19.01.2017

NSW Premier Mike Baird quits, bows out of politics


New South Wales Premier Mike Baird has announced he will quit politics, throwing open all leadership positions to a party room spill next week when he will tender his resignation, effective immediately.

Although a surprise to many, Baird’s impending resignation comes good on his long-held position that his entry to NSW Parliament was primarily motivated by a desire to fix many of the state’s long-running problems rather than a long-term career in politics.

“I have made clear from the beginning that I was in politics to make a difference, and then move on. After 10 years in public life, this moment for me has arrived,” Baird said in a statement.

Treasurer Gladys Berejiklian, who cut her ministerial teeth as Transport Minister when the Coalition deposed Labor after 16 years in 2011, is viewed as one potential successor and confirmed she will stand for the leadership on Thursday.

The ABC has reported that a factional deal has been secured where present Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet, who is from the right, will become Treasurer in the likely event Ms Berejiklian, who is from the left, is elected  by the party room.

Baird’s decision to get out at the top stands as a sharp contrast to frequent political departures triggered by scandals or internal feuding.

At a press conference in Sydney following the announcement Mr Baird barely held back tears as he explained three immediate family members faced serious illness, including his mother suffering from muscular dystrophy; her primary carer and his father Bruce Baird very recently undergoing open heart surgery; and his sister and journalist Julia Baird being treated for cancer.

“My father and my mother and my sister are going through a very serious health challenge and, to be honest, at times I have been in pain not being able to spend the time that I should,” Mr Baird said.

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Pic: Facebook

For NSW public servants, Baird’s departure means that the state’s bureaucracy is imminently facing what could be one of the biggest ministerial shake-ups in the middle of a parliamentary term.

Baird said that having “reflected on the approaching halfway mark of our current term of government, and the opportunity it presents to refresh the Cabinet team,” he had decided the time was right to step down.

At a policy level, Baird pressed that the state’s strong economic position and restored balance sheet had not been pursued “for its own sake” but to deliver tangible benefits back to the community:

“As well as enabling us to improve services and infrastructure, it allows us to protect the vulnerable. Among other achievements in this area, I am proud of the extra resources we have been able to direct towards our neediest schools (as the first State to sign up to the Gonski agreement); towards those with disability and their carers (as the first State to implement the NDIS); and towards vulnerable families, including through additional support for our FACS caseworkers.”

The strength of the NSW balance sheet – which has been turbocharged by record land taxes off the back of a property boom and asset sales – has also allowed the government to pursue longer term policies and big-ticket investment led reforms that are now delivering in areas like public transport.

Despite significant resistance in Canberra under the Abbot government to urban and freight rail renewal, both the O’Farrell and Baird governments poured billions into overhauling and improving services to make them more convenient, accessible and frequent – including the controversial expansion of light rail into Sydney’s CBD and Eastern Suburbs, partially restoring a network that was ripped up in the early 1960s.

Another highly practical hallmark of both the Baird and O’Farrell governments has been a resistance to prosecuting large job cuts in the state’s public service – like those in Canberra and Queensland — in favour of more immediate service delivery reform and the ‘de-balkanisation’ of agencies to create combined physical and online shopfronts like Service NSW.

Public servants were also left with little doubt about where policy impetus needed to be thanks to the creation of Baird’s high profile list of 12 ‘Premier’s Priorities’ that spanned reforms across health, education, infrastructure, housing, job creation and the environment.

Mandated by the powerful Premier’s Implementation Unit within the Department of Premier and Cabinet, many of the priorities were backed by a strong focus on evidence-based policy development, matched with a focus on execution pushed by data-driven key performance indicators.

In the case of environmental policy, NSW ultimately approved and is now implementing a Container Deposits Scheme (similar to South Australia’s) to reduce packaging litter, despite vehement opposition and strong lobbying from major beverage producers that derailed similar initiatives in other states.

But there were significant policy flops too that ultimately took a political toll on Baird’s popular standing, not least the aborted shutdown of the greyhound racing industry that triggered a revolt led by Nationals members inside the Coalition.

Despite an early bold call to ban greyhound racing on the basis of entrenched systemic animal cruelty, the decision was ultimately reversed in favour of tighter controls on breeders and race operators, amid a fierce backlash in some sections of the tabloid press and talkback radio, both sections of the media with strong commercial connections to the broader racing and wagering industries that stood to lose from the ban.

All politics is local

At a grass roots level, the push to shut down arguably the most working class section of the racing industry acted to compound widespread resentment over forced local government mergers across the state that were rammed through on the basis of heavily contested financial assessments of councils under the ‘Fit for the Future’ review conducted by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal.

While reducing the number of councils has been a long-held ambition for both the Coalition and Labor in NSW, the imposition of new merged council boundaries angered many residents in well functioning local governments thanks to fears that amalgamation with dysfunctional neighbouring councils would lead to a deterioration in services, rate hikes and and fewer controls over ambitious property developers able to muster sufficient votes to have them elected to council — as exemplified by the ostentatious behaviour of the since abolished Auburn City Council.

The way new council boundaries were selected also exposed the Baird government to accusations from the Labor opposition of gerrymandering after amalgamations like the awkward fusion of the City of Botany Bay and Rockdale City Council that were administratively rammed together into ‘Bayside Council’ — despite Sydney Airport, the Port Botany sea freight terminal and Botany Bay itself forming a massive physical barrier between the two previous councils roughly five kilometres long and four kilometre’s wide.

Tributes flow

Prime Minister and fellow Sydneysider Malcolm Turnbull issued a brief statement:

“Thank you, Mike, for your leadership of New South Wales.

Your state — our state — and the nation owe you a great debt. You’ve restored the state’s finances and you are building the infrastructure that sets New South Wales up for the 21st century economy. You’ve played a great innings and we thank you for it.

You’ve opened your heart and explained why you are retiring all too soon. We understand that and I want to wish you, on behalf of myself and Lucy, you and Kerryn and all your family the very best and the greatest success in the years ahead.”

Former Prime Minister and fellow Northern Beaches resident Tony Abbott also weighed-in:

New South Wales is losing a great premier and Mike can be proud of what he has achieved.

Those who see politics as a calling might be disappointed that he’s going after just over two and a half years and lament more turnover in our public life.

As his friend and colleague, I have a deep sense of loss but am confident that his successor will continue his policies especially his commitment to better roads, the western Sydney airport and democratic reform of the Liberal Party.

Margie and I wish Mike and Kerryn all the best for a long, happy and productive future.