Mike Baird’s winning ways are losing their lustre as critics accuse him of pushing NSW towards being a privatised police state. By Mike Seccombe.

NSW premier Mike Baird’s flaws beginning to show

NSW premier Mike Baird.
NSW premier Mike Baird.

People tagged him “Teflon”, because nothing stuck to Mike Baird.

Called to leadership in inauspicious circumstances two years ago, he was clean, shiny and charismatic. And also bold. He determined to privatise the state’s electricity distribution system. Many other governments had foundered on the issue, but Baird took it to last year’s election and still won a thumping majority.

He was one of those rare politicians who transcended his party. He became not just a state premier but also a national political role model to many. When the federal Coalition government was going badly under Tony Abbott’s leadership, Mike Baird was most often cited as the alternative ideal.

And no wonder. For almost two years he was by far the most popular political leader in the nation.

But no more. According to the most recent Morgan poll of national leaders, Baird has been bested for the first time since he became premier of New South Wales.

The new number one is nothing like Baird. He is the tall, hunched, bespectacled and decidedly uncharismatic Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews.

It’s not that Baird’s popularity has collapsed. He is still ahead of NSW opposition leader Luke Foley 62-38 per cent. But the gap between the two leaders has dropped 20 percentage points since February. Baird’s government still leads Labor, two-party preferred, by 53.5 to 46.5, but the difference between the parties also is a 12-point reversal since February.

These are big shifts, particularly given the weakness of Labor. Baird is not under imminent threat, but he is “Teflon Mike” no more.

These days he is more commonly described as “Casino Mike”, a reference to his government’s endlessly obliging approach to James Packer’s plan for the giant development at Barangaroo. Since it was originally, controversially approved under former premier Barry O’Farrell, the development has grown 100 metres in height and its floor space has more than doubled in size.

It has not escaped the critics’ attention that the Packer family are among the biggest donors to Baird’s party. Nor that the state’s controversial lockout laws, intended to stop late-night, alcohol-fuelled assaults, do not apply to the very violent precinct around the city’s existing casino, The Star, and also excise Barangaroo.

But there is a lot more to his decline than that, as was evidenced a couple of weeks ago when thousands of protesters descended on central Sydney. They came with a smorgasbord of issues, ranging from the local – the route of contentious WestConnex motorway, the axing of scores of ancient fig trees to facilitate construction of a light rail project – to the general – the sacking of 42 local councils across the state, draconian police powers and anti-protest laws, cuts to school and TAFE funding and the government’s extensive privatisation agenda.

Quite suddenly, an awful lot of things are sticking to Baird. The punters are increasingly questioning his motives and the insiders are questioning his political judgement.

In February, when the federal government was floundering about seeking a tax reform agenda, there was no stronger advocate of an increased GST than Baird.

“I am convinced our political leaders and our community are ready to take the right, hard decisions for our future,” he said.

Daniel Andrews had a different view. “This is an unfair tax and it can’t be made fair,” he said, “and it won’t be made any fairer by putting it on food, the absolute staples of life.” 

It’s not just that Andrews read the wind better. It’s that the GST business served to underline something about Baird that people were already starting to realise: this “moderate” Liberal is actually very hardline on matters economic. The former investment banker is a deep neoliberal.

The government’s record of privatisation tells the story, says the Greens’ David Shoebridge.

“He’s sold the big ticket items: electricity generation, electricity transmission, ports. And now they’re looking around for things people would have thought immune.”

It is quite a list. Care services to 50,000 elderly and disabled residents living in their homes have been privatised. Three hundred inner-city housing commission properties have been sold for some $500 million, to fund the building of new accommodation miles away in the outer suburbs of the Illawarra and Blue Mountains.

And, most recently, the state’s land titles service has been privatised.

“The land titles system delivers about $60 million to the state each year. It’s a profit centre for government, but it seems any profit centre, any service they can identify they are ideologically committed to selling,” Shoebridge says.

“It puts a corruption risk at the heart of land titles in NSW.”

