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New South Wales

Jan 24, 2017

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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. 

New South Wales

Jan 20, 2017

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 Mike Baird’s surprise resignation as New South Wales Premier makes him the fifth person to vacate the position since 2008, and the first to do so on his own terms since Bob Carr in 2005.

Given the circumstances of his departure, and his success in keeping his nose clean as leader of a state that has become proverbial for political malfeasance, most reacted to the news sympathetically (Mark Latham being a seemingly inevitable exception).

Even so, Baird leaves office with a patchy electoral record, and with recent polls suggesting the public was growing increasingly disenchanted with his leadership.

The Coalition was handily re-elected a year after Baird took office in April 2014, but such was the unprecedented scale of Barry O’Farrell’s landslide win in 2011 that the strength of his performance was hard to evaluate.

On the one hand, the Coalition emerged with a healthy majority of 54 seats out of 93 — but on the other, it lost 15 seats and suffered an advserse two-party swing of 10%.

[Baird’s resignation fires starting gun on NSW Liberal factional warfare]

Depending on how you look at it, it was either the Coalition’s worst performance at a state election in a quarter of a century, or its second best.

Fair-minded observers would incline to the more favourable view, since the gloss had already worn off the government by the time Baird succeeded O’Farrell three years into the government’s first term.

The property developer donations scandals that claimed eight Liberal scalps had introduced some element of equivalence with state Labor’s dismal record of corruption, and the government had been hammered by a 26% swing to Labor at a byelection in the Sutherland Shire seat of Miranda six months before Baird took on the job.

Furthermore, Baird has been the only premier of the post-Carr era to have substantially gained in popularity over any period while in the job — a point illustrated by the opinion poll trends displayed in the chart below — and his upward trajectory at the time of the 2015 election presumably added fat to the Coalition’s winning margin.

Certainly it’s worth observing that Baird’s victory made him only the second New South Wales Liberal leader to win a parliamentary majority since 1988, and the first to do so while seeking re-election since 1973.

However, it’s only been in the second term that things have truly turned sour, resulting in a slump in personal support all too familiar in the state’s recent political history.

Lockout laws and council amalgamations have commonly featured in aggregations of the post-election black marks against Baird’s name, but by far the biggest question mark over his political smarts relates to his banning and then unbanning of the greyhound racing industry.

This culminated in a byelection disaster in mid-November to rival that suffered by O’Farrell in Miranda, when the Nationals-held seat of Orange was lost to Shooters Fishers and Farmers, prompting Nationals leader Troy Grant to fall on his sword two days later.

[The ballad of Baird: how Teflon Mike became the big bad wolf]

Yet despite all that, the Coalition has maintained leads over Labor in every published opinion poll.

The scale of those leads has been rather modest of late — the most recent results from Newspoll and Essential Research both had it at 51-49 on two-party preferred — but this is a position that most governments would be more than happy with at the mid-point of their second term.

If storm clouds loomed on the horizon, they had less to do with Baird’s unpopularity than with tensions in a party organisation in which empire-building moderates have increasingly gained the ascendancy, to the bitter chagrin their conservative rivals.

The challenge of managing these tensions will now fall to a new leader — expected to be Gladys Berejiklian, who reportedly stands to benefit from a deal between her own moderate faction and young right up-and-comer Dominic Perrottet, who looks set to succeed her as deputy leader and treasurer.

Recent history suggests Berejiklian will come to her new role with considerable public goodwill.

But it also suggests the goodwill will be fickle and fleeting, with no guarantee that she will be able to carry it through to an election still more than two years away.

New South Wales

Aug 29, 2016

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NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione arrives at the inquest

The careers of NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione and his deputy, Catherine Burn, are in shreds following damning evidence of operational mismanagement and neglect during the 17-hour Lindt cafe siege on December 14, 2014.

Hailed as heroes by Premier Mike Baird, the state’s two top cops now look like they graduated from the Keystone Police Academy.

Flanked by Scipione and Burn, Baird told reporters two years ago: “I worked alongside Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn throughout the entire siege. I have nothing but admiration, respect and gratitude for the incredible work she did. That goes for the other police officers involved, all the way from Commissioner Scipione.”

But sensational inquest evidence revealed that Scipione and Burn both went home to bed as the siege unfolded into the night. And both testified that they had nothing to do with police anti-terror operations at the Martin Place cafe, even though specialist operations and crisis management are top of Burns’ CV.

