The NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

Liberal MPs have endorsed Gladys Berejiklian as the 45th premier of NSW, the state’s seventh premier in 12 years.

She won the unanimous support of her bitterly divided party after agreeing to scrap policies she previously favoured and handing out cabinet positions to her bitterest opponents in the hard-right faction. By attempting a balancing act between party “wets” and “dries”, Berejiklian has created an inherently unstable administration.

Her new deputy Dominic Perrottet, the hard-right’s premier-in-waiting, will become Treasurer and deputy Liberal leader to pursue his philosophy of wholesale privatisation, smaller government and lower taxation for companies and entrepreneurs.

The gushing media welcome for 46-year-old Berejiklian ignores the fact that her professional and political career has been sponsored by preferment. Her carefully cultivated image of the first-generation immigrant woman who succeeded by dint of brilliance and diligence will be tested between now and the next state election in March 2019.

The fact remains that she has never experienced leadership at the pointy end because her strength has been as a backroom operator, and she has never been challenged with the carriage of major policy issues. In the past, she has ducked the ownership of tough decisions and gone along with the prevailing cabinet view. As premier, however, there’s no place to hide.

With a new cabinet to be announced this weekend, Berejiklian will have to declare her policy on critical matters:

  • Will the Coalition’s council amalgamation program go ahead or will it be unscrambled?
  • Will the deeply unpopular lock-out laws, sponsored by the NSW Police Association, be junked?
  • Will plans to cripple the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) be aborted?
  • Will the new premier choose an independent police commissioner or will she leave the selection to Alan Jones and the Police Association?
  • Will she halt the sale of Crown land and historic buildings?
  • Will she tackle the affordable housing emergency by releasing public land for new housing estates equipped with renewable energy and the NBN?

For the moment, Berejiklian is basking in wildly adoring publicity in the mainstream media, led by Fairfax Media’s Sydney Morning Herald and Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids.

The Daily Telegraph editorial said: “Berejiklian, part of the Coalition team that has already done so much to rebuild the state, now says her aim as premier will be to make NSW even greater.” 

Its sister paper, the Sunday Telegraph, said: “Gladys Berejiklian is the right Premier for NSW now. She is the only member of the Coalition who is premier material. Ms Berejiklian has been an outstanding Treasurer and she deserves support.” 

Since 2005, four Labor premiers have passed through the revolving door — Bob Carr, Morris Iemma, Nathan Rees and Kristina Keneally — and three Liberals: Barry O’Farrell, Mike Baird and Berejiklian.

For the Liberals, Berejiklian’s ascension to the leadership sets a new record for the party. In the past 20 years, the party has had seven leaders, Peter Collins, Kerry Chikarovski, John Brogden, Peter Debnam, O’Farrell, Baird and Berejiklian. Only two of them, Chikarovski and Debnam, were from the right-wing “dry” faction while all the others have been “wets”.

Both Chikarovski and Keneally, the state’s first female premier, tried to introduce political chic into their appeal to voters. It didn’t work. The electorate drew the conclusion, unfairly or otherwise, that they were lightweights and moved on.

Berejiklian’s ace is hard work, competence and honesty but, regrettably, those are not attributes that necessarily win elections. A privileged, hard-working former banker from the North Shore doesn’t raise enthusiasm in western Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong, Orange, Dubbo, the Blue Mountains or Ballina.

With a tight election due in March 2019, the backstabbing isn’t over yet. If the Berejiklian experiment fails to encourage support for the Coalition, she won’t remain unchallenged.

And if Labor’s Luke Foley continues his uninspiring leadership of the opposition, he will face a late challenge too.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey