Now, some have suggested these laws are really about moralising; they are right.
—Mike Baird, responding to criticism of Sydney’s lockout laws on Facebook, 9 February 2016
It was all I could do to not choke on my dinner as I watched journalists and politicians fawn over outgoing NSW Premier Mike Baird on the TV tonight. Baird’s decision to retire from politics after two years and nine months at the top, citing a need to spend more time with his family as several of them suffer serious illnesses, came as a shock to most political observers. The state is having its sixth change of leader in less than 12 years, surpassing the five changes of PM Australia has experienced in the last decade. And, just as many pundits and supporters placed excessive hopes that a fresh-faced ex-banker could bring lasting stability, many of Baird’s enemies allowed themselves to be demoralised by his brief run of popularity, itself based more on luck than political skill (let alone authority).
Commentators now seem caught between fretting over the continuing volatility (“the NSW disease”) and lauding it as the new normal. On ABC TV’s 730, ex-premier Nathan Rees was practically celebrating a new era of rapid turnover of politicians, while former Liberal Party treasurer Peter McGauran was saying we needed more people like Baird in public service who, er, drop out of public service as soon as things get tough at home.
Equally as annoying is the myth-making and selective amnesia that already surrounds Baird’s rise and fall. His predecessor, Barry O’Farrell, fell on his sword after misleading ICAC over a bottle of wine, had only just started to recover from a calamitous Miranda by-election loss in late 2013 and a sudden backflip on measures to deal with drunken violence at the start of 2014. Despite the ALP still languishing in the polls following its implosion in the late 2000s, O’Farrell couldn’t withstand the summer moral panic led by the Sydney Morning Herald, Labor, and a bevy of public health experts desperate to look like they had genuine political influence.
O’Farrell was a politician adept enough to manage his party’s internal divisions and stay on top after a series factional candidates had proven the exhaustion of the Right’s historic agenda in election after election. He was perhaps unfairly caught up in the stench of corruption that has swirled around the state for decades. But his real undoing was a problem well beyond his control: the inability of the Right to establish a viable basis for governing the state, despite a massive parliamentary majority. Even the O’Farrell policy usually seen as defining the NSW Liberals as being on the rampage, a 2.5 percent public sector wage cap, was in fact merely an extension of ALP policy that had until then been observed in the breach.
So, despite no appreciable improvement in its performance and the installation of the non-descript Luke Foley to the leadership, the NSW ALP clawed back in the polls because the same illness which had affected it in power was now slowly affecting the current government’s health. Simply put, being in office revealed the lack of serious social base for the Right as much as Labor’s descent into developer-donation-hell had been a product of the degeneration of its union base.
Baird could briefly present a cheery alternative to the workmanlike O’Farrell, and he used the occasion of the Lindt Café terrorist siege to look like a sensitive progressive on relations with the state’s Muslim population, while federal counterpart Tony Abbott was easily written off as an Islamophobic hardliner out of step with public opinion. Yet beyond making noises about not seeing himself as a career politician, Baird had little else to offer to overcome the political malaise. Winning the 2015 election with a reduced but still comfortable majority, he increasingly interpreted his strong approval ratings as due to a persona that was not just moral but moralistic. So, while most NSW citizens might support Sydney’s lockout laws because (a) the data seemed to show less violence and (b) most of them never had occasion to be out drinking that late in the Sydney CBD anyway, they were less enamoured with Baird’s holier-than-thou posturing and pro-Casino hypocrisy on alcohol restrictions.
Largely opposed, ignored or misunderstood by most of the traditional Left, the Keep Sydney Open anti-lockouts campaign was probably the most significant social struggle seen in NSW since Labor was ejected from office. I say this not because of its raw size or staying power (the biggest protest had no more than 10-15,000 people at it, and the campaign has waned lately). Rather, it was the fact that thousands were willing to mobilise in their own direct interests against a political class increasingly intent on micromanaging civil society with the backing of a media that vilified young people simply for wanting to have fun. Anti-lockout campaigners, frustrated by their lack of progress in reversing the laws, tended to confuse Baird’s moralistic intransigence on an issue that had been forced on O’Farrell by the soft Left with the coming to power of the Christian fundamentalist Right. It was a disorienting narrative that led some to place hope in the re-election of the ALP, forgetting that party led the charge for the alcohol crackdown in the first place. Baird was no harbinger of a US-style moral majority; rather, the latest in a series of weak state leaders looking temporarily strong because of the feebleness of their opponents.
Baird faced an even bigger crisis with another policy he pinched from the moral Left: banning greyhound racing. Here his opponents on the Right and in the media created another myth, that of a public backlash against the new laws. Yet the real backlash was one internal to the government, while public opinion leaned towards the ban. It was pressure from key players within the Right’s withered base that led MPs to revolt against their leader and force a humiliating backdown. Similarly, while there is widespread passive opposition to the government’s local council amalgamations, this has not manifested in large-scale protests beyond people who are already involved in council politics at some level. But the hamfisted mergers process has underlined a view that the government is trying to ram through measures despite lack of support for its agenda, increasing the sense that the process is ideological and self-interested rather than addressing chronically dysfunctional local governance.
Promises of stability following Labor’s years of chaos now look hollow indeed. No wonder among all this disaffection, then, that the junior Coalition partner, the Nationals, lost a seat to the fringe Shooters party in what was supposed to be their heartland, triggering a change of leader. Opinion polls show that the major parties are now neck and neck in two-party-preferred terms, and Baird’s approval rating of 35 percent in the latest state Newspoll was just 1 percent higher than Foley’s. Perhaps more worryingly for both Coalition and Labor, if One Nation decides to register in NSW it might pull significant support on an anti-establishment basis.
Whoever inherits the top job must contend with the same fundamental forces that undid O’Farrell and Baird. Yet there is a contradiction here, because in fact the chaos in NSW politics has not been driven by tough economic or social circumstances of the sort it used to take to unravel incumbents. Past NSW premiers have faced down far harsher political competition in times of serious economic downturn, to say nothing of the cutthroat party and factional machines that were situation normal for a good century. Talk today of the “brutality” of modern politics doesn’t make much sense when placed in historical context. For a long time in NSW it would’ve taken a mighty, blood-stained effort to wrench a party leader or MP from their sinecure. Today we have the opposite, politicians so fragile they are easily panicked into rolling their latest underperforming leader or deciding to get out of politics because it’s all too much. They are so lacking in social roots that it often takes no more than a strong gust of wind to sweep them away. Don’t expect that to change any time soon.
UPDATE: It is worth comparing the Newspoll data for Baird’s net satisfaction and his government’s 2PP vote. Note that his ascension to the leadership has no real impact on the 2PP, which steadily declines except for a bounce after the 2015 election.