'Enough madness': can playing it safe win Michael Daley the NSW election?

The new Labor leader lays out his vision for Australia’s most populous state, saying he wants to be the man to ‘calm Sydney down’

Michael Daley is relaxed, and he wants you to be too.

As the New South Wales opposition leader lays out his vision for Australia’s most populous state from his office on the 10th floor of parliament, he says he wants to be the man to “calm Sydney down”.

“Enough madness has descended upon Sydney,” he tells Guardian Australia. “I’m not going to add to it by having early days of mayhem.”

The first 100 days of a Daley government, he says, would be “calm” and “respectful”. He would not immediately begin “overturning apple carts”. Decisions would be made “carefully and deliberately”. He would listen.

Daley is only a recent occupant of the office. His predecessor, Luke Foley, left in a hurry last month and Labor’s new man has already made his mark on the office: a framed South Sydney Rabbitohs jersey and a photo of Daley with Australian cricket legend Glenn McGrath take pride of place behind his desk.

The same, however, cannot yet be said about his policy agenda. His first announcement as opposition leader last month was straight up and down hip-pocket politics: a Labor government would scrap fees for birth certificates, an early nod to his nominated focus on cost of living pressure.

He has also said he wants to re-regulate the electricity retail market to bring power bills down, introduce refunds for delayed public transport, and provide a cashback on some of the state’s toll roads.

If there’s a bigger picture, it’s not yet clear what it will look like.

But Daley’s dilemma is obvious. With only a short window of time to introduce himself to the electorate – a fiendishly difficult task for any state opposition leader – he has to find a way to get himself noticed without drawing attention away from the problems plaguing a tired-looking Liberal government on his right and an imploding Greens party on his left. In short, he has a balancing act to perform, and is walking the tightrope carefully.

Enter the ongoing debate in NSW over stadiums, where he has sought to lay down a personal and political marker. Daley has used the government’s stadium deal as an early definer of his leadership, declaring the March election as in part a “referendum” on the controversial decision to demolish and rebuild the Allianz stadium at Moore Park at a cost of $730m.

While he insists the rebuild will still go ahead if Labor is elected, Daley wants the Sydney Cricket Ground trust, a government-owned body, to pay for it through a loan from the government.

Polling has shown the stadium deal is deeply unpopular with the electorate, but in seeking to harness that antipathy Daley risks making powerful enemies.

I can’t sit around worrying about what enemies I’m going to make, I just have to do the right thing. If I can’t do the right thing, if I have to tiptoe through the tulips, I’d rather not do this job

The SCG trust’s longest-serving board member is the conservative Sydney radio shock jock Alan Jones. Long considered a king-maker in NSW politics, Jones has repeatedly lashed Daley over Labor’s position on his breakfast radio show, accusing him of breathtaking ignorance.

The National Rugby League has also threatened to move its grand final interstate, even though the game isn’t played at the stadium.

But Daley insisted he wasn’t concerned about ruffling feathers, even if the plumage belongs to one of Sydney’s loudest parrots.

“Alan’s got to answer a question himself, I think,” he tells Guardian Australia. “Why does he care whether I rebuild the stadium and get his trust to take out a loan under generous terms and pay it back? I don’t see what all the anger is about.

“[But] I can’t sit around worrying about what enemies I’m going to make, I just have to do the right thing. If I can’t do the right thing, if I have to tiptoe through the tulips, I’d rather not do this job, I’d go and do something else.”

Michael Daley speaks to the media outside Allianz Stadium
Michael Daley says he is not concerned about ruffling feathers over the stadium redevelopments. Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

But standing up to the likes of Jones could prove to be politically advantageous, too. Daley sees lessons from the Victorian election, where Labor swept back into power in the face of a scare campaign from the Coalition opposition.

“The Victorian election showed what happens when leaders want to be brave and be themselves,” he said.

“I’m worried about the future of Australian politics … People are so cynical in government, in politics and in politicians, and I see an opportunity that if I become the premier of NSW in March next year I will use my position of leadership of the most populous and important state in Australia to restore some faith in the political process.

“I feel very strongly about that. We’re on the edge of a bad time for Australia right now.”

So strongly that another of his first acts of business was to call for an end to mud-slinging in the infamously brutal NSW parliament, known colloquially as the “bear pit”.

“I’ve sent the challenge to Gladys Berejiklian,” he said last month. “We will concentrate on policy and we won’t be throwing mud.”

