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The NSW premier's backdown over his ban on greyhound racing threatens his government and reveals the limits of his dictatorial style. By Mike Seccombe.

Mike Baird’s conviction politics comes undone

There is perhaps no more dangerously freighted descriptor in public life than “conviction politician”. The problem with it is that it’s very nearly an oxymoron.

Conviction implies faith, dogmatism and most of all courage. Politics implies negotiation, compromise and a degree of moral flexibility.

The electorate loves the idea of a conviction politician, yet history is littered with their bodies. Sooner or later almost all fatally collide with the reality that politics is essentially a transactional business. Either their convictions betray them or they betray their convictions, and when that happens the electorate’s disappointment is bitterly sharp.

As an example of the first category – the politician betrayed by his convictions – think of former Liberal leader John Hewson. His dedication to a grand economic vision lost him the “unlosable” 1993 federal election.

As an example of the second category, think of Kevin Rudd, who declared climate change “the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time”, then abandoned his plans for an emissions trading scheme. He recorded the biggest-ever drop in personal approval, as measured by Newspoll. A million votes were lost in a fortnight.

And then there is the New South Wales premier, Mike Baird, who really belongs in both categories. On Tuesday this week, having spent three months arguing the moral imperative of banning greyhound racing, he decisively betrayed his convictions.

But well before his clumsy about-face on the greyhound ban, public opinion on Baird was turning, not because he betrayed his convictions, but because his convictions betrayed him.

In acting on those convictions, said right-wing broadcaster Alan Jones, Baird essentially told the electorate: “I don’t care what you think. This is what’s going to happen.”

The day of the greyhound announcement, Jones said: “The worst thing you can ever be seen as in politics is arrogant.”

But “arrogant” is perhaps not quite the right word for Mike Baird. What his leadership has suffered from is less arrogance than an implacable moral certitude.

On the day Baird took over the NSW premiership, the newsletter of the Australian Bible Society celebrated the elevation of a “strong Christian man”, noting his strong faith and humility. It quoted from something Baird had recently written for the Sydney mission campaign.

“Jesus is my hope!” it began. On the days when he was “overwhelmed” and beset by doubt that he was not up to his job, Baird wrote, the reality of Jesus “floods my being, I can see the way through the day and the morning haze is replaced with a steadfast purpose”.

Baird’s self-assuredness was bred of his highborn status – father Bruce was a state and federal politician – the discipline of elite schooling – The King’s School – and religious faith honed at Vancouver’s Regent College, a graduate school of Christian studies. There was another factor, too, besides self-belief and faith in God: faith in the market and neoliberal economic philosophy, instilled at the economics department of Sydney University and later through work as an investment banker.

Baird's conviction politics rewarded

Baird came to the premiership in April 2014 and brought with him others of similar views, most notably his long-time chief of staff, Bay Warburton, another deeply committed Christian who reportedly once told a group of school students, “I’ve served Jesus in a number of different jobs and now I’m serving Jesus as a chief of staff.”

Warburton is also a market fundamentalist, formerly an executive with the management consultants McKinsey and Company.

The net result is governance based less on the usual formula of opinion polls, focus groups and the balancing of vested interests, and more on righteous self-belief.

At first it worked for Baird. He fast became Australia’s most popular politician. He went to the 2015 election promising to privatise half the electricity supply network of the state, even though public opinion was strongly opposed.

The pundits counselled caution. Two in The Sydney Morning Herald noted: “It’s a crash-or-crash-through approach that led to the demise of one of the NSW premier’s predecessors – Labor’s Morris Iemma – and most recently reduced the Liberal National Party in Queensland to smoking electoral ruins.”

But the Coalition won government handsomely, with 54.3 per cent of the vote. And the punters gave Baird credit for his convictions. In the months after the election, he was as popular as ever, the preferred premier of about three-quarters of the electorate.

To Baird and his coterie, here was confirmation of their convictions, affirmation that they knew better than the people what was good for them.

Like Jones says: “I don’t care what you think. This is what’s going to happen.”

The reform agenda continued apace: council amalgamations, asset sales, privatisations, infrastructure projects, lockout laws, all pushed through with minimal consultation or apparent concern for those negatively affected.

And in time it took its toll. Between February and June this year, Baird’s lead over Opposition Leader Luke Foley as preferred premier crashed 20 points. The Coalition’s lead over Labor suffered a 12-point reversal.

And that was before he announced the greyhound racing ban.

Since then, things have got rapidly worse for Baird and his government. A Reachtel poll commissioned by Fairfax in early August found 51.3 per cent of respondents preferred Foley as premier. An Essential Media poll released on Tuesday had Labor and the Coalition locked at 50:50 in late September.

And those polls were taken before he reversed the ban. Baird and his government are now in deep, deep trouble.

Greyhound ban overreach

“And it’s not just about greyhounds,” says Greg Piper, the canny independent who survived 16 years in local government before entering state parliament the same year as Baird, 2007, representing the seat of Lake Macquarie.

“I believe Mike believed what he was doing was right. But frankly, I think people are sick of his captain’s calls.

“They wore his electricity privatisation, because he was upfront about selling off the poles and wires. But since then, the decisions keep coming as a surprise to people, one after another. I mean, just two weeks ago we find out they are looking at privatising five public hospitals. People are sick of the privatisation agenda, tired of not being consulted. It’s not one specific issue; it’s the collective weight of a lot of them.”

The greyhound decision, however, was a classic example of the conviction-over-consultation style of policymaking.

