We know where Perrottet stands – but is he pragmatic enough to be popular? | Paul Daley

The new NSW premier will need to govern from the centre and avoid the pitfalls of ideology, both moral and economic

If you’re searching for the enigma inside Dominic Perrottet, the latest New South Wales Liberal leader to be flung through the state premiership’s revolving in-door, perhaps don’t waste your time.

What you see and, more to the point, what the 39-year-old 46th state premier says you’ll see, is probably what you’ll get.

Which is to say a deep social conservatism stemming from an upbringing of traditional family and Catholic education fused with unfettered market economics; a zeal for public sector reform and smaller government; and a rightwing brand of freedom/libertarian ideology (fine, unless you want his personal blessing to be free to end your life with dignity, have an abortion or marry your same-sex partner).

Yes, freedom. The new freedom premier who, as fortune bestowed, got hold of the government reins just as NSW was coming out of lockdown, is all about it. Covid crisis? No more. Among his first initiatives was renaming the crisis cabinet the Covid and economic recovery committee.

As pic-ops go, the premier sipping a schooner with a quartet of besuited ministerial men – on a day when half of Sydney (the other half got a haircut) lost its shit over the freedom to again sink a beer in a pub – was hardly inspired. Also blokey (just days after insisting he wanted more women in his cabinet) and a little awkward, given it looked like the fresh-faced premier’s first ever drink in a bar – and because they were, apparently, breaching restrictions requiring patrons to be seated while drinking.

But wait. For soon there was more freedom, or promise thereof, days later, when Perrottet announced his state would welcome vaccinated international travellers to enter without quarantining. Sydney was opening to the world!

“We can’t live here in a hermit kingdom. We’ve got to open up, and this decision today is a big one, but it is the right one to get NSW connected globally,” Perrottet declared in news that brought out more the insular prime minister-for-Pyongyang than -let’s-open-New South Wales-to-the-world from his surprised Liberal bro Scott Morrison.

Perrottet in pub
‘As pic-ops go, the premier sipping a schooner with a quartet of besuited ministerial men was hardly inspired.’ Photograph: DEANLEWINS/AAP

Airline futures shifted. Ticket sales surged.

This was a risky – albeit thwarted – play. Had it happened and led to a surge in illness and death, he’d have been accused of putting the economy before community health, as he will anyway should cases in the new freedom state rise dramatically (he had, after all, pointed out days before that Covid lockdown was not just a health crisis – “it’s also an economic crisis ...”).

Few in business and politics familiar with Perrottet’s rightwing views (and behind-the-scenes “let-her-rip” agitation in the early days of pandemic response when he resisted the extent of moderate Berejiklian’s lockdowns) were terribly surprised. He has made big – and sometimes perilous – decisions before in the name of commercial and economic advancement, including his disastrous reform of public insurer icare, which almost ended up killing his nascent political career.

No. The Perrottet past is hardly another country.

Take his inaugural speech of 31 May 2011, in which he espoused the ideals of sacrifice, generosity and public service, freedom and opportunity, while riffing off the virtues of, among others, Tony Abbott (twice), Pope John Paul II, John Howard and Churchill (he omitted Donald Trump, then five years from the White House but whose election Perrottet would celebrate as dawn of a “conservative spring”).

“I believe that true social justice is one that is built on the foundation that respects the dignity of every human being without distinction of race, gender or colour, whether they are born or unborn, whether they are infant or frail aged, whether they are sick or healthy. I believe that every human being has equal dignity and intrinsic value,” he said.

“I strongly support the principles of free markets – we are the party of small business, of enterprise and of wealth creation. And I agree with Churchill when he calls the socialist model the equal distribution of poverty, not wealth. I oppose plans for more social engineering, more welfare handouts and the continual obsession with our rights at the expense of our responsibilities. These toxic ideas signal the death of the opportunity society.”

Unambiguous?

In that speech he mentioned freedom 11 times and said “free” twice. No elephant stamp for guessing the adjectival applications: markets and society.

On pachyderms, let’s go straight to the one in the room. Religion. In some secular quarters there has been agitation at the considerable media attention to Perrottet’s orthodox brand of Catholicism – he attended Redfield College, Dural, in outer Sydney, a school with links to the ultra-conservative prelature Opus Dei. Perrottet has denied being a member of Opus Dei.

As he emerged as Berejiklian’s replacement, “Dom” Perrottet was largely summed up in media takes as “conservative Catholic and father of six”, his being among 13 siblings (one of whom died in childbirth) usually the first sub-heading.

“Up until now, all of our Liberal premiers have been infrastructure premiers ... and that will not change with me, but I will also be a family premier, focusing on how we can make life better for working families, living the Liberal values of opportunity, aspiration and hard work.”

Agree or disagree, his position equates with both where he’s from and who he is.

Perrottet, barely a week into his premiership, announced with understandable delight that he and his lawyer wife Helen were expecting a seventh child. In an epoch where public figures are readily granted latitude for tricky personal circumstance (such as not saying how many children they may have) critics and supporters alike will, ironically perhaps, infer policy implications - not least in relation to his stances on abortion and same sex marriage – from Perrottet’s orthodox religious values and family situation.

But on the day of his election Perrottet urged people not to judge him on his religion.

“People should judge people on who they are and what they say ... I am very proud of the fact that I have a strong Christian faith. Does that in any way take away my capacity to serve as premier? Well, I do not think so, and I think it is a sad thing that some people do.”

There seems little doubt faith, family and education inform some – though by no means all – of his social, economic and fiscal policy positions. An opponent of abortion law reform, same-sex marriage and euthanasia, he has also criticised the ABC as “simply a mouthpiece for left of centre views”, what he sees as the welfare state’s contribution to the erosion of family, and federal spending on climate change mitigation and renewable energy.

And yet even progressive political operatives and business figures privately insist he is capable of pragmatically shelving ideology to achieve electorally popular political (and economic) outcomes.

They cite his decision to allow his party a conscience vote on NSW assisted dying legislation (although reform has now been stalled by reference to an upper house committee); publicly committing, as treasurer, to an ambitious state emissions reduction target; and by appointing leading moderate Matt Kean – who has spearheaded the state’s nationally progressive warming mitigation plan – as treasurer in addition to his energy and environment portfolio.

They also mention his appointment of the highly-respected, hard-headed professional public servant, Michael Coutts-Trotter, to drive his policy agenda as secretary of the department of premier and cabinet.

Governing from the centre and avoiding the pitfalls of ideology – moral or economic – would seem a pragmatic necessity now, given the minority Coalition government faces three imminent byelections. And not to mention a new Labor leader, Chris Minns, who appeals to the political centre and exudes competence, positivity and integrity – something of a byword for a departure from old NSW Labor.

Contributor

Paul Daley

The GuardianTramp

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