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Despite the attention given to his religious conservatism, it is Dominic Perrottet’s reformist economic zeal that will likely define his premiership. By Mike Seccombe.

What’s actually wrong with Dominic Perrottet?

The premier of NSW, Dominic Perrottet, delivering the state budget as treasurer in 2019. His tenure will likely be defined by his economic zeal.
Credit: Nine / Steven Siewert

In politics, as in firefighting, one measure of a conflagration is the number of people called in to battle it.

Take the blaze of publicity around the right-wing religious views of the new premier of New South Wales, Dominic Perrottet. It ignited the moment Gladys Berejiklian quit the job on October 1, following the confirmation she was under investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Despite the efforts of dozens of defenders inside and outside the NSW government, who argue there is much more to Perrottet, talk of his deep Catholic conservatism has dominated discussion. In the public mind it already is the defining characteristic of his premiership.

Far more likely, in the opinion of close political observers, and on the limited evidence of the past few days, it will prove to be less his socially conservative ideas than his reformist economic zeal that will come to define his tenure. Critics worry he will expand the interests of his time as treasurer, selling off assets and investing in sharemarkets in a way that turns the government into a hedge fund.

Thursday morning gave a taste. Perrottet called a media conference to announce an accelerated easing of the state’s Covid-19 lockdown. He offered various reasons for a faster reopening of the state, but the primary one was economic. Challenged as to why the chief health officer, Kerry Chant, was not at the press conference, given this was a health crisis, he said: “It’s also an economic crisis … We’re the elected officials.”

Perrottet grew up the third eldest of 13 siblings, one of whom died in childbirth, and seven of them boys. His father works at the World Bank – an organisation he believes has “a strong socialist agenda” – and his mother was a teacher. In interviews, he recalls being required to bring newspaper clippings to the dinner table to debate them. He was educated at a church school, Redfield College in Dural, where the ultra-conservative and very private Catholic prelature Opus Dei provided chaplains to lead daily mass, hear confession and offer guidance.

In adulthood, Perrottet has opposed laws requiring that priests disclose confessions of child abuse to police. A father of six, he has opposed abortion law reform, euthanasia and same-sex marriage. He has blamed the welfare system for encouraging high divorce and low birth rates, arguing that “social security replaces the role of children in old age by socialising the traditional duties of the family. As one commentator has asked, why have children at all when the state will take care of you in your old age?”

This is the popular sketch being drawn this week: the old-fashioned Catholic whose religious views inform his public duties, who supports Donald Trump and has flirted with the nativism and climate denial of what he calls a “conservative spring”.

The outgoing deputy premier and NSW Nationals leader, John Barilaro, was one of those sent out to say it was wrong. “Dom has matured and changed a lot,” he said. “Where some people would think he is this right-wing extremist … I can assure you he is not.”

A succession of other members of the ministry, both Liberal and National, moderate and conservative, offered public testimonials to Perrottet’s temperateness, as did a number of influential and conservative figures from the business community, most notably David Gonski, who said he had “an open and intelligent mind”.

Adrian Piccoli, former NSW Nationals deputy leader and Education minister, also defended him, saying he “doesn’t wear his religion on his sleeve, and certainly not politically”.

In reality, though, Perrottet does wear his religion on his sleeve. He has done since his inaugural speech to parliament, in which he quoted Pope John Paul II on the centrality of family to national affairs, pledged respect for the rights of every human being “whether they are born or unborn” and paid “tribute to the role that faith has played, particularly our Judaeo–Christian heritage, and the role that it will continue to play in our development as a people”.

More significant in that speech, however, was the considerable time he devoted to defining himself in non-religious terms. He articulated a “libertarian” belief in individual freedom.

“I strongly support the principles of free markets,” he said. “I oppose plans for more social engineering, more welfare handouts and the continual obsession with our rights at the expense of our responsibilities.”

It is not uncommon for Liberal Party politicians to express such sentiments. What distinguishes Perrottet is the fervour of his devotion to them. Perrottet is the whole neoliberal package.

Greens MLC David Shoebridge ticks off some of the manifestations of this.

“As treasurer,” Shoebridge says, “he was completely committed to a privatisation agenda, albeit rebadged as ‘asset recycling’.”

Recently, Perrottet oversaw the sale of the government’s 49 per cent stake in the WestConnex motorway, for $11 billion. “Prior to that we’ve seen the sale of electricity distribution and generators,” Shoebridge says. “We’ve seen the sale of the Land Titles registry. He had a highly developed plan to sell off all of the state’s plantation forests in a billion-dollar one-off deal, but the terrible Black Summer fires did so much damage to the estate it took buyers out of the market. Otherwise, he would have sold that, too.

“He’s a very aggressive privatiser. The only real constraint is that so much had already been sold off by previous Labor and Liberal governments.”

Another hallmark of Perrottet’s time as treasurer, a position he took up in 2017, was reform of government corporate entities to operate along more private-sector, market-based lines.

But that has not gone well. Perrottet’s reform of the giant public insurer icare ended up being a near-death experience for the treasurer.