But Daley is no shrinking violet, and in the blood sport that often defines NSW parliament the opposition leader is one of its fiercest combatants.

In 2017, just hours after the treasurer Dominic Perrottet’s brother Jean Claude Perrottet had been acquitted of rape charges, Daley leant across the dispatch box to deliver this savage riposte: “I think there will be some members on the government front bench who would be sympathetic to this fact: you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your relatives. Right, treasurer?”

It’s the kind of old-school, take-no-prisoners approach that Daley’s Labor right faction has long been famous for. Indeed, one of the government’s clearest lines of attack against him is his past.

Daley was a minister in the deeply unpopular Labor government which was rocketed out of power in 2011, and like all Labor right figures from that era, he cannot totally avoid the taint.

His maiden speech includes thanks to the likes of Eddie Obeid – something the Liberal party wasted no time pointing out when he became leader last month.

Daley lists the former premier Bob Carr as one of his mentors, and claims his record on infrastructure is much more robust than people give him credit for. His office produced a list to prove his point.

It’s true that Carr, elected in 1995, built an impressive amount of sporting facilities, roads and the Olympic rail line in the lead-up to hosting the games. But after 2000, the Carr government’s spending was notably directed to road projects: the Eastern Distributor (1999),the M5 East (2001); the M7 Westlink (2005); the Cross City Tunnel (2005); the Lane Cove Tunnel (2007) and the Seacliff bridge (2005).

Almost all were toll roads, built by the private sector as PPPs. Some proved to be financial disasters after traffic estimates proved optimistic.

When it came to public transport, the previous Labor government’s record is thin. It did build the Chatswood to Epping rail link, but public transport projects petered out to bus transit lanes and the light rail extension in latter years. And despite growing populations in the north-west and south-west, Labor repeatedly deferred starting the new rail projects.

Daley claims the Coalition has not cut the ribbon on a project in its eight years in office, but it could be argued that was because there was little in the infrastructure pipeline.

What the Victorian election showed is that when some politicians want to talk about migration, it’s to distract from the fact that the infrastructure build is not taking place

Indeed, Sydney has increasingly been defined by the often-slow progress of the ambitious infrastructure program the former premier Mike Baird took to the 2015 election.

Delays and blowouts to its light rail project, together with the construction of the Westconnex motorway, has left large swathes of the city populated by barricades and hampered by street closures.

Perhaps recognising a growing frustration with that state of affairs, Daley is deliberately pitching himself as a more serene alternative.

But on a number of policy areas he has so far stuck to safe ground. On moves to introduce a so-called Zoe’s Law bill in NSW – which would make it a crime to cause serious harm or death to a foetus during a criminal act, deeply controversial legislation in a state where abortion is still a crime – he is steadfastly non-committal, despite having voted for the original bill in 2013.

“I’m in a much different position now,” he said. “I had the luxury of being a back-bencher in 2013, now I’m the leader so there’s a much greater consequence attached to my vote and what I say and do about this because I’m seen to be the representative of the party.

“If that bill comes back before the parliament I would acknowledge the reality of it … it’s about a number of things but principally it’s about a woman’s body.

“What I will do is talk to the important women in my life. My mum, my sister, my wife, my daughter and my female colleagues and I would be informed by them.”

Michael Daley with his wife, Christina, and children, Austin and Olivia
Michael Daley with his wife, Christina, and children, Austin and Olivia, after being elected NSW Labor leader in November. Photograph: Ben Rushton/AAP

So too on abortion decriminalisation itself, where Labor has so far committed only to asking the Law Reform Commission to review the laws and granting MPs a conscience vote in the likely event it comes before the parliament in the next term.

On another vexed issue in NSW politics – population – Daley has so far resisted the urge to use migration as a campaigning tactic. While Berejiklian has called for a cut in the state’s migration intake, Daley laid the blame on poor planning and infrastructure.

“What the Victorian election showed is that when some politicians want to talk about migration, it’s to distract from the fact that the infrastructure build is not taking place,” he said.

“That’s what people in the suburbs know. They know Sydney’s growing. They know they’ll be asked to take on more neighbours and they’re happy to do that.

“They’ll accept the growth, if they get the schools and the gardens, the community centres and the transport that goes along with it.

“Be careful of the xenophobia, the dog whistle, I don’t ever want to see that enter the political mainstream.”

The question is, with less than 100 days until the March election, will playing it safe be enough.


Michael McGowan and Anne Davies

The GuardianTramp

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