Michelle Grattan: New South Wales voters go to the polls on March 28. Premier Mike Baird is popular and his government enjoys a huge majority and is travelling fairly comfortably in the polls. But we saw in Queensland that a big buffer is no guarantee of success. And the tricky issue of privatisation is central in New South Wales, as it was in Queensland, where the Newman government fell.
And then there’s the factor of Tony Abbott and the intense federal leadership speculation.
The premier joins us today.
Mike Baird, we’ve just seen the demise of two conservative governments at state level. Do you think this election will be closer than the present polling, which is quite good for you, suggests?
Mike Baird: There’s no doubt that it will be a tight election, I’ve said that from day one.
Because what you will see unfold, what I anticipated seeing unfold, is exactly what we’re seeing. And that is that Labor would be very well funded, the unions will put a lot of money into this, they’re running a lot of advertising already. And obviously that’s going to have an impact. Doesn’t mean that their ads are true, in fact it’s quite the opposite.
But what’s very clear is that this campaign is a scare – it’s not about a vision, it’s about a scare – [and] they will be running that very hard.
But I’m very confident that our positive plan will prevail, because I genuinely think the people of New South Wales are looking for that sort of leadership. They don’t want the scare, they actually want the hope and they want truth, and I strongly believe that’s what we’re providing.
Michelle Grattan: Now you’ve got such a big majority that inevitably there’ll be some swing. What do you think would be a good result for you?
Mike Baird: A win? (Laughs.) Look, I’m not going to talk about [that], genuinely I’m looking to fight for every seat.
And I think Labor, I mean they were very confident they’re going pick up seat after seat after seat. They think that it’s their natural right to own seats.
And I have made the point, well, they actually don’t deserve, I mean every seat should be in contest, because the plans and policies they have put forward, I don’t think anyone’s seen anything as light as what Labor has offered over the last four years. And I think that is something they’re taking the electorate for granted.
So they might have the scare campaign but they don’t have a vision, they don’t have a plan, they don’t have a track record to run on.
And my hope is that we get more opportunity to convince more people in New South Wales to vote for us, because I think that’s what the state deserves: a plan and vision and hope for the future, as opposed to just the scare they’re running.
Michelle Grattan: There’s been talk of a swing of about 10%. Do you think that’s a realistic assessment at this stage?
Mike Baird: I don’t know what swing there’ll be but I’m not going to take anything for granted between now and the election and obviously as the votes are cast.
We will value and absolutely honour every vote we are given, because I think that this election, it’s not about should we be returned or not. It actually is about what is the future of this state? Do we have the comprehensive plan to deal with the congestion that’s gripping the city through the second harbour rail crossing, which gives 60% more capacity to our network? [It’s about] the motorways, the schools, the hospitals.
We have the capacity to fund them and deliver them, versus going back to bad old ways of what we saw in Labor, which is policies announced with no funding. That’s why this state didn’t move anywhere for such a long period.
Michelle Grattan: Privatisation seems to scare the hell out of people. We saw that in Queensland, you’ve got a bit of struggle with it here in New South Wales. Why do you think people take this attitude?
Mike Baird: It’s very easy to run a scare campaign against it. And Labor have done it very well. I mean, I pay credit to them that they’re good campaigners and that they can paint a story – doesn’t have to be true – but [they] can paint a story that says privatisation is not in the state’s interests, because they try and pretend on matters such as service reliability and pricing that the private sector means that things are going to get worse.
The facts tell a very different story.
I mean, there’s one story I have, which is the Manly fast ferry. It’s one where the government used to run it, it used to cost A$10 million a year, it used to break down every 16 trips. And people hated it.
The private sector has come in, it now costs government nothing. Fares are lower, service is better, reliability is much better, and that shows that it can work.
And in privatisations in terms of electricity, when they [private power companies] came into South Australia, when they came into Victoria, real costs actually went down.
So the truth is very different. Everyone in Macquarie Street knows that this is the right thing to do, in terms of leasing the poles and wires business, they know it’s the right thing to do.
