SMH: Champagne on ice – NSW Coalition digs in after 10 years in power

It was election eve 2011 and the Liberals’ leader Barry O’Farrell invited a small group of staffers to quiet office drinks to thank them for their hard work during the campaign.

Champagne corks were not popping- they knew government was not theirs until the votes had been counted – but nervous excitement was brewing.

The host ended up skipping the event. O’Farrell had heard the ultra-safe Labor seat of Wollongong was looking dicey. He was not going to let any opportunity pass and O’Farrell hightailed it to Wollongong to give it one final shot.

The Liberals did not win Wollongong but O’Farrell’s supporters say it shows just how determined he was to snare as many seats as possible. The Liberals had only beaten a NSW Labor government from opposition twice in the party’s history.

Next Saturday, the last weekend in March, marks 10 years since the Coalition defeated a 16-year-old Labor government, which in the end was so damaged and scandal-ridden it was reduced to a rump of just 20 lower house seats.

Until the Western Australian Liberal wipe-out last weekend which delivered Labor 53 of 59 seats, it was the biggest political victory in Australia’s history. Mark Neeham, the Liberals’ campaign director in 2011, describes that election as “a once in a generation opportunity in NSW for the Liberal Party and the Coalition”.

Neeham, who had previously been campaign director for the Scottish Conservative Party and also the Western Australian Liberals, says it was a momentous task to seize a traditional Labor state. Planning for the election began after the Coalition’s failure at the 2007 poll.Advertisement

“The campaign planning and strategy started in 2008. Barry O’Farrell and I agreed this would be a different type of campaign,” Neeham says.

“We built coalitions and strong relationships with groups and communities that had not supported the Liberal Party before. Everyone was focused on ensuring we had the best possible candidates in every seat.”

Only five members of the 2011 cabinet remain ten years on.
Only five members of the 2011 cabinet remain ten years on. CREDIT: LOUIE DOUVIS

A senior Nationals figure who played a major role in the campaign says the party also worked hard to overhaul its image. “We had spent years turning the party from the old Country Party to a diverse party where small business people, teachers and people from all walks of life felt comfortable.”

The source says the Nationals preselected candidates accordingly. In Dubbo there was policeman Troy Grant, in Port Macquarie teacher and nurse Leslie Williams (who has now defected to the Liberals) and in Monaro small business owner John Barilaro (now deputy premier).

“The Nationals became strong in their own right after years of trailing the city-based Libs. They needed their own identity that was neither too metropolitan nor too old country or farmers’ party,” the party figure says.

Meanwhile, much work was being done in opposition offices to prepare for government. Former frontbench Liberal MP Peta Seaton played a key role, with the job title, director of transition. Seaton stresses it was not about the Coalition being arrogant, but rather wanting to waste no time in the (likely) event of a win.Advertisement

The opposition set about developing what Seaton describes as an “implementation manual”, ready to be handed to the public service. “All the homework was done,” Seaton says. “It was a grown-up approach to an $80 billion enterprise.”

From opposition, the Coalition commissioned a feasibility study into a new convention centre for Sydney and drafted legislation for the creation of Infrastructure NSW, the state’s independent agency advising on major projects.

The idea for Service NSW, modelled on a similar digital government system in the New York City government, was developed in opposition. It has grown into the centrepiece of the NSW’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.

A star chamber was also established to find the best staff for incoming ministers. On the committee was Seaton, party elder Andrew Tink, John Howard’s former chief of staff Arthur Sinodinos and senior staffers Rod Bruce and Peter McConnell.

Transport Minister Andrew Constance, who is one of only five remaining ministers from the class of 2011, says the early years of the government achieved significant reforms.

“When you reflect on the past 10 years you cannot understate or underestimate some of those decisions which were made in those early years,” Constance says.Advertisement

“We led the country in the O’Farrell years on key social policy and it has laid an incredible foundation to continue that, especially in disability services and education.

“Barry’s relationship with Julia Gillard was very important. Service NSW was also driven by Barry. It was absolutely Barry’s intention to have a single entry point to the government.

“Imagine if we didn’t have that one-stop shop. It absolutely transformed our ability to deal with the pandemic. The same can be said about Gladys delivering the Opal card.”

Despite all his preparation, and four terms in opposition, O’Farrell’s premiership lasted just three years. In the end, it was a bottle of wine marking his election win that ended his political career.

O’Farrell, now Australia’s high commissioner to India, resigned on April 16, 2014 after confessing to a “massive memory fail” over receiving a bottle of Grange with a vintage date from his birthday.

A corruption inquiry obtained a handwritten note that contradicted O’Farrell’s claims he did not receive the $3000 bottle from Nick Di Girolamo, a Liberal Party fundraiser and key player in the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s inquiry into Obeid-linked company Australian Water Holdings.Advertisement

In a statement released on the day of his shock resignation, O’Farrell said: “I still can’t recall the receipt of a gift of a bottle of 1959 Grange. I can’t explain what happened to that bottle of wine. But I do accept that there is a thank-you note signed by me and, as someone who believes in accountability, in responsibility, I accept the consequences of my actions.”