Greens MP David Shoebridge told Parliament last week: “It turns out she did nothing. In her evidence which was grudgingly given after she was forced to appear before the coronial inquiry, she had no role whatsoever in the siege.”

Burn told told State Coroner Michael Barnes: “I did not think I was an involved person in this matter.”

Scipione wasn’t much help to the inquest, either. He knew nothing and did nothing. His sworn evidence was that he gave no orders at all during the siege.

Shoebridge, a former barrister and legal rights specialist, is the first NSW politician to break ranks and condemn the senior police command over its handling of the siege.

“The NSW Police is the only agency in this entire state that for the last 20 years has not had budget cuts but real growth in income year after year,” he told MPs.

“During the siege it had to borrow a room from the nearby NSW Leagues Club, which had only one phone line. The specialist mobile command post in a truck had been flogged off.

“Heaven help us if we have a serious terrorism incident, because this merry lot in charge appears grossly and utterly incapable.”

Shoebridge joined MPs from Labor, the Shooters and Fishers Party and the Christian Democrats to call for former deputy commissioner Nick Kaldas to take over the Commissioner’s job.

Foley reiterated his confidence in Kaldas saying he was “the finest police officer of his generation”.

Kaldas is currently in The Hague working for the United Nations in a senior anti-terrorist role after being blocked by Baird as the natural successor to Scipione.

In April 2015 Baird overruled Kaldas’ recommendation by Police Minister and Deputy Premier Premier Troy Grant and extended Scipione’s contract by two years to shaft Kaldas.

Kaldas appeared to welcome the all-party call for his return, telling political correspondent Andrew Clennell: “Working the UN has been a great experience, again, but it has reminded me that credible leadership is crucial to the success of any organisation. NSW will always be near and dear to my heart.”

Grant, a former police inspector before becoming the MP for Dubbo in 2011, remarked enigmatically: “Those who want to apply, apply.”

In a desperate move to convince doubters he is still in charge, Scipione increased the number of deputy commissioners from three five to organise loyalty among his executive team. The move was ridiculed by one senior retired officer, who told Crikey: “The Commissioner has simply increased the number of factions at the top. It’s a recipe for more instability and back-stabbing.”

However, Kaldas’ long list of supporters inside and outside the police should be aware that he can never become police commissioner while Baird is premier. It’s personal and inexplicable, but Baird jealously guards his right to name the next police commissioner, and Kaldas’ name doesn’t appear as a candidate.

Baird and Scipione are close; both are Christian fundamentalists with links to the evangelical movement.

The Lindt siege inquest has inflicted terrible damage on the standing of Scipione and Burn in the eyes of the public, Parliament, press, justice system and the rank and file of the NSW Police Association. The question being asked is how long can they carry on when they are caught amid the wreckage of a siege that cost three lives.

Next year’s final coronial report will probably bring them both down and end Burn’s career ambition to become the state’s first female police commissioner.

New South Wales

Aug 25, 2016

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Real estate is the major topic of conversation in NSW, just as it has been since the First Fleet arrived at Sydney Cove in 1788. While Melburnians talk about football and Brisbanites are obsessed by the weather (forecasts, rain, clouds, floods and fires), Sydneysiders discuss the price of land and property.

The two principal barbecue-stoppers are:

  • 1) The hard-luck story of someone who was offered a suburban house for $26,000 in 1970 and it just sold at auction last weekend for $1.2 million; and
  • 2) The lucky story of someone bequeathed several hectares of bushland in western Sydney when his/her parents died in 1980 and has just had the property compulsorily purchased by the state government for $10 million to build a motorway, rail corridor, shopping centre or airport.

This backstory helps to explain the acute tension within the NSW Coalition government over its much-delayed report on compulsory purchase of private property.

In May 2012, former premier Barry O’Farrell commissioned the review and upper house MP Greg Pearce, the then-finance minister, named taxation barrister David Russell SC to head the inquiry.

Russell is a Member of the Order of Australia for his service “to taxation law and legal education” and been awarded the little known Order of the Rising Sun with Gold Rays and Neck Ribbon for services to Australia-Japan relations.

Although his report was completed more than two years ago — in February 2014 — it has never been tabled in Parliament, nor released to the public.

[NSW cops wind back oversight measures]

Informed sources told Crikey that Russell concluded that the rules of compulsory purchasing were out of date and urgently needed reform. The current rules fell into disrepute following a series of scandals dating back to premier Robert Askin’s era in the 1960s and ’70s, when government ministers approved compulsory purchase deals with relatives, business cronies and mates.

In recent months, speculative landholders have launched a protest campaign, claiming that the Baird government is unfairly offering compensation that is hundreds of thousands of dollars below their expectations.

As the volume of noise rises, it is difficult to separate genuine householders with a bona fide complaint from multi-titled owners who are simply chasing a golden, publicly funded pay-out.

The mainstream media appears not to be interested in explaining the difference (anything for a story, particularly if it is “agin the government” because it sells papers and raises ratings).

When leaked letters about delays to the Russell report surfaced in Parliament this week, Finance, Services and Property Minister Dominic Perrottet shifted responsibility onto the Premier’s Office.

Perrottet, a right-wing Liberal MP from Tony Abbott’s faction, said:

“I have previously committed to release the Russell review in full and intend to keep to that commitment.

“This is a sensitive issue for those affected, and this government will continue to work carefully through the issues and will release and deliver its response shortly.”

Perrottet, who previously urged Baird to delay the report’s publication because of “adverse impacts” on infrastructure projects, had changed his mind. Why?

A political motive has been suggested. By recommending major reforms to eliminate corruption scandals in the compulsory purchase process, the unredacted Russell report will produce a furious response from developers, investors and opportunist landholders who dream of making a killing.

[The ballad of Baird: how Teflon Mike became the big bad wolf]

Baird will be the main target of their fury. Accidental? No, it is part of an ongoing campaign by right-wing Liberals and Nationals to destabilise Baird.

With his Ausgrid sale to Chinese interests blocked by federal Treasurer Scott Morrison, Baird’s Treasury is nearly empty, and his big-spending infrastructure program after 2017 is in ruins.

Every department has been ordered to pinch pennies, reduce staff and overheads, outsource and privatise to pay for new projects.

The new mantra from Treasury to ministers and departmental CEOs is: if you want to build new projects then find the money within your existing budget because there will be no help from us.

With his popularity plunging, the “good-time” Premier is heading for leaner and meaner times. Maybe we’ll now be able to learn how much meat is on Bambi.

New South Wales

Aug 4, 2016

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Tensions are rising in the NSW Greens, with many eager to point fingers over the party’s disappointing result in the federal election and tensions over replacing recently deceased state MP John Kaye and maintaining his legacy.

The Greens increased their primary vote in the lower house, but there was a swing against the party in the Senate and they lost at least one senator, Robert Simms from South Australia. Much of the blame has gone to the New South Wales branch, where the primary vote was less than 9%, it failed to gain key seats such as Grayndler and Sydney, and hopes for a second Greens senator were dashed.

Over the past few months there have been resignations and court cases involving members of the party’s state executive, as well as a bitter preselection battle for the New South Wales upper house seat held by John Kaye, who died from cancer in May.

On Friday’s 7.30, former Greens leader Bob Brown unleashed on the NSW branch. He told 7.30 that New South Wales had been “a long term disappointment to me”, citing the NSW branch’s reluctance to unify as part of the national Greens party in the ’90s. Tensions between the NSW branch and the rest of the party intensified last year, as Crikey reported, over federal resources offered to NSW for the election, and after Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon lost the education portfolio.

In the interview, Brown called for “renewal” in the party, specifically for NSW Senator Lee Rhiannon to go and make way for fresh blood, but NSW Greens co-convener Hall Greenland told Crikey that Brown and NSW Greens have always had different views about the importance of grassroots democracy.

“Unfortunately the difference persists. For more than a decade Bob has been interfering in Greens preselections in New South Wales. He has never got over the fact that the Greens NSW members did not agree with his view and preselected Lee Rhiannon and John Kaye for the Upper House instead of his preferred candidate,” he said. “It’s time Bob acknowledged and accepted that no part of the Australian Greens has a more democratic constitution than the Greens NSW. The members preselected our Senator Lee Rhiannon and their decision needs to be respected.”

Greens state MP Mehreen Faruqi echoes Greenland’s statement in an opinion piece in Guardian Australia this week, stating Rhiannon was democratically elected and no one inside or outside of the Greens had the authority to tell her to resign.

The current focus for tension in the Greens in New South Wales is the bitter battle for Kaye’s seat, where there are 14 preselection candidates. Brown has raised concern that seven or eight of the candidates, aligned with the so-called “eastern bloc” of Rhiannon and Kaye, would be working to build their preferences together to topple other candidates, specifically to take on NSW MLC Jeremy Buckingham’s preferred candidate, anti-CSG campaigner Justin Field. Brown said on 7.30:

“That’s not what voters want to see. And that’s not serving the thousands of members of the Greens in New South Wales properly. We don’t want factionalism. We want the best candidates to get up. There are good candidates there. But if you’re trying to shepherd votes to a particular candidate, it means that candidate’s not necessarily the one that the voters would pick.”

Greenland rejects the notion that there were factions anything like what the Labor Party has, but he says informal networks in the Greens do exist. “Some have labeled the more left Greens the ‘Eastern bloc’ to falsely imply they are undemocratic extremists. The opposite is true. The extensive democratic rights of members in the Greens NSW constitution — very much the product of people like Lee Rhiannon and John Kaye — give the lie to that.”

The favoured candidate of the Kaye camp is believed to be James Ryan. Kaye’s widow, Lynne Joslyn, also intervened in the preselection battle this week, telling Fairfax that before he died, Kaye was concerned that Field would be chosen to take his place, and that Field would betray his legacy.

Nick Casmirri, a former active member of the Greens until 2013, and who is a personal friend of Field’s, says that Field doesn’t align with the ideological purity that Kaye represented to the New South Wales Greens, but that he is still closer to the left of the Greens than other NSW Greens MPs and some in the federal party.

Casmirri says the current fight is a result of a power vacuum left by Kaye. Kaye had been a highly effective organisational politician, with broad policy knowledge that allowed him to dominate debates.

“John was across everything that was happening in the NSW Greens. It’s hard to imagine the party organisation without him. Lee Rhiannon might be the public face of the ‘left’ in the Greens, but it was John who pulled most of the strings behind the scenes, to an extent where even many of John’s close allies didn’t realise just how much influence he was wielding.”

For example, Casmirri says during the 2010 campaign, Kaye personally drafted suggested responses for lower house Greens candidates to give in response to questions.

“I was quite surprised a state MP with a heavy workload would get involved in such a minor detail of the federal election campaign, but I came to see it was common for John to get involved in such details of the party’s operations.”

Part of the preselection animosity towards Field stems from when Field used to work for Kaye, and Field would often challenge Kaye over policy. Joslyn told Fairfax that Kaye had been concerned that Field didn’t share his views on “collective action, working in solidarity with the party or social justice”.

In part, the preselection needs to go the way of Kaye’s allies, otherwise in the NSW party room it would be split 4-4 between the left of the party and the — as Casmirri calls it — “more pragmatic” side. Voting opened on July 18 and will close on August 12.

Greenland told Crikey that he believed the tensions in the party would settle down once the preselection battle was over.

Brown and Rhiannon were both approached for comment for this article. Brown was unavailable, but a spokesperson told Crikey that he stood by his earlier comments.

New South Wales

Aug 4, 2016

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NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner will be shuffled out of Premier Mike Baird’s cabinet: he knows it and she knows it. The only questions are: when, how and who will succeed her?

All the signs of her imminent execution were on display at question time in “The Bearpit” when Parliament resumed this week and at her dispiriting press conferences.

With the Labor opposition and sections of the media howling for her resignation, 71-year-old Skinner put on her bravest face, but it was totally unconvincing.

In politics, when you’re on the way out, it can’t be disguised. Cabinet colleagues avert their eyes, the Premier stops calling, and the most junior media reporters become downright disrespectful.

Two scandals have brought Skinner down:

  • The death of a baby at Bankstown-Lidcombe Hospital after nitrous oxide instead of oxygen was hooked up in a post-natal ward; and
  • A doctor at St Vincent’s Hospital under-dosed 129 cancer patients with a chemotherapy drug over a 10-year period. Many of them died shockingly painful deaths.

Skinner herself could not have prevented the tragic events. She cannot be expected to know every operational detail from hospitals across NSW. But her political career has crashed because she kept secret for months some Health Department events, and she has been accused of  “verballing” relatives saying that they didn’t want to her to go public with news of their tragedies.

Some relatives hit back saying there was no such agreement and they wanted their tragedy made public as a warning to other families.

When Skinner became health minister in 2011 she was the most experienced member of premier Barry O’Farrell’s team. The MP for North Shore had been shadow health minister from 1995 to 2003 and from 2005 to 2011. Re-elected five times and sitting on a two-party preferred margin of more than 70%, she was recognised as one of the Coalition’s most able ministers. In government, she hired 4000 nurses and increased the number of doctors by an extra 400 and launched a $4.7 billion hospital-building program.

The former graduate of Melbourne’s Presbyterian Ladies’ College and journalist in Canberra and Hong Kong was encouraged to stand at last year’s state election to maintain continuity following the shock departure of O’Farrell in 2014 and the arrival of Premier Mike Baird.

It has taken just six months for Skinner’s status to fall from most popular to pariah.

With The Daily Telegraph and radio shock jocks Alan Jones and Ray Hadley demanding she be sacked, only Fairfax Media’s Sydney Morning Herald is remaining loyal.

“Minister Skinner appeared rattled at her press conference. That does not mean she should fall on her sword.

“But for now, there is a strong case for her to stay on to wield her long experience and to set things right.”

This is wishful thinking. Baird has already decided to remove her in a reshuffled cabinet. She can either resign gracefully or be dumped disgracefully.

Baird’s dilemma is finding a competent successor. In NSW politics the health portfolio can be a career-breaking appointment. Some recent failures have been Ron Phillips (Liberal) and Reba Meagher (Labor).

Only Pru Goward, Assistant Minister for Health, Mental Health, Medical Research, Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault and Women, has the seniority to step into the breach. However, she does not enjoy Baird’s support, and other Liberals oppose her promotion.

Baird’s aim is to rebuild his cabinet for the Coalition’s re-election in March 2019. His supporters told Crikey he not only wants to unload Skinner but persuade the Nationals to fix the retirement of Road Minister Duncan Gay, who has made such a shambles of Sydney’s WestConnex motorway.

He has no inclination to conduct a purge while parliament is sitting because it will simply give a free kick to Opposition Leader Luke Foley. Ominously for Skinner, Parliament rises on August 11 and does not resume until August 23, and the background noise from Baird’s office is a knife being sharpened.

New South Wales

Aug 2, 2016

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As NSW Parliament resumes today after a six-week winter break, maverick Liberal MP Peter Phelps has stolen the limelight with a challenge to party solidarity.

Phelps, a leader of the right-wing faction, courted the party’s disciplinary procedures when he launched an overnight attack on the party room decision to shut down greyhound racing from July next year.

If his vocal opposition persists and he votes against the closure on the floor of the upper house, Phelps could face suspension or even expulsion from the Liberals.

He would then have to move to the crossbenches, making life more difficult for Premier Mike Baird’s government. At present the Coalition does not have an upper house majority and relies upon Fred Nile’s party and the Shooters, Fishers & Farmers Party, both with two MPs, to obtain a majority for its legislation.

After a Liberal party room meeting on Monday, which was adjourned for a full Coalition meeting today, Phelps went public with the tenuous argument that a greyhound racing ban made possible a ban on thoroughbred horse racing as well.

“I worry that there is a selective morality being applied by the government,” Phelps said. “You’re left with the situation where the only possible conclusion is, well, it’s all right to attack the greyhound industry because it’s only got a small number of participants.

“Whereas a larger number of participants in the horse racing industry means they remain inviolate from any sort of government action.”

Phelps’ arguments about a future ban on horse racing are disingenuous. Baird and Sports Minister Troy Grant, the Deputy Premier, Nationals leader and a racehorse enthusiast, have made abundantly clear that thoroughbred racing will remain intact as an iconic part of sporting life.

Phelps is a pathological maverick. In March this year he resigned as government whip in the Legislative Council after protesting against the draconian legislation to mandate an ethanol content to petrol sold at service stations.

In a 2013 speech on the 40th anniversary of General Augusto Pinochet’s coup against Salvador Allende, Phelps told MPs that he supported the armed overthrow of the Chilean government.

So what’s behind Phelps’s anti-Baird agitation? His fellow backbenchers told Crikey that Phelps sees himself as a rallying point for the Liberals’ conservative faction.

They say that he is daring Baird and the party hierarchy to take disciplinary action and thereby turn him into a “martyr”.

As one Liberal explained: “If you want to know what Peter is doing, study the antics of [Senator] Cory Bernardi. One is trying to destabilise Malcolm [Turnbull] while the other is trying destabilise Mike [Baird].”

The political problem for the Coalition leaders is that the Phelps’ contagion is infecting the ranks of both parties.

Kevin Humphries, Nationals MP for Barwon who was dumped from the ministry when his rival Troy Grant won the party leadership, has threatened to cross the floor to vote against the greyhound racing ban. Lismore MP Thomas George is another National who passionately opposes the greyhound racing ban.

At the same time, two lower house Liberals, Kevin Connolly from Riverstone in western Sydney and Jai Rowell from Wollondilly on the south-western edge of Sydney, have raised questions about the sweeping shutdown and its impact on jobs and polling.

Opposition Leader Luke Foley has seized the opportunity to support greyhound racing and attack the Baird plan. His opponents are asking why he has become such a fervent supporter of greyhound racing where animal cruelty is chronic but has failed to take a determined stand against the ransacking of TAFE.

Note to ticket holders: Parliament opens today for a limited six-day season of vaudeville, pantomime and melodrama. Book now or switch off.

New South Wales

Mar 16, 2016

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NSW Premier Mike Baird last night secured draconian new laws to crack down on anti-coal seam gas demonstrators, raising fines to $5500 for trespass and up to seven years’ jail for disrupting mining activity.

Anti-CSG campaigners across the state today declared they would ignore the new police powers and renew efforts to ban “fracking”, particularly on farmlands in regional areas.

Hundreds of protesters braved the rain to demonstrate outside state Parliament on Tuesday with Lock the Gate supporter Don McKenzie, a farmer from Coonamble, declaring: “We’re already making jailbird outfits.”

Baird’s legislation passed the upper house with the support of four crossbench MPs — two from Rev Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats and two from the Shooters and Fishers.

Their crucial votes were secured following behind-the-scenes negotiations, but Baird can be expected to pay a heavy political price.

Because of his currently unassailable popularity, Baird was advised to adopt the Enclosed Lands, Crimes and Law Enforcement Act amendments to secure the future of the gas industry in NSW. It is a direct response to lobbying by gas and mining interests as well as large-scale investors who have been annoyed by the Coalition’s “on-again-off-again” approach to CSG.

At the lowest point in their relationship, when the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) was trawling through the secretive area of coal mine licensing, the Coalition bowed to political pressure from some National MPs and banned gas exploration.

But with the passage of anti-protester powers, the Coalition is overturning that ban and going full speed ahead with gas exploration and mining in an attempt to catch up with Queensland, where the industry appears able to dictate its own rules and regulations.

No one was surprised that Fred Nile and his upper house accomplice Paul Green voted with the Coalition. Since Baird’s Coalition won the election a year ago, Nile has delivered vote after vote to support Coalition legislation.

Nile, the 81-year-old Christian fundamentalist who is “Grandfather of the House”, retired as NSW president of the CDP at its convention last September, and his retirement from Macquarie Street seems only a matter of time.

Keen Nile watchers believe that he has aligned himself closely with the Baird government in the belief it will win the next state election in March 2019 and he wants Liberal and National preferences to rescue his dwindling party from oblivion.

However, if the NSW Coalition follows Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s example and decides to wipe out the meddling minor parties in the upper house, Nile’s efforts will have been in vain.

There are more serious electoral consequences for Shooters and Fishers MPs, Robert Borsak and Robert Brown, who also voted to support new laws against the popular anti-CSG movement.

Borsak, “the elephant shooter”, defended his vote by saying: “These people destroy assets, steal assets [and there are] small business people whose lives are destroyed. I don’t think it’s something that should be allowed any more.”

On the other hand, Borsak’s party has traded on its representation of “bush” Australians who live off the land, and it is even planning to change its name to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party.

But many people on the land see the party’s support for mining over farming as a betrayal and regard the proposed name change as an act of cynicism. Jeremy Buckingham, Greens mining spokesman in the upper house, says the Shooters and Fishers MPs, could “kiss the farmers’ vote goodbye”.

Last week a Sydney magistrate dismissed a charge of trespass against Buckingham without recording a conviction or issuing a fine. He was charged with trespass in August last year after taking photos at the Rio Tinto’s Warkworth coal mine site at Mt Thorley in the Hunter Valley.

In the wake of the passage of greater police powers, Buckingham said: “This is an issue that requires a political solution. It will not be solved by police arresting protesters and throwing them in jail or issuing crippling fines.

“Under these draconian laws, Wallabies captain David Pocock and scores of ‘knitting nannas’ could be jailed for years simply for standing up for what they feel is important.”

With a rhetorical flourish, he added: “This is NSW, this is not Putin’s Russia.”

Only a week ago, Sydney radio shock jock Alan Jones used Putin’s name in a broadside against Baird.

Discussing the Coalition’s lockout laws, which are crippling Sydney’s pubs, clubs, bars and live entertainment, Jones said: “We had 15,000 people marching in the streets, but the Baird government says ‘We don’t care what you think’.

“Mike Baird is becoming one of the biggest bullies we’ve ever seen in Macquarie Street. They don’t even do this in Moscow, [but] we’ll do over the Vladimir Putins in Macquarie Street.”

The Greens and Alan Jones on the warpath: call time out, Mr Premier.

New South Wales

Feb 25, 2016

5 comments

Parliamentary question time can make or break governments, prime ministers, premiers and opposition leaders. Which is very strange because very few voters ever bother to watch it, listen to it or read Hansard transcripts the following day.

If you have any doubts about this assertion, just look at the trouble Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison are in after floundering, unconvincing and amateurish performances in the House of Representatives recently.

The gloss has worn off both of them, while Bill Shorten’s Labor opposition has gained unexpected momentum.

In NSW, the situation is quite the reverse. Coalition Premier Mike Baird goes from strength to strength as the nation’s most popular leader while Labor leader Luke Foley is scrambling in his wake.

Question time in the NSW “Bearpit” has become a stark focus of Foley’s ineffective leadership.

Last week, when Parliament resumed after its holiday break, Foley, his shadow treasurer Michael Daley and shadow attorney-general Paul Lynch seized every question over three consecutive days to interrogate Brad Hazzard, the bombastic former attorney-general who is now Minister for Family and Community Services.

Hazzard chose to defend himself by bluntly admitting he had made phone calls to the Independent Commission Against Corruption on the eve of its aborted inquiry into deputy Crown prosecutor Margaret Cunneen SC.

He brushed aside suggestions of political interference of ICAC, telling Parliament he was fulfilling his role as attorney-general and he would do the same thing again.

While Labor’s “Big Three” monopolised question time for three days, questions about the ransacking of TAFE, health cuts and forced council mergers went begging. Some members of the shadow cabinet and many backbenchers looked on in mild disbelief.

As Crikey pointed out the test of Labor’s strategy would be whether the question time attack would continue this week or be dropped.

The result is in: not a single question was asked on Tuesday about the Hazzard/ICAC/Cunneen affair that had preoccupied Labor’s attack for the whole of the first week of the sitting.

Instead, questions were hurled at Premier Mike Baird over unsavoury events during the election campaign in East Hills when Labor candidate Cameron Murphy was scurrilously targeted by anonymous “dirty tricks” leaflets. An official investigation is still underway, which could upset the narrow Liberal victory by Glenn Brookes, an ardent right winger whose political career is supported by broadcaster Alan Jones.

While Hazzard has escaped any sanction for blindsiding ICAC with his private phone calls, Labor’s intense questioning raises two questions:

  1. Why didn’t ICAC commissioner Megan Latham complain about the over-zealous contacts made by the attorney-general; and
  2. Did she inform ICAC Inspector David Levine AO QC so he could report the unusual events to Parliament?

This week’s switch from one Liberal target (Hazzard) to another (Brookes) is in line with the approach of Foley’s chief of staff, Pat Garcia, who heads the question time strategy committee.

The strategy favours grabbing headlines and media space as the foremost objective of a party in opposition. But the trouble is that substantive policy issues tend to get lost in the daily scramble for media attention.

If the media loses interest in this Game of Drones, then the strategy comes undone. And when their “exclusives” fail to arouse reporters’ interest, spin doctors become more desperate and correspondingly more inventive. Embroidery begins to replace factual content.

It might prolong political life, but it is ultimately fatal. Foley’s team is not yet in this zone, but the danger signs are present.

Brad Hazzard

Since NSW Parliament’s 2016 session opened one week ago, “the Bearpit” has lived up to its notorious reputation. At three consecutive question times, personal abuse was hurled across the chamber with wild abandon.

Every Labor question targeted the actions of cabinet minister Brad Hazzard in his former role as attorney-general.

The orchestrated attack centred on Hazzard’s decision in 2014 to call the counsel assisting an Independent Commission Against Corruption inquiry, Michael Fordham SC, and give him the name and contact number of a potential witness.

In later revelations it became clear Hazzard also spoke to both ICAC Commissioner Megan Latham and the subject of the watchdog’s investigation, deputy Crown prosecutor Margaret Cunneen SC.

It left an impression of political interference with ICAC’s tightly guarded independence.

Hazzard’s intervention was also explosive for another reason: it came on the eve of ICAC’s Operation Hale, a public inquiry into allegations Cunneen had tried to pervert the course of justice. The hearings were subsequently halted by the High Court of Australia, and the director of public prosecutions cleared her of prosecution.

Under Labor’s blowtorch interrogation, Hazzard admitted making calls to the ICAC and said he would do it all over again.

He ridiculed the opposition’s indignation, saying: “As attorney-general, if I make a sensible and balanced decision — which I did as attorney-general — you guys can whistle into the wind for a long while and you will get nowhere.”

Tempers began to fray during the next day’s question time when Opposition Leader Luke Foley asked Hazzard whether he had told the ICAC’s counsel assisting during their phone conversation: “Do you know what you are doing?”

In reply, Hazzard said he could not recall what he said before adding: “The Leader of the Opposition is a very immature and inexperienced leader and he needs to grow up.”

Premier Mike Baird supported his embattled colleague, warning the opposition: “If they are going to attack an outstanding minister who is doing more in Family and Community Services than any of them could ever dream of, they had better be thinking about their strategy.”

He dismissed the anti-Hazzard campaign, saying the opposition was “not fit for government” and adding: “The opposition can get on with whatever smear campaign it wants.”

By now the battle lines of the contest had become clear: Baird’s government was giving unqualified backing to Hazzard while the opposition sensed they had a ministerial scalp.

Minutes before last Thursday’s third consecutive question time, House Leader Anthony Roberts delivered a ministerial statement warning MPs:

“In light of the line of questioning that has been pursued by some members of the opposition in question time in the past two days, I take this opportunity to remind everyone of the responsibilities members have to protect confidential information in undertaking their duties as parliamentarians.

“Members who ask questions in this House should consider carefully their ethical and legal obligations to protect confidential information.

“Members must, at all times, abide by the law, and not infringe upon the privileges of Parliament or its proper functioning.”

It was like hearing a headmaster lecture a school assembly with the aim of bringing naughty pupils into line. The serious purpose, however, was to shame the opposition into stopping its attack on Hazzard’s unprecedented blindsiding of ICAC.

Former opposition leaders like Neville Wran, Barry Unsworth, Bob Carr, Nathan Rees or John Robertson would have rejected this clumsy gag attempt with contempt. Foley’s response was to call on Hazzard to join him at a joint press conference and face reporters’ questions, a request that was doomed from the start.

Still full of bluster, Hazzard lectured Labor MPs that “their leader is certainly displaying superficial, trivial, immature and shallow political judgement”.

But under repeated questions from shadow attorney-general Lynch, Hazzard snapped: “Anybody who has been here as long as I have well knows that the Member for Liverpool [Lynch] is known as … a nasty little human being.”

Then he turned on Foley accusing him of turning Parliament into “a coward’s castle” where he could make personal attacks under parliamentary privilege.

“For him to come in here and attack me is ludicrous,” fumed Hazzard. “I made sure that ICAC and the other person [Margaret Cunneen] was apprised of the fact that there was a witness. What I did as attorney-general was entirely proper.”

When Parliament resumes today the press gallery will be watching to see whether Foley’s opposition pursues Hazzard or drops off.

If its attack is not renewed, questions will be asked about the opposition’s parliamentary tactics and its political judgement.

On the other hand, if Hazzard is forced into further damning admissions his bizarre phone calls around ICAC’s controversial Cunneen inquiry will raise questions about his political judgement.

The Cunneen affair, which is absorbing Sydney’s political, legal and media classes, just keeps giving.