Why have a reshuffle when you can have an entire do-over — a new premier and a whole new party room? 

What was arguably the most successful parliamentary Liberal Party in Australia voted on a new leader yesterday, following Mike Baird’s retirement from politics and the premiership of NSW last week. Gladys Berejiklian is the new Premier of NSW, but it is Deputy Premier Dominic Perrottet who is raising some eyebrows.

Of the two, Perrottet is the lesser known. Berejiklian has a formidable record in transport in particular, and is cut from the same former investment banker, moderate cloth as Baird. Her media and political skills were on display straight after the party room meeting; she went straight to an interview with 2GB. Having copped a spray from Alan Jones — from his sickbed, no less — about her unsuitablility, getting on the front foot with conservative supporters of her party was a wise choice. 

[Gladys Berejiklian, the unknown quantity, takes over from Teflon Mike]

Perrottet is from the party’s religious right wing and might be indicative of a broader resurgence of the right in the Liberal Party, as has been seen at a federal level. This right turn is holding Malcolm Turnbull hostage to unpopular policies while his personal standing plummets, and federal NSW Liberals should be watching things in NSW carefully. The Daily Telegraph is reporting more places in cabinet will go to members of the right. 

On top of all of this, newly minted Nationals leader John Barilaro is said to be interested in the Treasurer’s spot at a time when the traditionally conservative Nationals are sill regrouping after the loss of Orange to the Shooter and Fishers. With the rightward turn within the party room already underway, how will that dynamic play out? Perrottet’s position should not be underestimated here. 

First elected in 2011, Perrottet has fitted a lot into his schedule since first becoming the member for Castle Hill. He’s changed seats, after being preselected for the seat of Hawkesbury over ICAC casualty Bart Bassett. He rose quickly to become Finance Minister and a factional player who delivered the numbers to a moderate woman to make her Premier of NSW. 

[Will the right wing turn Teflon Mike into Turncoat Turnbull?] 

Perrottet’s position as a Catholic true believer with commensurate policy positions (around reproductive healthcare and welfare, for example) is a matter of public record.

When the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption cut a swathe through the hard-right religious faction of the NSW Liberals, many of the MPs lost were from the religiously inclined grouping that once centred around upper house member David Clarke and are associated with Opus Dei. However, the faction is by no means done. Damien Tudehope, rumoured for cabinet, took over the seat of Epping from another social conservative, and has similar inclinations to Perrottet. 

ICAC indirectly cost the right faction of the Liberal Party a victory with the defeat of the Crimes Amendment Bill (the so-called “Zoe’s Law”), which sought to give personhood to foetuses and threaten access to abortion services, and it remains to be seen what Perrottet’s elevation will mean for the current push to legalise abortion in NSW. 

There is a contradiction for all Liberal leaders in being beholden to this kind of electorally toxic, right-wing ideology. Once-popular leaders like Baird and Turnbull poll well as long as they stick to their own agenda — which is broadly in tune with public sentiment, and one they can genuinely present it as their own. The authenticity of dad-tweeting Mike or bus-catching Mal is a great asset. Once lost, though, the decline appears terminal, exposing an internal flank to the right wing whose policies are a deterrent to many voters. Adopting these policies spells trouble. 

Tony Abbott’s pious mouthing about the perils of replacing leaders aside, he was so terminally unpopular his own party bought him down. This unpopularity was in part because voters knew what he genuinely believed, and they didn’t like it. A wall-punching monarchist with retrograde views on women, homosexuality and religion, Abbott was unable to win public confidence despite the sincerity of his beliefs. You need both to be moderate and appear moderate, and a failure of that persona spells trouble. 

So where will Perrottet position himself in terms of his authentic beliefs? Berejiklian will have her own parade of problems, given the casual misogyny of Australian politics generally and, as Kristina Kenneally and Julia Gillard could attest, the dogged air of inauthenticity around mid-term leadership changes where women take over from men.   

Expect a multi-page spread with his wife and children and paragraphs about the importance of family values to come in the Tele; where that leaves him, and the NSW Liberal Party, will have one test: the state election in March 2019. 

*An earlier version of this story mistakenly said the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers had won the seat of Dubbo. It is Orange. 

Peter Fray

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