Of course, such criticism is unsurprising from a political opponent, particularly from the Greens. But it is echoed by the Law Society of NSW.

The sale should not proceed, said society president Gary Ulman, out of concern about “adequate protection of sensitive data, the continued implementation of best practice anti-fraud measures”.

The Baird government’s determination to guard the interests of the private sector is nowhere more obvious than in its approach to those who protest against coal and coal seam gas developments.

Legislation passed in March increased tenfold the fines faced by protesters to $5500 and provided for jail for up to seven years for “unlawful aggravated entry” to mine sites. The new laws also gave police new search and seizure powers and allowed them greater latitude under “move on powers” to break up demonstrations.

“This changed laws in place since 1901,” the chief executive and principal solicitor with the state’s Environmental Defenders Office, Sue Higginson, says.

“They have turned them into laws that privilege a particular component of society, the business community.”

The new anti-protest laws, in force from this week, are but one aspect of the progressive erosion of civil liberties under this government, Shoebridge says. 

“They have criminalised protest. So many police powers have been extended, so much court oversight has been removed that we have the machinery in place for a police state… A police officer can prohibit you from going to a club, to your church or mosque, your political meeting.”

Shoebridge’s critique might sound extreme were it not for the fact that the legal community – the Law Society and Bar Association – concur.

In a statement in April, the president of the NSW Bar Association, Noel Hutley, described the serious crime prevention orders legislation as “an unprecedented attack on individual freedoms and the rule of law”. 

“The bill creates broad new powers which can be used to interfere in the liberty and privacy of persons and to restrict their freedom of movement, expression, communication and assembly,” he said. “The powers are not subject to necessary legal constraints or appropriate and adequate judicial oversight and in many cases basic rules of evidence are circumvented.”

His detailed critique was utterly swingeing. His reflection on the attitude of the government to civil liberties was damning.

This is a government not averse to applying blunt force to opponents. The saga of local council amalgamations provides another example.

Leaving aside the matter of whether amalgamating small councils into bigger ones is desirable – though there has been strong community resistance – it is the way the government went about it that is troubling.

They simply sacked them and installed in their place administrators who will run the councils until September next year. The administrators are in many cases the same people who advised amalgamation or political fellow travellers of the government – former conservative politicians or party apparatchiks. 

In Queensland, the critics note, when they amalgamated councils, they had immediate elections. It does seem an extraordinary denial of local democracy.

Furthermore, there is now considerable doubt about the process leading up to the amalgamations. 

The giant accounting firm KPMG was employed as an independent arbiter of the financial benefits of the mergers. Documents have since surfaced suggesting the firm was not independent at all, but was engaged specifically to make the case for amalgamations.

The Land and Environment Court has ordered the government to provide documents about the role KPMG played in implementing the council amalgamation agenda.

Baird faces a long succession of legal actions.

Then there is the environment, where further changes are imminent under legislation due for introduction in the spring session of parliament.

“We’re talking about wholesale changes to an entire suite of environmental laws,” Sue Higginson says. “We’re talking about simply throwing out some of the global leading-edge laws dating back to the Carr government. Our view is that this is a catastrophic step backwards.”

The new laws, she says, open the way for broad-scale land clearing by rural landholders.

Jeff Angel, of the Total Environment Centre, takes up the story: “It allows clearing for almost any purpose, with minimal consent and monitoring. It’s appalling.

“Frankly, the more we look at it, the more it looks like [the laws introduced by the former Campbell Newman government in] Queensland.”

And we know what happened to Campbell Newman: elected in a landslide result and then unelected in a landslide result at the very next election.

Of course Newman was abrasive and unliked. Mike Baird is smooth and affable.

But there are deeper similarities, too, in the disrespect for the environment and civil liberties, due process and public opinion, in the preferment of private over public benefit, in the hubris and overreach.

We’re not saying Baird is in big trouble yet, only that the shift against him has been sudden and pronounced. And as the owners of non-stick cookware know, once things get too hot, Teflon swiftly loses its magic property. Suddenly everything sticks.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 11, 2016 as "Baird guy".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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