Labor should not underestimate Dominic Perrottet and the new generation of NSW Liberal leaders

The new king comes with a powerful alliance of kingmakers who can unite the Liberal factions, but can they sell themselves to the public?

The likely new leadership in New South Wales will be a government of the king and the kingmakers, a powerful alliance of next-generation political professionals who will pursue a conservative, pro-business agenda, albeit with a pale green tinge.

Dominic Perrottet, 39, Matt Kean, 40, and Stuart Ayres, also 40, have spent their entire lives in politics. All three are masters of its dark arts and together they will be able to unite the warring factions of the Liberal party that have undone other leaders in the past.

But whether this team can sell themselves to the public of NSW remains to be seen.

Perrottet is quick-witted, but he is also a cutting, spiky character and not your everyman.

He also carries the baggage of the icare scandal, revealed by investigative journalist Adele Ferguson, to live down. She detailed how icare, which reports to the treasurer, had systematically underpaid injured workers and how executives had been rewarded with lavish paycheques.

The planning minister, Rob Stokes, is a far more easygoing character and a solid performer when it comes to policy. He is still challenging for the leadership, but stands little chance.

The Perrottet ticket did not announce until it had secured the numbers and will almost certainly be duly elected on Tuesday.

Stokes is likely to announce his resignation from politics by the next election and other long-serving MPs such as Brad Hazzard are expected to follow.

But what can we expect in terms of policy from the Perrottet team?

Perrottet is a staunch conservative Catholic, father of six, and is one of 13 children. He is a leading member of the right and has been involved in factional politics since a young man, in the Young Liberals and later as a staffer for David Clarke, then as leader of the conservative right.

Perrottet attended Redfield college, which has an Opus Dei priest as its chaplain, however Perrottet has said he is not a member of the ultra-conservative Catholic order.

On social issues, Perrottet is likely to be very conservative. He voted against decriminalisation of abortion in NSW last year, and will almost certainly oppose the assisted dying bill that independent Alex Greenwich plans to bring before parliament in October.

Labor is planning to offer a conscience vote. Under John Barilaro, the Nationals had planned to support it. But with his departure there is no knowing whether supporters in the Nationals, such as Trevor Khan, can get the new leader to stick with this position. It has been reported that despite his personal opposition, Perrottet will allow Liberals a conscience vote on the bill.

If the bill does not pass, it will leave NSW as the only state where helping a terminally ill person end their life is a crime.

Another early indicator about how close Perrottet is to the Catholic church will be what happens to the state’s cemeteries.

Officials within Investment NSW and the Department of Planning last week advised ministers to appoint one government body, known as OneCrown, to administer the assets of Sydney cemeteries.

But numerous senior government ministers are pushing for the “additional option” of having the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust remaining separate from OneCrown and giving it control of two of the most lucrative cemeteries – Varroville and Wallacia.

There has been no open tender, and other religious groups have opposed the transfer of the cemeteries to the CMCT.

On more pressing matters, such as the end of the Covid lockdown, Perrottet is likely to be unashamedly pro-business.

He denied he directly opposed the lockdown of NSW in July, saying it was his job to put the counter-argument about the impact on the economy. But others say he argued strongly against it.

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As NSW emerges from lockdown, residents can expect life under premier Perrottet to see a swift and more definitive path back to normal. Perrottet will be reluctant to see any backsliding, even if Covid case numbers spike, hospitals struggle and health officials want to slow it down.

He is also likely to be more pro-business – if that’s possible, because Berejiklian’s government was very pro-business.

Whereas the planning minister, Rob Stokes, has championed open space, transport links and climate-sensitive design, tempering the natural impulses of NSW’s powerful development lobby, Perrottet has not shown the same interest in better planning.

The massive Aerotropolis, on the edge of Sydney adjoining the second airport, is likely to be the test case.

Also controversial has been the Penrith Lakes project, which Ayres, the MP for Penrith, has championed. Flooding concerns have prompted planning officials to dramatically limit residential development, but Ayres has said in the past he would like to see more housing.

The new leadership is also likely to enthusiastically push ahead with raising the Warragamba dam wall, despite the loss of world heritage-listed national park. The environmental impact statement is now on exhibition. The flood mitigation measures will allow large swathes of western Sydney to be developed.

On other environmental issues, the outlook is less clear. As environment minister, Kean has led the way in mapping out NSW’s pathway to net zero by 2050 and convinced his colleagues to embrace his plan for a major shift to renewables. The plan involves setting up renewable energy hubs and encouraging $32bn in private sector investment.

As the new treasurer, he is likely to continue pushing that agenda. However, he was less forthright on the expansion of coalmines, coal seam gas and mining more generally while environment minister. Under his watch as environment minister, the NSW government has given the go-ahead to Santos’s Narrabri Gas project.

Ayres, who is married to the foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, is Liberal moderate royalty. His elevation to deputy leader will help the Liberals cement their claim to be the party for the western suburbs of Sydney. Ayres is a popular local member in Penrith and well known in the region.

Through his long period as sports minister, he was close to the powerful pubs and clubs industry. He is an owner of racehorses and an enthusiast for racing.

In short, this will be a government that business will have no reason to fear.

Where it stands on the pressing environmental issues confronting the most populous state – land clearing, loss of threatened species, koala protections and water management – is less clear.

It will depend on whether the next Nationals leader can wield the same clout John Barilaro has over the last five years.

Labor, who has also turned to its next generation in Chris Minns, should not underestimate this team.


Anne Davies

The GuardianTramp

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