Culture wars, renewables and what the federal Liberals could learn from NSW

Analysis: Dominic Perrottet may be conservative, but he is not a populist, and understands the benefit of governing from the centre

The New South Wales minister for multiculturalism, Mark Coure, was blunt in his assessment of his party’s election day text message spruiking the interception of an asylum seeker boat.

“Acts of desperation like this unfairly hurt parts of our community … time to rise above this kind of campaigning,” he wrote on Twitter.

The text message, which warned voters the only way to maintain secure borders was by voting for the Coalition, “wasn’t necessary or helpful”, Coure said.

The same phrase might sum up the NSW Liberal party’s attitude to the culture wars which its federal counterparts have leaned into over the past decade.

Amid debate about the direction the federal Liberal party should take after the wipeout of much of its moderate wing to the teal wave last Saturday, the NSW government’s decade in power offers a real-world rebuff to the notion that the Coalition must drift right to win votes.

In fact, interventions such as Coure’s are a neat example of how differently the Liberals operate in the state – which has the last remaining Coalition government on mainland Australia – compared with their newly ousted colleagues in Canberra.

Where the federal Coalition has prosecuted culture wars, its NSW counterpart has ducked or extinguished them at every opportunity.

The campaign itself was littered with similar examples. When Scott Morrison used the campaign to repeatedly tarnish the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (Icac) as a “kangaroo court”, the premier, Dominic Perrottet, did not hesitate to rebuke him for “absolutely” going too far with his criticisms. Perrottet then announced an increase in the watchdog’s funding.

Never mind that senior ministers in his government have their own criticisms of the agency, that this government has lost two of its four premiers amid corruption inquiries, or that the funding increase dismissed a request from the watchdog to be funded independently. By publicly backing the Icac, Perrottet both distanced himself from an unpopular prime minister and neutralised a campaign issue for Labor at next year’s state election.

It’s a type of political pragmatism that has run through each iteration of this government. The best example, of course, is the deal the treasurer, Matt Kean, was able to strike when he was environment minister with former Nationals leader John Barilaro on the state’s ambitious climate targets in 2020.

By convincing Barilaro that the massive expansion of renewable energy generation would benefit the regions by creating new industry, as well as offering new passive income for farmers hosting energy infrastructure such as solar farms, the NSW Liberals were able to politically eliminate an issue which continues to vex the federal Coalition.

Part of that has to do with personality. For all the criticisms of Barilaro, at heart he remained a deal maker. His complete authority over the Nationals in NSW meant that once Kean was able to convince him of the benefits of his climate plan there was no chance of a backbench rebellion.

That same ethos exists throughout most of this state government. As one senior minister told the Guardian this week, in NSW the government benches are largely free of the type of culture warriors who have made a career out of prosecuting niche issues on Sky News after dark.

Beginning with Barry O’Farrell in 2011 and followed by Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian, power in NSW has been held by economically Liberal, socially moderate leaders who have adhered to a similar playbook: privatising a slew of public assets as a means to pay for large infrastructure projects.

Forget for a moment that the label of “asset recycling” is arguably a misnomer. The sale of income-generating assets to build passive infrastructure such as roads and tunnels is not, some would say, the strict definition of recycling, and inevitably means a hit to revenue in the long term. Forget also that 11 years into government with a mountain of debt after the pandemic, that massive infrastructure bill is starting to pinch.

The point is that the NSW government has kept debate on its own favourable ground – the economy – rather than engaging in internecine culture wars which proved only to alienate the centre. It’s telling that the policy which has harmed the Coalition most was the Baird-era attempt to ban greyhound racing, a socially progressive reform that was weaponised by the Labor opposition.

The headlines when Perrottet took over from Berejiklian last year all pointed towards a shift from that model. A conservative Catholic who opposed the decriminalisation of abortion and called Donald Trump’s election in 2016 a “a victory for people who have been taken for granted by the elites”, there was a view he would seek to push the NSW Coalition further to the right of politics.

That turned out to be wrong. There are a lot of reasons for why that is. Despite being led by a conservative, the NSW Coalition party room is still dominated by the more moderate faction of the Liberal party, meaning any instinct to shift the government right would be tempered by sheer weight of numbers. But more importantly is Perrottet’s own brand of politics. He may be conservative, but he is not a populist, and understands the benefit of governing from the centre.

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Take for example that in his short period as premier he has chided the former government on its religious discrimination bill, rejected a bill to ban transgender children from playing school sports aligning with their gender and allowed a conscience vote on voluntary assisted dying.

The election last Saturday may yet prove a warning of what’s to come for the NSW Coalition when voters go to the polls next March. Already in minority, Perrottet acknowledged that the party needs to win over suburban voters when he said in a speech this week that western Sydney was the natural home of the Liberal party.

But he has also denied that the Coalition cannot hold on to the kind of voters who turned away from the Liberal party to elect the teal independents. Next month’s budget, for example, is expected to focus heavily on women, including funding for childcare, an issue Morrison was never able to grapple with, to disastrous effect.

With Peter Dutton to be elected as the new opposition leader in Canberra, debate over the future direction of the Liberal party will no doubt continue. They could do worse than to learn from their colleagues in Macquarie Street.


Michael McGowan

The GuardianTramp

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