After O’Farrell’s fall, his nemesis Mike Baird, a fresh-faced Christian surfer with broadscale appeal, was elected premier. Baird’s friend, Gladys Berejiklian, also had significant support but decided not to run. Baird initially had a charmed run.

At one stage, polls had Baird as the most popular leader in the country. With the help of former Nationals leader Andrew Stoner, he was able to take the potentially poisonous policy of electricity privatisation to the 2015 election.

The Coalition was returned, albeit with a decreased majority, but with a mandate to do what Labor could not. The sale of the poles and wires netted the government more than $34 billion, which has allowed it to embark on significant infrastructure projects.

“I think what was significant about poles and wires was we were doing what we thought was for the long-term good of the state,” Baird says.

“We were all united to do what it took, including potentially losing an election. But we were fighting for what we believed in and when you believe in something, it is much easier for the public to support it.”Advertisement

Baird says selling the poles and wires was “a team effort if ever there was one”.

“There had been a deep, deep sense of anger that so much had been promised but not delivered [by Labor] and in simple terms, the schools, hospitals, roads and metros we have now would not have happened without poles and wires,” he says.

“The transport and infrastructure story is defining, but we also did some other very important reforms early on under Barry, including Infrastructure NSW, the Gonski reforms, NDIS, supporting Julia Gillard’s leadership and significant budget reforms.

“These combined with the strong COVID response under Gladys have been the highlights.”

However, it was also during the Baird reign that the government suffered a damaging corruption scandal.

Operation Spicer probed allegations the NSW Liberals used a Canberra-based slush fund to wash illegal donations from property developers and channel them back to the state branch of the party.

ICAC found a host of state Liberal MPs acted with the intention of evading laws under the Election Funding, Expenditure and Disclosures Act. It ended their political careers.

Despite his popularity, Baird was also criticised for trying to do too much too quickly and losing touch with voters. His fortunes changed when he was forced to back down on a proposed greyhound racing ban, which was followed by a series of smaller policy backdowns.

The greyhound debacle ultimately forced Nationals leader Troy Grant to resign, only to be replaced by his good mate Barilaro. Baird survived but his leadership never recovered.

Baird announced he was quitting politics in January 2017. He returned to banking for a while, and is now chief executive of not-for-profit aged care provider HammondCare.

The northern beaches local is constantly spruiked as the Liberals’ best hope of winning the federal seat of Warringah back from independent Zali Steggall. Baird says he is not interested.

Berejiklian, who like Constance had been in cabinet since 2011, had been waiting patiently in the wings and finally rose to Premier. She was the state’s first female Liberal premier and the first woman to be elected in her own right as Premier of NSW. She also led the Coalition to a historic third term at the 2019 election.

She has been lauded for her management of the devastating 2020 Black Summer bushfires, floods and the COVID-19 pandemic. However the self-confessed goody-two-shoes faced a political near-death experience when she was called to give evidence before the ICAC late last year.

In a shock revelation that floored all those close to her, Berejiklian admitted she had been in a “close personal relationship” for five years with the now-disgraced former NSW Liberal MP Daryl Maguire.

Far from ending her leadership, polls after she detailed her failed romance with a potentially corrupt man put Berejiklian’s popularity at 64 per cent.

The straight-laced Berejiklian has also been forced to defend the shredding of documents in her office relating to a controversial council grants scheme, which has seen the bulk of $250 million of taxpayers’ money go to councils in Coalition-held seats.

Berejiklian has insisted pork-barrelling is simply part of the public process.

She has also had to navigate a prickly relationship with the Nationals.

Barilaro almost blew up the long-standing Coalition agreement last year when he threatened to take his MPs to the crossbench over a koala planning policy. He backed down and the policy has been reworked, keeping the Liberals and Nationals happy. For now.

Berejiklian’s already wafer-thin margin was also dealt a blow when her former sports minister John Sidoti was forced to move to the crossbench earlier this month amid a corruption inquiry into his business dealings.

The Coalition now has a one-seat majority. In 2011, it was 24 seats.

A senior Liberal figure fears that while much has been achieved, hubris is setting in. “I think some may have forgotten the reason they are there, they don’t realise opposition is a few seats away, they appear arrogant at times and just floating to an election.”

Constance acknowledges there have been problems over the past decade. “Governments are never going to be perfect, and they need to learn from mistakes. But no one’s personal ambition has been put ahead of the team and I think that is the recipe for strong, stable government,” he says.

“If you stand still in government you are dead, and this government doesn’t stand still.”

While Labor might be inclined to trumpet its milestones and achievements, there will be no big celebratory party marking the Coalition’s 10-year anniversary and Berejiklian declined to be interviewed for this article.

A Liberal source says it’s not Berejiklian’s style to be sentimental. “It’s also strategic. We don’t want to draw attention to how long the government has been around,” the senior party figure says.

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