Australian — have failed to stop the downward plunge.
The Coalition’s drop in fortunes has been dramatic. Only 18 months ago it won an impressive election victory and Baird was rated as the most popular politician in the nation.
How things have changed since then. The Coalition is now on the nose and mired in public odium over a long list of policy bungles:
- The ill-conceived greyhound racing ban from July next year;
- The massive cost over-runs on the cross-city WestConnex motorway, Australia’s biggest infrastructure project;
- Utter mishandling of the pub lock-out laws, which trashed live entertainment and made Sydney’s “global city” ambitions a laughing stock;
- Continued ransacking of TAFE and the promotion of the biggest rort of all, privately run vocation schools;
- A community backlash from forced amalgamation of local councils, which has already caused sweeping Liberal losses in council elections on September 10;
- Relocating the iconic Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta and handing its prime Darling Harbour site to property developers;
- Appeasing the private security industry by planning to build three new privatised jails; and
- Pandering to the health industry by rolling out plans for new hospitals to be run by private sector.
The political stakes are gravely high. Tonight’s meeting of National Party MPs is the main focus of attention, with rebels calling for the greyhound ban to be delayed from July 2017 to July 2020, a year after the next state election. Then the full cabinet will meet tomorrow to consider whether to retreat or march forward.
Baird is committed to the greyhound ban because “it is the right thing to do”, and he has the support of a majority of voters, who are repulsed by the slaughter of thousands of young and “used” greyhounds as well as the barbarity of “live baiting” exposed by ABC TV’s Four Corners. However, if cabinet postpones the ban, a backbench revolt could be averted and harmony restored — for the time being.
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The search for a compromise is being driven by a looming byelection in the western NSW regional seat of Orange on November 12. Nationals fear that a voter backlash against the greyhound racing ban, fuelled by an anti-Nationals campaign supported by the gaming industry, will cost them the normally safe seat.
However, a Coalition “backflip” or “climb-down” will have significant political consequences for the Baird government. It will lead to the withdrawal of strategic support from Greens MPs — five in the upper house and three in the lower house — plus Mark Pearson MLC of the Animal Justice Party, on selected items of government legislation.
If Greens MPs and Pearson decide to become “refuseniks”, the government’s legislative program will be in disarray because it does not have a majority in the upper house.
More lastingly, Baird will have been seen to be a “soft target” and a trimmer who can be forced under pressure to compromise. That approach will signify the beginning of the end for a premier who has always been in a hurry “to get things done”. With the initiative taken away from him, Baird’s mind will turn to other careers where he can still be “a change agent” on four or five times the salary. A return to merchant banking, perhaps?
While Orange and the Coalition leadership strains are claiming all the attention, a bigger byelection battle will be fought on November 12 in Wollongong, or “Steel City”, long-considered one of Labor’s safest “heartland” seats.
But Wollongong City lord mayor Gordon Bradbery, a popular independent, is set to take the seat vacated in August by veteran factional player Noreen Hay.
The loss of Wollongong would be a major blow to Opposition Leader Luke Foley, MP for Auburn, whose grip on the leadership remains shaky.
The Turnbull v Shorten Show is a sell-out in Canberra, but the Sydney sideshow, Baird v Foley, still has lots of thrills and spills to go.