While the rest of the country is slowing down for Christmas, in the chaotic world of New South Wales politics it’s beginning to look a lot like an election.
This week saw a flurry of activity from a Coalition preparing itself for what is shaping up to be the tightest NSW election since Bob Carr won power from John Fahey’s minority government in 1995.
But rather than shoring up support in the marginal western Sydney seats where Labor hopes the election will be won, the Coalition is currently focused on its own heartland.
Desperate to avoid a repeat of the teal wipeout suffered at the federal election, the Liberals are trying to convince voters in wealthy, socially progressive electorates in Sydney’s east and north to trust the Coalition for a fourth term.
The treasurer and standard-bearer for Liberal moderates, Matt Kean, was in Manly on Friday to trumpet an ambitious new emissions reduction target of 70% by 2035. It came after helping orchestrate a factional deal to install three women on the party’s upper house ticket – more on that later – and an increase on the taxes paid by casinos on poker machine revenue.
It has created a strange dynamic, where the Coalition has taken the lead on social issues while the Labor opposition clings to a narrower message focused around health and education, hewing closer to the centre in a bid to show – much like Anthony Albanese did – that it is a party of “safe change”.
Kean says the Coalition’s moves to its left flank are “not about the teals”. Don’t believe him.
The March election may be won in western Sydney, but the Coalition knows that it can lose it in the seats being targeted by the teals. They are particularly concerned about Manly, where the environment minister, James Griffin, is fighting off a challenge by the Climate 200-backed independent Joeline Hackman. But Felicity Wilson’s seat of North Shore, as well as Pittwater and Wakehurst, are also shaping as key battlegrounds.
There are plenty of differences to the federal election, though. There are donation caps and an optional preference voting system, for starters, but there’s also the wider political landscape. While it’s clear Scott Morrison’s unpopularity cost the Coalition the federal election, NSW does not appear to have the same problem.
The premier, Dominic Perrottet, was painted as a conservative warrior when he took over the top job last October, but has proven to be a pragmatic leader who has pushed hard to reform gambling in NSW and, notably, did not join Morrison in his ad hominem attacks on the state’s Independent Commission Against Corruption during the federal election. Instead he boosted its funding.
He also put aside any ideological concerns to tackle the rising cost of living by supporting the federal government’s cap on wholesale coal prices. Asked this week whether the cap went against his free market instincts, he replied: “I’m a free market guy, but I’m also a practical guy too.”
Kean’s foresight in positioning himself as a vocal advocate for action on climate change also blunts another key line of attack used by the teals against the Coalition federally.
While the new emissions target will not be legislated, and does not come with any new policy announcements, it helps feed the sense that in NSW the Coalition leads – rather than follows – the Labor states on action on climate issues.
It’s a plan that comes with risks, however.
While burnishing its progressive credentials in the northern beaches, the Coalition has sung a different tune to voters in the west. It was only last week Kean was telling radio station 2GB that he was open to looking at nuclear energy in the future, a technology he has previously likened to “chasing unicorns”. And on the controversial and environmentally fraught plan to raise the Warragamba Dam wall, the government has gone full red meat for the base: “people before plants”, Perrottet said in October.
Indeed, for all Kean’s advocacy on emissions, this government does not have a great record on the environment: think koalas, land clearing, offsets and the criminalisation of climate activists.
On the teal front though, the biggest issue the Coalition has failed to address is a perception that it has a women problem.
It’s not for a lack of trying. Kean put women at the centre of his budget in June and publicly championed the roads minister, Natalie Ward, in her bid to move from the upper house to the lower house in the seat of Davidson.
She was unsuccessful because the party’s own rank and file instead picked a man, Matt Cross, to fill the spot. Other key preselection spots have also gone to men in Ryde, South Coast and Camden.
Then this week senior figures including Perrottet, Kean and the finance minister Damien Tudehope, thought they had found an elegant solution to the problem by stitching up a cross-factional deal which would see three male upper house MPs – Shayne Mallard, Lou Amato and Matthew Mason-Cox – sacrificed for three female candidates.
It looked a done deal, until figures in the centre right raised objections with one of the female candidates put forward. The deal may still be done – but the pushback means that, despite spending the lead-up to Christmas seeking to blunt the attacks on its left flank, the Coalition will return in the new year facing a series of recriminations from its own rank and file.
It will be music to the ears of its teal challengers.