But because of the scare campaigns that have gone in the past, no-one’s wanted to touch it.
And I think it’s about time that someone did the right thing for this state, was prepared to front up to the scare campaigns that were going to come, confront them with the truth, and confront them with the reality that this is the way we can fund the infrastructure we need. When we stood there waiting for it [before], we now have a plan to deliver it.
Michelle Grattan: Just one more thing on privatisation. The unions have obviously been able to mobilise a big grassroots campaign. Do you have the resources in the Liberal Party and elsewhere to match that campaign on the ground?
Mike Baird: We have a lot of local members, a lot of volunteers, a lot of supporters that are desperate for some of the infrastructure we’re going to be able to deliver that otherwise you wouldn’t. And really that’s what it is.
Yes, Labor has a lot of money through the union movement to throw at us. And I expect all types of scare campaigns to come between now and election day.
But my hope is our army of volunteers and members of parliament and candidates go out and tell the community that we are actually in a once in a generation position to deliver all of the infrastructure that we have waited for and waited for. We can deliver it.
And that provides benefits for their day-to-day journey. I mean, do they want to support a plan that keeps them in traffic longer, in more crowded trains, higher taxes? Or do they actually want a plan that enables them to get home quicker, to take away that congestion, greater sporting/cultural facilities that we’ve looked at and hoped for? Well we can deliver it.
And I think New South Wales is due the best, rather than the second best that we’ve seen before.
Michelle Grattan: Your leadership image is a much softer, more moderate one than the images that either Campbell Newman had or Tony Abbott has now. And your popularity is much higher either than Newman’s was or Abbott’s is. Do you think that voters these days really are over the aggressive political approach?
Mike Baird: I don’t think there’s any right answer to that.
I think people can get a sense of all types of things. They can get a sense of if a politician is being genuine. They can get a sense of if they understand that that politician actually can sense and understand the issues that are important to me and the challenges I’m facing in my day-to-day life, and they’re being honest with me.
I think all of that is what’s important. I think people’s styles – well, people can be themselves. But I generally think that’s all the electorate’s looking for.
Individuals are just saying they’re sick of politicians, they’re sick of politics, they want someone to stand there, to tell them the truth, to do it honestly, and to look after them.
I think if you get that package right, you’ve got a capacity to connect with the electorate.
Michelle Grattan: Now obviously Canberra is in turmoil over the leadership of the federal Liberal Party now. How much is this impacting on your campaign?
Mike Baird: There’s no doubt there’s challenges in Canberra, I’m not going to deny that, but I mean I’m actually running to be –
Michelle Grattan: Challenges literally and figuratively!
Mike Baird: Well, I mean, it’s – it is a difficult time. But I’m actually running to be premier of New South Wales. I’m not a member of the federal party, I’m not running for prime minister, I’m running for the incredible privilege and honour of being premier of this state and that’s what I’ll run on –
Michelle Grattan: But is that all affecting you? Is this turmoil hitting your chances?
Mike Baird: I think that by the time we get to the election, what will be clear is a choice for the people of New South Wales.
They will look at our track record, the vision of where we want to take our state, versus what Labor is offering, which is a scare.
I think you’ve got a vision versus a scare. Hope versus same old. And I think that’s what the people of this state will focus on.
If you’re in the north-west of Sydney, you have stood there for more than a decade, waiting for a – in fact, 17 years, Bob Carr announced the north-west rail link in 1998. It was not delivered, there was not a dollar towards it when we came in.
We are now close to halfway through it, it’s actually borer machines in the ground, it’s being delivered. And that to me is the difference. We’ve said we would; we are.
And the community has waited a long time for these projects. Under us, we are actually delivering them.
Michelle Grattan: I am going to round you up back into this particular pen. Those who are agitating for the federal leadership to be resolved next week are using as one of their arguments that it will be damaging for the New South Wales government if this goes on throughout your campaign, better to get it done soon. Would you like to see a resolution next week?
Mike Baird: I would like Canberra to get on with the job of actually looking after the people it’s supposed to be representing.
I am not going to buy into what might be happening down in Canberra, it’s not my role and responsibility.
