Take away COVID and Gladys Berejiklian’s government starts to look like something out of the dying days of Labor – scandal prone and riven by factional fights, writes Anna Caldwell.
Imagine if there’d been no COVID this year for Gladys Berejiklian and her team to combat. All we’d be left with as events to define government’s standing would be the Premier’s ICAC scandal, document shredding, a Minister running around naked in Potts Point, a massive brawl over koalas, and the Treasurer’s icare problems.
Strip away the pandemic and all that’s left is an increasingly dysfunctional government, riven by what seem to be almost irreconcilable factional splits and ideological differences.
Indeed, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s somewhat reminiscent of the dying days of Labor almost a decade ago.
After the year Gladys Berejiklian has had, you could expect the government to lay low in the final weeks of 2020.
But never fear: even with the end to a horror year in sight, they have found time for one last crisis.
Enter Attorney-General Mark Speakman and his warning system plan for drugs.
The “three strike system”, which was put to cabinet on Monday night, would first issue people possessing small quantities of illicit drugs with a warning, before giving them unenforceable fines on the second and third occasion before finally issuing them with a criminal penalty on the fourth try.
Speakman and Berejiklian insist this is not “decriminalisation”.
But opponents, who are horrified their own conservative government is going soft on drugs, say that’s just semantics.
And thanks to another failure to bring all viewpoints into the tent, Berejiklian suddenly has another ideological war on her hands within her own cabinet.
It’s the latest example of what is a growing problem.
Conservatives in the Berejiklian government are increasingly feeling they are treated with disrespect, and that the party’s moderate faction would rather spend their energy fighting with them than making common cause against Labor and the Greens.
The government was criticised during the abortion debate of 2019 for riding roughshod over the party room process, contributing to the rage from conservative and religious MPs.
More recently Energy Minister Matt Kean has been given a long leash to frolic into greens territory on energy, freely attacking “coal barons”.
They just about rolled over on planned “Zoe’s Law” reforms which recognise the status of an unborn child in a criminal offence but are unlikely go as far as promised.
And now, Speakman has embarrassed the government thanks to the bungled leaking of his divisive plan to adopt a three strikes warning system for those caught with drugs — even ice. Conservatives in the party could be forgiven for looking around and wondering if they’ve accidentally wandered into a Greens conference deep in the heart of Newtown.
Speakman and Berejiklian’s insistence the plan is not about “decriminalising” is cold comfort to ministers like John Barilaro, Bronnie Taylor and David Elliott who were legitimately horrified by the plan.
As I revealed yesterday, they, alongside Finance Minister Damian Tudehope, all spoke out about their concerns in the cabinet meeting.
Speakman and Berejiklian can take a stand on the legal definition of decriminalisation as loudly as they want, but the fact is with seething anger and claims they are abandoning their base coming straight out of the cabinet room, they have a problem.
Berejiklian’s job is to soothe those natural divisions in the broad church that is a coalition government, but when she gets it wrong she risks a reputation for being a sop to the Left.
The fact that neither the Premier nor her most trusted senior allies saw in Monday night’s cabinet meeting the probability that this drugs policy would erupt is almost the most stunning element of the whole thing — after the fact that a conservative government would even consider it anyway.
There is a certain hubris gripping those who are spending too much time delighting in popularity polls which have everything to do with COVID and nothing to do with the business of governing.
Berejiklian, who has been dogged by serious questions regarding what she knew of disgraced Daryl Maguire’s alleged corruption, the handling of grants programs in her office and her own breaching of COVID restrictions, is getting a reputation of being the Teflon woman.
The most seasoned political heads in her government believe she has survived because of her first-class COVID response, which has put NSW in the class of the best cities in the world.
Her popularity is high. The stuff leaders dream of in polls.
But some are questioning where that lands when the vaccine is rolled out and the state begins to go back to normal.
A COVID popularity bounce will not save the government forever.
It has helped it weather a number of what would otherwise been career ending scandals and bitter divisions this year, but they need to get their house in order for the other side of the crisis.
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