On Wednesday the New South Wales Labor leader, Chris Minns, is holding a meeting of western Sydney representatives to talk about Covid-19 recovery. I’m going as a Parramatta resident, local recycling operator and mental health advocate. And because, after 30 years as a public Liberal, I’m thinking of voting for Minns to be the next premier of NSW.
My political background is some 25 years of Liberal party membership, adviser to two premiers, two leaders of the opposition and four ministers and shadow ministers, campaign manager and even state candidate for the seat where the Australian Labor party was born.
So, have I changed? Have I experienced some life event that’s made me reconsider my values and beliefs? Am I about to declare my new progressive, pro-social justice, anti-patriarchy and climate emergency credentials?
Not even close. While I respect those with more collectivist and distributive outlooks, I remain on the side of individualism, free enterprise, smaller government with a strong safety net and the need to question change in our society before we adopt it.
Instead, I’m looking at Minns through the same pragmatic prism that many non-aligned voters – probably some 60% of all voters nowadays – look at leaders, candidates and elections. And he’s looking all right.
Better campaigners than me have talked about three key factors for electability: competency, stability and integrity.
In terms of competency (AKA, not messing up), one centre-right commentator put it this way this week: “Chris Minns has not put a foot wrong since becoming Labor leader.” One display of competency has been Minns’ strategic and tactical approach to the politics of Covid-19. On taking over as leader of the opposition, he proclaimed negativity dead and declared a unity ticket with the government on broader Covid policy. From that high ground, he has cleverly ripped into flaws of implementation, such as unclear restriction rules, inequities between different parts of Sydney and the need to protect frontline workers.
But being capable isn’t reason enough for me to vote for Minns. If we put aside the views of the “zeroistas” who will never be satisfied, the government has largely done a decent job of containment of an unprecedented virus if we use aspects such as hospitalisation and fatalities – rather than solely transmission – as indicators.
That takes us to the next factor of electability: stability. Here Minns has the “benefit of desperation”. After many chops and changes over the last 10 years, NSW Labor seems to have finally realised that you can’t win when you operate like a broken kaleidoscope. He will have strong internal support from now to the election and likely beyond.
In achieving that stability NSW Labor hasn’t done much more than come even with the government. There appears to be limited pressure on the premier Gladys Berejiklian’s leadership. While potential contenders, such as the treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, could make a case, it’s likely they won’t. Because they can count and the odds of being re-elected for a fourth term are long, with only one 20th century Liberal precedent, Robert Askin in 1973.
Therefore the decisive factor in considering Minns is integrity. It has taken a decade and it has had many fits and starts but the objective reality is that NSW Labor’s worst period of corruption and cronyism seems to be mostly behind it.
NSW Labor is also showing integrity in its positioning. Minns is talking about unfairness, particularly as played out in western Sydney, where police choppers over migrant families gathered in public parks have become a “new normal”.
Minns appears to have a shop that has at least partly cleaned up its act; he is being true to Labor DNA. It’s not my shop and it’s not my DNA, but, as both an ex-pro and a punter, I respect the clarity of purpose.
Indeed, integrity is where the NSW Coalition government is failing. In its handling of lockdown the government is subject to questions about its honesty and accountability, inconsistent with the principles of good public administration and misaligned with its own historic values.
Entering its 11th year, the government is characterised by much of what characterises long-term governments, and that usually produces poorer administration. The inertia of longevity and loyalty over ability; the deterioration of ministerial offices’ discretionary responsibilities and the ascendancy of bureaucracy; the mediocre dominance of political ritual and personal habit over public ideas and innovation; the management of media dynamics over community engagement; the sly victory of hubris over humility.
As someone who fought for the Liberals’ return to power in 2011, it’s gross to watch the police minister write a self-serving comedy column in the Daily Telegraph, while his officers enforce a lockdown filled with arbitrary rules at high social cost. It’s embarrassing to watch senior male ministers exchange social media laughs about each others’ lockdown beards and model-building hobbies while people in the horribly named “LGAs of concern” worry about their livelihoods. It’s awful reading statements about “opening the pubs to give punters incentives for vaccination” when kids – among whom emergency department presentation rates for self-harm are up by 50% – just want to get back to school.
By presiding over a lockdown that many of its own rusted-ons see as too long, too harsh and lacking an evidence base, and only now recognising its over-reach and repercussions, I truly wonder what the NSW Liberal government believes any more.
When the NSW crisis cabinet deliberates, who asks the fundamental questions about Liberal values like freedom? Who examines the long-term economic impact and the draws up concrete plans for moving forward? Who, given that the NSW Liberals were the first to introduce a shadow ministry for mental health (held by the now premier), calls out the emotional costs and advocates for additional effort over the paltry extra $5m that’s been allocated?
It seems my former colleagues and indeed friends have perhaps lost their political GPS. I hope they find it again. Until then, I’m having a having a long look at Chris Minns, and I suspect many other unaligned voters are too.