What my job is is to continue to look after and focus on the people of New South Wales, whether it be delivering those infrastructure projects, putting more teachers in our schools, getting progress on the National Disability Insurance Scheme – all of those things, we are making huge progress.
And I think that’s what the people of this state want: they want me to focus on them and their issues, and obviously leave other matters to other people.
Michelle Grattan: Now assuming Tony Abbott is still in place, will he be campaigning with you here in New South Wales, and will he be at your formal launch?
Mike Baird: Yes, I mean, of course. I mean he is the prime minister, he has invested a record amount of infrastructure into western Sydney, indeed across the state.
He is doing his job as he should and we will be doing things together. So there’s no doubt that he would.
Michelle Grattan: And he’ll be on the platform with you at the launch?
Mike Baird: It’s not going to surprise you Michelle, I’m not in charge of the seat design at the convention or the launch, but he would be there, obviously.
Michelle Grattan: He will be present, he will be speaking at that launch?
Mike Baird: He would be there obviously, yep.
Michelle Grattan: Apart from the leadership, are there other federal issues that are impacting on this campaign? I remember, for example, after the budget, you and other premiers were very upset about health and education funding. What about those sorts of issues federally, some of those budget issues: the Medicare co-payment, the university deregulation?
Mike Baird: The biggest challenge facing this state and the nation is health funding. And what happened last federal budget is not sustainable. That was, the commonwealth and the federal government said ‘we are going to allocate a large part of the future growth in health costs from ourselves to the state governments’.
Now I said at the time, and I say it again, and I’ve said it many days since, both publicly and privately to the prime minister, that is not sustainable. The states do not have the capacity to meet those health costs on their own. The commonwealth has a critical role to play.
Now, this will be front and centre of the white paper discussion on federalism, which is planned for the middle of this year. And that’s where it’ll be resolved.
But I will be strongly making the case between now, the federal budget and that [white paper] discussion, saying there is no doubt that states cannot afford that health position, the requirement that’s been asked by the last federal budget on the states in the long-term.
So it does need to be resolved. And it is the critical issue, because it is the largest cost to the budget and it’s growing at the fastest rate, and that is a very bad combination for a state tax base.
Michelle Grattan: Can you win that issue though?
Mike Baird: I’m absolutely sure I can win that issue because it’s right.
And I think that’s where we are much better to have a constructive dialogue with the federal government, rather than to play megaphone diplomacy.
The people of the state want us to get outcomes for them and I can assure you that will be a key focus of mine, both now and every day until it’s resolved. Because it is really something that does need to be resolved for the good of the long-term finances and health system in this country.
Michelle Grattan: Just finally, you came to this job in sudden and extraordinary circumstances, catapulted on a bottle of good red wine, indeed. Do you now feel on top of the job, or you do still feel that you’re on training wheels?
Mike Baird: I feel very comfortable in the job, but I am absolutely determined to do much more.
I would be incredibly disappointed, I can’t tell you how disappointed I’d be, if I didn’t have the opportunity to continue beyond March. Because I can see where New South Wales is going.
If you walk amongst the streets, if you talk to our businesses, you see the cranes in the skies, you can see the economy is starting to move. And we want to do even more than that.
So we have a capacity to build this infrastructure, a once in a generation opportunity, and if you look at what’s happened in Queensland and in Victoria, the infrastructure focus and the momentum in our economy, it’d be almost unprecedented.
So to have an opportunity to lead that, to deliver things like the NDIS and to make a difference to some of our most vulnerable, together with some of the reforms we’ve done in health and education. I think this is some of the most exciting times in politics, to be honest, in terms of the opportunities to make a difference to people and to set New South Wales up like never before.
So from my point of view I feel very much comfortable in the role. I know I’ve got a fight on my hands. But I’m determined to keep New South Wales working, which is what this whole election’s going to be about.
Michelle Grattan: Mike Baird, thank you very much. Thanks to my producer Matt Dawson, and also watch out for The Conversation’s coverage of the NSW election over the next few weeks.