In his maiden speech to parliament 11 years ago, the New South Wales premier, Dominic Perrottet, shared an anecdote from his childhood, in which he explained his “love of politics” began from a young age.
In the speech, Perrottet said that from the age of 10 he and his siblings were “required to present an article on current affairs to the family” at the dinner table.
“Such activity, of course, led to some robust political debate,” he said. “I can often remember being sent to my room from the kitchen table.”
That endearing, if slightly nerdy disclosure, takes on a different light in the context of the shocking revelation this week that he wore a Nazi uniform to his 21st birthday.
While Perrottet was clearly penitent in his emotional admission, he blamed the decision on the naivety of youth, saying he did not properly grasp the significance of his actions at the time.
“I’m not the person I am today that I was at 21,” he said on Thursday.
“Who I am today is formed by the good things I’ve done in my life, not the mistakes I’ve made.”
There are not many people out there who would feel comfortable being held to the standards of our 21-year-old selves.
And yet, in 2003, even at 21, Perrottet was no political neophyte. He was already president of the Young Liberals at the University of Sydney, and had gained a reputation, along with his brothers, as a formidable opponent in the cut-throat world of campus politics in the age before John Howard’s voluntary student unionism (VSU) reforms.
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Indeed, by the age of 22 Perrottet was being quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald campaigning in favour of VSU.
He had, by his own telling, grown up consumed by politics, which makes it harder to square the notion he did not already appreciate that wearing the outfit was wrong.
How people react will depend on how willing they are to accept that, even in that context, a person deserves forgiveness for their actions at a young age. Already, moderate MPs facing up against a teal threat in eastern suburbs seats such as Vaucluse – which have a high proportion of Jewish voters – are grappling with the extent of the damage.
“It certainly isn’t good news,” one MP told the Guardian.
But there is another context to this saga: why this happened now.
On Thursday, Perrottet said he had contemplated admitting what he had done many times throughout his political career. It had weighed on him heavily, he said, and caused significant anxiety.
He never did admit it, though. Not when he announced $6m in funding for the Sydney Jewish Museum as treasurer in 2021, or when his government passed legislation banning Nazi symbols in the state last year (meaning he would face a possible $11,000 fine or year in jail if he repeated the act today).
Instead, he admitted it this week, three months out from a tightly fought election in which his government is trying to hang on for a fourth term, and two days after a phone call from his own transport minister, David Elliott, in which the incident was raised.
Perrottet has repeatedly said that conversation was not a threat, but it is what prompted him, 11 years into his career in NSW politics, to make the admission. The timing is fascinating. The phone call took place on Tuesday night, the same evening the transport minister effectively accused Perrottet’s staff of leaking a story to the media about his son’s employment with a gambling company.
Elliott was furious about the story, which followed the transport minister publicly questioning Perrottet’s hard-fought push for a mandatory cashless gaming card in clubs and hotels in the state.
Elliott told Seven News on Tuesday that he had been told “by a member of Dominic Perrottet’s religious right faction that this attack was imminent”.
“I reached out to the premier to intervene [but] he did not respond to my multiple text messages,” he said.
So what did Elliott say, that same night, which prompted Perrottet’s confession?
Rumours of a highly damaging photo of the premier had been circulating for a few days before that, and Elliott has said he was warning Perrottet of what was to come.
“Everyone, including the premier’s own staff, had heard the rumour – that someone was planning to use it against him,” Elliott said on Thursday.
Whether or not a photo exists is not clear. Perrottet said he isn’t aware of one, and to date one has not emerged.
But it appears whatever attack was circulating, it was coming from the premier’s own rightwing faction (Elliott is from the rival centre-right).
Rightwing factional figures were furious at a decision – which Perrottet helped secure – to dump three male upper house MPs from the party’s ticket in a bid to increase female representation in the party. Bitter preselection battles in Sydney’s north-west have also caused serious ructions in the faction.
On Friday Perrottet repeatedly said he was not concerned about where the attack against him had come from, or whether it was retribution for his stance on pokies or preselections.
“This is about a mistake that I made,” he said.
Someone in his own corner is determined that he should pay for that mistake.