Self-indulgence and a diffident premier are combining to create the real possibility of political instability in New South Wales or — the nightmare scenario — a NSW Labor government.
Already struggling to assert its supremacy under Gladys Berejiklian, the NSW government is now racked by a spectacularly self-indulgent squabble between junior minister Ray Williams and Treasurer Dominic Perrottet over the head-scratching issue of the latter wanting the former’s seat, which just happens to be his own former seat as well. That Perrottet is deputy leader makes the whole thing outright farcical.
The fact that the NSW Liberals are engaged in civil war isn’t really new, but the timing is spectacularly awful. Nothing could be calculated to confirm the Liberals’ current reputation in the electorate for self-indulgence and navel-gazing than two ministers brawling over a game of musical seats just weeks after a Sydney prime minister was knifed in an insurrection encouraged by a former Sydney prime minister, who just so happens to be facing an insurrection in his own seat.
According to one weekend poll, NSW Labor — the party that gave the state its worst corruption since the Askin years and perhaps in its history — is now on level-pegging in the polls with the Liberals, despite a next-to-useless leader being stalked by a rival and virtually no policies. There’s a real risk of minority government — ask Nick Greiner how well that works in NSW — or even of a NSW Labor victory.
The matter would be of parochial interest except to the extent the NSW Liberal shenanigans perpetuate the damage that the betrayal of Malcolm Turnbull has done to the party federally, and that the NSW economy is threatened by the return of Labor just eight years after they were ousted. Under the Liberals, the NSW economy has prospered: between the ousting of Labor in early 2011 and now, unemployment has fallen from 5.1% to 4.8%, but that’s while participation has risen 1.6 points to over 65%, the highest level in the state’s history.
Much of this has to do with the surge in infrastructure investment under Barry O’Farrell, Mike Baird and Berejiklian, which helped lift national public infrastructure out of the trough it went into under Tony Abbott. Much of that has been in projects like WestConnex that NSW Labor, eager to court the NIMBY vote, has opposed.
But it’s been in health that the NSW Liberals have achieved their best job results. Between 2011 and now, the number of workers in the NSW health and social care sectors has grown by fully a third to over half a million people. This has in turn driven a big rise in female employment and participation: female participation has risen by more than three percentage points in NSW and the number of women working in NSW has risen by 19% since 2011.
Those are strong numbers even for a large state — and encompass a period of relatively poor economic performance nationally after the election of the Abbott government.
But all of that is in danger of being forgotten as two ministers engage in an ego-driven battle that will infuriate voters. Rarely has a party less deserved to return to government than NSW Labor, but their opponents could hand them that victory and expose NSW, and the broader economy, to substantial risk.