New NSW premier will have her hands full with issues that took the shine off Baird

Gladys Berejiklian was elected unopposed to lead the NSW Liberal Party and become the state’s next premier. AAP/David Moir

Gladys Berejiklian is undoubtedly one of the best-prepared candidates to take over the premiership of New South Wales in modern times. The Liberal partyroom confirmed her elevation as party leader and premier on Monday morning, with Dominic Perrottet to serve as her deputy.

Most of Berejiklian’s successful predecessors – Neville Wran, Nick Greiner, Bob Carr and Barry O’Farrell, for example – came to the job with much less experience of government, relying on strong performances as opposition leader. Berejiklian has successfully managed two of the most difficult portfolios – transport and treasury – with responsibility for the Hunter and industrial relations thrown in for variety. She also has experience as a senior member of the team that won a landslide victory over Labor in 2011.

However, being well prepared does not guarantee an easy time in office. Berejiklian inherits a Liberal Party that was losing public support in the last year of Mike Baird’s administration.

A vague smell of corruption over Liberal Party electoral funding practices also lingers. This is helped along by the Coalition’s recent decision to restructure the management of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) – a move many saw as designed to weaken the body that exposed those funding practices.

Internal policy fights

The NSW Liberal Party is still strongly factionalised at both the parliamentary and local level. O’Farrell was able to neutralise the influence of the radical right faction, while Baird promoted a raft of economic policies that were generally acceptable to the right.

If Berejiklian, who is from the left, wants to choose a different policy mix then she can expect the right will exert its influence. The right faction does not have any viable alternative leadership candidates of its own, but has a strong enough presence in the partyroom to make life difficult.

Berejiklian’s stated intention to concentrate on economic development issues should not have factional implications, although any more PR disaster projects like WestConnex will not be well received. One of the interesting questions is how well she will be able to stare down opposition in the partyroom.

Berejiklian will certainly face a much less compliant National Party. This is a result of the recent shock defeat of the Nationals candidate at the recent Orange by-election, attributed to a perception in rural areas that the Nationals had ignored the interests of rural communities when it allowed the Baird government to ban greyhound racing (a decision it later reversed).

As a result of the by-election loss the Nationals also have a new leader, John Barilaro. He seems to have learned the lessons of the defeat in Orange.

The first issue Berejiklian will face on that front is local council and shire amalgamations. There will also be pressure to take a greater interest in the provision of good schools, hospitals and roads for country areas, which she should be able to accommodate without difficulty.

The next election and the future

Relations with the Nationals will be important as the next election approaches, since the Liberal Party is likely to be in deep trouble in its favoured electorates. The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party’s success in Orange will certainly give it a higher profile in lower house seats. And the resurgence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation will result in contests in most – if not all – rural seats.

There have been strong challenges in some electorates from local independents in recent state elections. There will be no safe seats for the Nationals.

Fortunately for Berejiklian, Labor is not in a position to profit from this situation. The “Country Labor” brand has made little impact in country areas in recent elections.

Nevertheless, given there is currently a swing against the Coalition, and a tight election is likely, a hung parliament after the next election is a real possibility.

Although Labor under Luke Foley has improved its position quickly after the catastrophic election defeat in 2011, it does not offer a great threat to the Berejiklian. Labor cannot win from opposition unless the government makes a complete mess of things – as Baird was threatening to do.

Berejiklian is a more instinctive political animal than Baird. She is less ideological, more pragmatic and prepared to compromise, so one would expect her to consult more and spend more energy on convincing the electorate of the value of her political initiatives.

Overall, while local press, radio and TV commentators prefer Liberal to Labor politicians, and were initially supportive of O’Farrell and Baird, any apparent mistakes will be jumped on. But this premier is female.

After the overtly sexist trashing of Julia Gillard by Tony Abbott, and of Hillary Clinton by Donald Trump – both enthusiastically supported by right-wing media outlets – one has to wonder whether a female premier in NSW will be treated fairly.

Media handling of the state’s first female premier, Kristina Keneally, wasn’t particularly friendly, but that was not primarily because of her gender. It probably helps that Berejiklian is on the conservative side of politics.

Shock jock Alan Jones has already fired one broadside against her. But on this issue – as on many others – we will just have to wait and see.

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