The travails of Dominic Perrottet and Matthew Guy show that if the public’s imagination is not captured by politicians’ policies, something else will get voters’ attention.
What former US secretary of state Dean Acheson said about Britain in 1962, if adapted slightly, could apply to the Liberal Party in NSW and Victoria – and, for that matter, in every other state. He remarked that Britain had “lost an empire” and had “not yet found a role”.
In Australia at the state level, the Liberals are no longer the natural party of government – and they are searching for a purpose. The last two state Liberal leaders of any note were Nick Greiner and Jeff Kennett. Facing a no-confidence motion in parliament, Greiner resigned as NSW premier in 1992, and Kennett lost the 1999 Victorian state election. That was all a long time ago.
Certainly, since then they’ve been other Liberal and Coalition state premiers, and some have done some good things and at times even been reasonably popular. But none of them stands out, and none led an administration noticeably “Liberal” or “liberal” in character.
Following the lead of the Morrison government, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic of the Liberal state governments and oppositions was absolutely illiberal.
The absence of a policy program, or at least a program that’s different from that of Labor, is part of the reason the Perrottet government is embroiled in the Barilaro imbroglio, and the Matthew Guy-led Victorian Coalition opposition is engulfed in a controversy about Guy’s former chief of staff allegedly seeking payments from donors to his private company that potentially breach the state’s political donation laws.
That Victoria’s political donation laws, introduced by the Andrews Labor government, neuter the mobilisation of political opposition and allow trade union funding to the ALP to continue unimpeded while doing nothing to stop the cronyism and nepotism of the Victorian ALP, are facts lost in the noise of politics.
If Perrottet loses the NSW state election next March, the Liberals will be out of power everywhere in the country except Tasmania.
If the public’s imagination is not captured by politicians’ policies, something else will get voters’ attention.
The only thing that’s happened in the past 12 months in NSW which is as interesting as the upper house inquisition of former deputy premier John Barilaro is the revelation about how much it would cost the state’s taxpayers to install a new flagpole on the Sydney Harbour Bridge to fly the Aboriginal flag. Instead of spending $25 million to do so, the government decided to remove the state flag and replace it with the Aboriginal one.
The integrity deficit
What looks to many casual observers like another “jobs for the boys” deal that comes with a $487,000 annual salary and $16,000 in expenses is what voters understand, and what they’ve sadly come to expect from politicians regardless of which side they’re on.
Casual observers might conclude that the teals, with all their talk about “integrity” in government, do have a point.
The frustration of Dominic Perrottet and Guy that the media in their state seems interested in little else is palpable, and understandable. But the situation in which they find themselves is entirely of their own making.
It is particularly galling for Guy in Victoria. To anyone not a Victorian, it is an utter mystery how an administration that enforced the world’s longest lockdown, has accumulated more government debt than NSW and Queensland combined, and has been excoriated by the state’s anti-corruption watchdogs, is on track to be easily re-elected in November.
Part of the answer to that mystery lies in the way the Liberals in Victoria have done little to differentiate themselves from their opponents.
The Liberals supported the state’s lockdowns and their brutal enforcement by the Victoria Police, they have no budget strategy to speak of and, thanks to the frolics of Guy’s chief of staff, the Liberals’ completely justifiable critique of the behaviour of the Andrews government is now compromised.
It’s not entirely accurate to say that in Victoria there’s no difference between Labor and the Liberals. While both support net zero emissions by 2050, the Liberals have pledged to legislate a 50 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 (something not even Andrews has promised) if they somehow win the election.
If Perrottet loses the NSW state election next March, the Liberals will be out of power everywhere in the country except Tasmania. They’ll then have plenty of time to contemplate their role in Australian politics.