Gladys Berejiklian, the new Premier of New South Wales, has put her stamp of authority on state politics in the most dramatic and self-assured fashion.
Responding to the wave of angry populism representing voters who feel “left behind”, Berejiklian has undergone a political makeover. She is no longer the build-at-any-cost transport minister or the thrusting banker-turned-treasurer; now she is “delivering for everyone” and “making life easier for people right across NSW”.
As she quietly affirmed, at her very first press conference as premier: “The nature of politics is changing.”
After today’s swearing-in of her first cabinet, Berejiklian will shift the Coalition’s current emphasis on transforming Sydney into a “global city” and switch to projects in cities and towns in regional and rural NSW. It involves the major re-direction of government resources, i.e. pork-barrelling, and an assault on the Sydney-centricity within the upper echelons of the state bureaucracy and CBD boardrooms.
From today the new power elite in NSW is the Gladys Group — a.k.a. “the Armenians” in reference to the premier’s migrant background.
Her core group of senior ministers are all long-time Berejiklian supporters: Transport Minister Andrew Constance; Education Minister Rob Stokes; Minister for Resources, Energy, Utilities and Arts Don Harwin; Minister for Western Sydney, WestConnex and Sport Stuart Ayres (partner of federal Defence Minister Marise Payne); Minister for the Environment and Local Government Gabrielle Upton; and Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation Matthew Kean.
The “outsiders” are all right-wingers, Treasurer Dominic Perrottet, Planning Minister Anthony Roberts, Health Minister Brad Hazzard and Terrorism and Corrective Services Minister David Elliott.
Is their role to make Berejiklian’s premiership a rousing success? I doubt it; their inclination will be to watch her fail.
Her smartest move is to make Mark Speakman SC, MP for Cronulla, the attorney-General in a stand-alone portfolio. She has stripped Justice, Corrective Services and Police from the previous AG mega-portfolio, which had led to grotesque conflicts of interests.
Speakman is the Coalition’s smartest legal brain by a country mile. A graduate in law and economics from Sydney University and Cambridge, he won the chief lawmaker’s position in spite of demonic lobbying by the hard right in support of Alister Henskens, a Sydney barrister who replaced premier Barry O’Farrell in the north shore seat of Ku-ring-gai.
Winning back the support of the judiciary, the bar and the legal profession will involve switching off radio ranters like Alan Jones and Ray Hadley and ignoring legal epistles from The Australian’s commentariat.
The elevation of Don Harwin to cabinet means he will stand down as upper house president, thus creating a vacancy for the much-coveted sinecure. Harwin is a veteran marginal seats campaigner and deal-maker who is detested by the hard right.
His promotion into the frontline of Berejiklian’s ministry will infuriate his opponents and deepen hostilities between “wets” and “dries”.
Mike Baird and outgoing health minister Jillian Skinner will leave Parliament immediately, creating critical byelections in Manly and North Shore respectively. Berejiklian needs to win both to cement her leadership.
Baird and Berejiklian have been choreographing their baton change since early December last year, so media stories about his resignation being a “surprise” are either disingenuous or just plain wrong.
So far, the transition has gone smoothly and the state’s second female premier has received a rapturous reception. Like British Prime Minister Theresa May, she is driven by moral certainty. She believes her policies are right and they are good for everyone else. People who oppose her certainties are regarded as ignorant or slow coaches. On the other hand, she regards herself as self-evidently correct.
Experience shows that those who proclaim their mission is doing good for all, usually end up doing well for themselves.
If Berejiklian practises what she preaches — “I’m right, follow me” — I give her a year.