“icare developed a $2 billion hole on his watch,” Shoebridge says. “We saw thousands of injured workers inappropriately lose their benefits. And he seemed indifferent to the impact that the mismanagement had on those thousands of vulnerable people.

“He had a completely hands-off approach to this multibillion-dollar fiasco that was only aggravated by the fact that icare also was showering executive bonuses and big executive pay packets on its own staff.”

Furthermore, Shoebridge notes, two staff seconded to Perrottet’s office were paid for by icare, an arrangement that was “effectively” unlawful.

Lest this be seen as simply a partisan attack, Shoebridge emphasises that he is only repeating the findings of a parliamentary inquiry, on which the government had a majority. But, “there is a culture in NSW that allows these things to just pass, like water under the bridge”.

Other aspects of Perrottet’s economic management also are radical and controversial. Economist Saul Eslake notes in particular the recent borrowing by Treasury of more than $10 billion at very low interest rates, to be reinvested in higher-yielding stocks and other financial assets, a move a number of financial analysts have equated to gambling with taxpayers’ money.

“It might well prove to be a brilliant investment strategy,” Eslake says. “The risk, of course, is that stock or whatever they’ve invested in crashes, the federal Reserve decides to raise interest rates, or something like that. You don’t expect governments to be running hedge funds. To me, that’s not what we have governments for.”

Eslake does give credit to Perrottet for a couple of things, though. One is calling for reform of the way the federal government divides revenue from the goods and services tax. Under the current regime, Western Australia is grossly overpaid, at the expense of the rest of the country.

“I call it the corrupt bargain, imposed by Morrison three years ago, whereby the richest state in the country gets money at the expense of everyone else,” Eslake says.

“According to the most recent federal budget papers, the federal government will be adding between $10 billion and $15 billion to the deficits it’s going to run up until 2026-27, in order to transfer an equivalent amount to the only government in Australia – and to my knowledge, only one of four in the world – that is running a surplus.”

Perrottet has already clashed with Morrison and the Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan, over the matter.

When he thinks he’s right, the new premier is not reticent.

Last month he described McGowan as “the Gollum of Australian politics” for his determination to stick to his precious extra GST money. He locked horns with his federal counterpart Josh Frydenberg over Covid-19 relief payments, and reportedly so nettled Scott Morrison over the same issue that the prime minister snapped and called him a “fuckwit”.

Perrottet is definitely not that, according to Eslake. He is sharper than Morrison, who is “not noted as a deep economic thinker”.

“The other good thing about Perrottet,” says Eslake, “[is] he’s the only state treasurer with the cojones to take up an economic reform that almost 100 per cent of economists support, and which has been supported by every inquiry into the tax system in at least the last 20 years. That is replacing stamp duties on land transfers with a broadly based land tax, which, in particular, doesn’t exempt the family home.”

To date, Perrottet has only commissioned a report on it and talked about it. Implementing such a change would be fraught with difficulties in transition and political risk. Any change to the tax regime applied to housing has long been the third rail of Australian politics, as Labor learnt again at the most recent federal election.

But Perrottet, the evidence suggests, is a risk-taker – whether it is risking public health by expediting the end of the Covid-19 lockdown, gambling state funds on the markets, challenging other state or federal leaders, or playing rough with factional alliances within his party.

It was widely expected that when Berejiklian moved on, Perrottet would run on a ticket with the NSW moderate faction powerbroker, Environment Minister Matt Kean, but that is not what happened. In a ruthless move, he switched to Stuart Ayres, apparently to shore up Western Sydney. This is not insignificant.

Perrottet inherits a minority government, dependent on the goodwill of nine members of minor parties and independents. Any loss in a byelection could spell big trouble. And the Perrottet government now faces three, for the seats held by Berejiklian, former Transport Minister Andrew Constance and former Nationals leader John Barilaro.

Berejiklian’s at least is very safe. Constance’s seat of Bega, on the south coast, has never been held by Labor, but the Liberal vote has been in decline over the past two elections, and has a margin of just 6.9 per cent. It was badly affected by the bushfires.

And while Barilaro’s seat of Monaro looks safe on paper, with a margin of 11.6 per cent, it could be vulnerable. As the ABC election analyst Antony Green noted, the main centre in the seat, Queanbeyan, is effectively part of progressive Canberra.

“The seat is not natural National Party territory,” he wrote. “At federal elections, the Nationals are lucky to get out of single-digit percentages in Monaro.”

To top things off, Labor looks to be getting its act together under a competent new leader, Chris Minns.

All things considered, the NSW government, which appeared so robust just recently, is now looking quite fragile and messy. In place of a leader widely seen as competent, hard-working and moderate is a spiky, economic ideologue whose reception with the public is largely untested.

No one could have predicted this, and it would be dangerous to predict what will happen between now and the next election. But that didn’t stop one Macquarie Street insider posing the hypothetical question: What odds Matt Kean as the next NSW opposition leader?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 9, 2021 as "What’s actually wrong with Dominic Perrottet?".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.