It’s official. Dominic Perrottet is the NSW Premier. But with three by-elections on the books, can Labor force and election and boot him out?
The largest state is heading to three by-elections following resignations of Premier and Liberal Party leader Gladys Berejiklian, Deputy Premier and National Party leader John Barilaro, and Transport and Infrastructure Minister Andrew Constance in the space of a long weekend. Their reasons are all different, but the effect is collectively destabilising. Gladys Berejiklian is the most significant since she is still the popular premier of the state, but has spent the last year knowing she was likely to be questioned by the Independent Commission Against Corruption after a trainwreck appearance at hearings related to the investigation into former Wagga Wagga MP Darryl McGuire, who turned out to have been her secret boyfriend and also the beneficiary of some very happy funding decisions she made as treasurer and premier. She could have stepped aside until the hearings later this month, but on Friday 1 October she announced that she was instead choosing to resign both as premier and as the MP for the safely Liberal North Shore seat of Willoughby.
BREAKING: Dominic Perrottet has won the ballot. He will become the 46th Premier of NSW. @9NewsSyd
— Chris O’Keefe (@cokeefe9) October 4, 2021
John Barilaro has been dogged with controversy throughout his career and is currently embroiled in a defamation suit against a producer for the journalist and satirist Friendlyjordies (aka Jordan Shanks). His reasons for resigning as leader of the party and as MP for Monaro on Monday 4 October weren’t clear beyond that they were personal and that he wanted to avoid the public pressure he’d been under for a decade (strongly suggesting Shanks was at least partially responsible for his decision) and that he wouldn’t be pursuing any further career in politics.
(Twitter, predictably, has been awash with rumours of scandals supposedly about to break with the Goulburn Valley Express going so far as to suggest “a romantic entanglement with a staffer of a similar nature to the Vikki Campion/Barnaby Joyce situation” being the motivation to resign.)
Andrew Constance, at least, is quitting for a clear reason: he’s going to seek federal preselection as Liberal candidate for the marginal Labor seat of Gilmore. Mind you, it’s not the first time he’s announced he was done with state politics: in March 2020 he announced he wouldn’t be recontesting his state seat of Bega, then in May 2020 he announced he was running for the federal seat of Eden-Monaro, then he changed his mind the following day and went back to state parliament so y’know, for all we know he might yet announce he’s going to run for Mayor of Bega next week. What an excitingly mercurial political life he leads!
With three senior politicians choosing to quit their posts right when the state is on a COVID-reopening knife-edge, it’s understandable that the public is seeking some sort of reassurance as to what is happening. So here are the answers to a few questions:
Will NSW be heading toward a state election?
The short answer is no. The longer answer has a pause and then adds “…probably“.
NSW has fixed-term elections meaning that the state election date is set in stone for Saturday 25 March 2023. Yes, as in 18 months away. That’s a long time for even a scandal-wracked government to right itself.
And there are complex reasons why a vote of no confidence would be difficult and unlikely, and why the opposition would be unlikely to roll the LNP out ahead of the by-elections, which the ABC’s erudite election-mentat Antony Green explains here.
So the short answer is that Dominic Perrottet is heading to 500-odd clear days before the next state election. However, the risk is that things could get worse in the immediate term if more members of the government decide to bail while attention is being paid to the more significant resignations because things have changed a bit from 2019 when the Liberal-National Coalition won 48 of the 93 seats to clinch victory.
Why would that change anything?
Right now, the Coalition only holds 46 seats. Labor holds 36, with the remainder held by the Greens (three seats), the Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party (three seats) and five independents.
Technically this means that the government are in a minority, but the reality is that two of those independents – Member for Drummoyne John Sidoti and Member of Kiama Gareth Ward – vote in lockstep with the Liberals and can be considered part of the government.
That’s good, numbers-wise, but not great in terms of optics because Sidoti is only an independent because he chose to quit the Liberal Party pending the outcome of his own investigation by ICAC regarding his property dealings, and ex-Liberal MP Gareth Ward is only an independent because he is facing a police investigation over allegations of sexual violence. That’s not ideal for a government desperately seeking to project honesty and integrity, in other words.
The other three independents are Joe McGirr (who won the typically safe Liberal seat of Wagga Wagga in the by-election forced by the ICAC-inspired resignation of Darry McGuire), and the two progressive MPs Alex Greenwich (Sydney) and Greg Piper (Lake Macquarie). So not much hope for Perrottet convincing them to join the winning team there, one would assume.
What if Labor pick up all the by-elections? Won’t that change the government?
It won’t happen, but also: no.
That would put Labor up to 39 seats, 42 if they were prepared to form a coalition with the Greens (which they wouldn’t, but the Greens would possibly decide to give Labor confidence and supply) and 45 if the progressive independents gave their support. Still not enough to govern outright, but it would mean that the LNP would need the support of either all the remaining independents and the SFF to pass any legislation Labor and the Greens opposed. Which would be tricky, but not impossible.
That said, Willoughby is impossible to wrench from Liberal hands, and Monaro would be possible without Barilaro’s personal local popularity (although the seat has flipped between Labor and the Nats in the past). Bega is the most likely of the three to be lost by the government – but that said, it has never been out of conservative hands.
The bigger issue is that the by-elections are going to come ahead of the federal government and Labor are unlikely to do a big, expensive push for hard-to-win seats that won’t change the government when the main game is just around the corner.
Can Gladys come back if ICAC doesn’t prosecute her?
Well, that’s the thing: she decided to quit the office and parliament. And she didn’t have to: she could have stepped aside and waited the investigation out; although had she chosen to do so Barilaro would have been acting premier in the interim, which would have been a problem given subsequent events.
That said, the Guardian reported that she has already been approached about running as the Liberal candidate for the federal seat of Warringah – formerly held by Tony Abbott and lost at the last election to pro-climate independent Zali Steggall.
It’s a fight Berejiklian would be the favourite to win, assuming that ICAC exonerates her – and hey, wouldn’t it be nice to be in a parliament that doesn’t have any of that annoying ICAC business?
That alone has almost certainly pushed any consideration Scott Morrison may have had for calling a federal election firmly back into 2022 territory.
What’s the most ironic thing about all of this?
It could change depending on whether some of the more hilariously scurrilous rumours turn out to be accurate, but right now it’s that if ICAC ends up making a ruling against Berejiklian and recommending that criminal charges be laid, a conviction would mean that she’d have her very lucrative parliamentary pension stripped from her under laws passed by the Berejiklian government.
That “may you live in interesting times” thing is a hell of a curse, huh?
That it is, friend. That it is.