The story begins in February last year, when the ABC’s Four Corners aired graphic images of live baiting of greyhounds. In May, former High Court judge Michael McHugh was appointed to conduct an inquiry into the industry in NSW. His report was handed to Baird in June this year, and its findings were shocking. Not only was live baiting widespread, but thousands of dogs were bred only to be slaughtered because they were unsuitable for racing. Hundreds more were injured in races every year.

The report made 79 recommendations as to how dog racing might be cleaned up, but its No. 1 recommendation was that parliament consider “whether the industry has lost its social licence and should no longer be permitted to operate in NSW”.

A couple of weeks later, having taken the counsel of a narrow group of advisers and deputy premier and Nationals leader Troy Grant, Baird announced that greyhound racing would be banned in the state.

A thousand people whose full-time jobs depended on greyhound racing, and some 6000 registered dog owners, found out first in a Facebook post on July 6. In it, Baird said the revelation of “widespread illegal and unconscionable activity” had driven “the Government” to its decision.

But it wasn’t a government decision. Baird’s own parliamentary troops were also blindsided. In the National Party in particular, they were prepared to publicly vent their anger. The member for Cootamundra, Katrina Hodgkinson, told ABC Radio she was shocked that she had been given “no pre-warning” before the phone calls started coming in to her office from dog owners.

On August 23 when the ban legislation came before the lower house, Hodgkinson and fellow Nationals Kevin Humphries and Chris Gulaptis crossed the floor to vote with Labor against the bill. Two other Coalition MPs, one Liberal and one National, abstained.

That was far from the end of the matter, though. On November 12, there will be a byelection for the Nationals-held rural seat of Orange. Baird clearly did not foresee the threat posed by the greyhound ban, but the Nats quickly realised they could lose. As anger built within the party, Grant’s leadership came under threat.

Alan Jones wins backdown

The interesting thing is, most people have no time for greyhound racing. A national Essential poll in mid-July found 55 per cent support for a national ban, and just 27 per cent opposition, with 19 per cent uncommitted. Even among Coalition voters, it was 51–30 in support of a ban.

But, as Essential’s Peter Lewis says, national polls don’t tell the whole story. In the regional areas and the bush, and among people of modest means – more likely Labor or National than Liberal Party inclined – the ban was deeply resented.

“The problem with polls is they don’t measure the depth of feeling,” says Lewis. “Politics is as much about passion as rationality.”

Mike Baird either didn’t realise that or didn’t care.

“I think there was a whiff of class prejudice about this from the start,” Luke Foley says. “I thought it was quite telling that he [Baird] went out of his way to tell rich horse breeders he wouldn’t do anything to them at all. And it was a lazy solution and an overreach. I think he felt dog owners were an easy target to pick off for a bit of love in social media.”

Labor’s decision to oppose the ban, says Foley, was both good policy and good politics. “I spoke at length in the debate about the Labor history of regulating. Essentially the Labor tradition is to civilise capitalism, not to abolish it.”

And the public ultimately came to the same view. A Newspoll late last month found only 41 per cent of people now believed the ban was fair. A narrow majority – 51 per cent – wanted the greyhound industry given a chance to reform itself.

They were encouraged in this view by a ferocious campaign in the Murdoch media and by radio shock jocks. The suggestion was that Baird’s hidden agenda was a land grab, that he particularly wanted the valuable real estate of Sydney’s Wentworth Park and had entered a secret deal with apartment developers.

This was denied but still widely believed.

Alan Jones was particularly savage. He told his listeners, most of them conservative voters, than Baird’s decision was “predicated on lies”. He called the premier “Kim Jong Baird”, a leader who cared for no one’s opinions but his own.

“There are no words that can describe the contempt that is due to Michael Baird and Troy Grant and others who have lined up to do this to decent people,” Jones said. “You can only draw one conclusion – the business of the Baird government is to drive people to take your own lives.”

Says Peter Lewis: “This turned into a much bigger fight than it appeared on paper.”

Many people – quite apart from working-class dog owners – had their own agendas running.

The shock jocks were miffed that Baird eschewed them and preferred to deal with the public via social media. And the gambling lobby was concerned about the loss of revenue. The Humane Society, which supported the ban, noted that the parent company of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, which campaigned fiercely against the ban, also owned a major gambling website.

But as the pressure mounted, Baird publicly insisted, over and over again, that he would stand by his convictions.

The Humane Society’s Verna Simpson said Baird’s office continued to give the same assurances privately, up to the day before he announced the backdown.

“We rang three times and the last time was 4 o’clock and we were still told there was no turning back,” she says.

Just a few hours after that, though, on Monday night, Baird dined with Alan Jones. Jones later boasted that Baird had initiated the meeting

“I’ve been arguing the premier should consult,” he said, “so he rang and asked if he could talk to me.”

The next day, at a very hostile media conference, Baird announced his backdown.

“We got it wrong,” he said. “I got it wrong, the cabinet got it wrong, the government got it wrong.”

Instead of a ban, there would be a reform process, overseen by Morris Iemma, the former Labor premier who once tried unsuccessfully to privatise the state’s electricity system, only to see Baird succeed seven years later.

Iemma grew up in a working-class environment around “pan lickers”, as he calls greyhounds. He’s widely regarded as a good man and a good politician. A lot is riding on his success.

The industry can’t afford to blow its chance to reform. And Mike Baird, the former conviction politician, can’t afford to blow his, either.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 15, 2016 as "Inside the Mike Baird machine". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.