Gladys Berejiklian Liberals
Gladys Berejiklian (Image: AAP/Dean Lewis)

The scenario of the federal Liberal chaos ending Australia’s best government, the NSW Liberal government of Gladys Berejiklian, has moved from nightmare to likelihood as the Liberals’ collapse into open civil war moved to centre stage following Malcolm Turnbull’s spectacular intervention over the last 24 hours.

Two separate polls on the weekend — one from Galaxy, one from Reachtel — had the NSW Coalition trailing NSW Labor on a 2PP basis. The polls had wildly different primary vote levels, and quite different preferred premier outcomes, but the best case scenario for the Liberals has new Labor leader Michael Daley on level pegging with Berejiklian as preferred premier.

That might reflect a honeymoon period for Daley — or perhaps simply relief that Luke Foley is gone from politics — but with the country about to clock off for summer and the election in March, the honeymoon could carry Daley all the way to victory. Daley has never led an election campaign before — but nor has Berejiklian. And with Scott Morrison apparently determined to save the far right’s Craig Kelly from his own party members, things aren’t going to get better any time soon for the premier.

When NSW Legislative Councillor Peter Phelps suggested weeks ago that the federal Libs should bolt to an election and get their electoral destruction out of the way so that Victorian and NSW Liberals could have a fair fight in their respective elections, it was dismissed as another of Phelpsy’s stirrings. Turns out, none other than Malcolm Turnbull — not exactly an ideological fellow-traveller of the conservative Dr Phelps — agrees. Turnbull had planned — with the agreement of then-treasurer Scott Morrison, no less — to go the polls in early March, ahead of the NSW election, in order to give Berejiklian clear air.

Turnbull evidently feels even more strongly on that point now, telling the ABC this morning: 

There is a lot of people in NSW, a lot of NSW Liberals, who believe it would be in the party’s interest for the federal government to go to an election before the NSW government set an election date of March 23 so that Gladys Berejiklian, who is leading an outstanding government of real and considerable achievement, can go to the polls and judged on her record rather than being hit by the brand damage that arose from the very destructive, pointless, shameful leadership change in Canberra on the 24th of August.

Incidentally, he might have added the constant stupidity since then, including his own pot-stirring (even if it has normally been in response to reactionary provocation).

Morrison’s desire to cling on to power for a couple more months and go to the polls in May will ensure that NSW voters go to the state poll in March with baseball bats at the ready. The result may well be the destruction of a government that has delivered more for NSW than any since Nick Greiner ended the torpid, corrupt Labor years and brought Sydney into the late-20th century.

Worse, the deeply inexperienced, development-phobic and corrupt NSW Labor Party would be back in charge just eight years after being ousted amid scandal after scandal. The consequences for the country’s biggest economy and only global city could be diabolical.

Whatever their anger about Turnbull’s intervention, federal Liberals now face a stark choice: hold on and let Berejiklian take the fall for their own spectacular failures, or maximise her chances of holding off a party that would be disastrous for NSW and the country. Turnbull’s plan was the right one. The federal Liberals must bring this shambolic circus to an end sooner rather than later. Have their civil war and moderate-versus-reactionary bloodbath in opposition, where it can’t distract from the work of government. And let Berejiklian and her team get on with earning a richly deserved third term. The fate of one third of the Australian economy depends on it.

Problem is, the federal Liberals are so self-obsessed and so clueless that such common sense appears beyond them.

How will the NSW Libs fare with a May federal election? Send us your comments and responses: