In the immediate aftermath of Dominic Perrottet’s ascension to the state’s top job, he recalls getting a tip from Paul Keating that would alter the shape of his premiership.
At the time, Perrottet was weighing up whether to add the Aboriginal affairs portfolio to his role as premier.
As a year 12 student, he’d volunteered at the old Santa Teresa mission south of Alice Springs, and as a young MP had taken final-year students from his electorate out to Indigenous communities at Yulara and Docker River in the Northern Territory to help refurbish schools.
Those experiences left a deep impression on him. But Keating, according to Perrottet, advised him against taking on both roles.
“I had this view that [because] the Aboriginal affairs minister is generally a junior minister in the cabinet, they don’t have the [necessary] sway,” Perrottet recalls.
“[But] he said it would take too much of my time and he’d learnt that through Native Title; he said ‘you’ll become just too ingrained in that and you will lose sight of the broader job.’”
Perrottet dropped the idea, instead instructing ministers to take direct responsibility for Closing the Gap measures in each of their portfolios.
Keating now says he doesn’t recall this conversation. What is clear though is the intriguing relationship that’s developed between the Labor titan, now nearly 80, and the 40-year-old Liberal premier, once a fervent spear-carrier for the hard right of his party.
“What Perrottet and I have in common is … he understands that political authority, in the end, goes to people who make the big policy decisions, it does not go to people who do well in news management,” Keating told me in October 2021, days after Gladys Berejiklian’s shock exit.
Recently, he was singing the premier’s praises again, as they strolled around the Central Barangaroo precinct following a government decision to trim building envelopes on the prize waterfront site. “Thank God for the premier,” he declared. “States get lucky. They get people with a civic conscience, and we have one with the premier.”
Perrottet believes he and the former Labor prime minister are “similar personalities”.
In both, there’s a crash or crash-through streak, an impatience with what Perrottet terms “BAU” (for “business as usual”).
Berejiklian was a model of caution, sometimes to the utter frustration of her ministers. (She declined an interview for this profile).
Her successor has superabundant confidence and an appetite for bold moves, like swapping out stamp duty for an opt-in land tax, shaking up traditional school hours, bringing in a cashless card for playing the pokies, or turning workers’ compensation on its head.
But his urge to do things at speed can blind him to political risk, insiders say.
“Perrottet is at the height of his powers and is only going to get stronger if given the opportunity,” observes one senior member of his government. “But there is very little discipline. [He’s] completely instinctual but he gets away with it because he’s incredibly talented and very bright … He suffers from the same problem that a lot of bright people have, which is he’s easily distracted.”
Those who’ve worked with him say he can be slow to perceive, let alone admit when people let him down. But Perrottet says, “loyalty is an under-rated trait in politics that sometimes gets you into trouble”.
He’s always made clear he’s in politics for a memorable time, not a long time, though he pledges to serve a full term if victorious.
We meet for a lengthy interview three weeks out from the election in his corner suite in the state parliament building, where he’s just returned from a run with regular jogging partner, Cities Minister Rob Stokes. Stokes is another of his regular confidants, along with former premier Mike Baird and former prime minister John Howard.
Perrottet is enthusing about the restaurants packed with patrons he’s just seen down at Circular Quay – “so different to two years ago” – and keen to point out how schemes like the government’s popular Dine and Discover vouchers have helped breathe life back into the post-pandemic city.
This Sunday he officially launches the Liberals’ bid for a fourth consecutive term, which would put the Coalition in power for a record-breaking 16 years.
The tide doesn’t look to be running the Coalition’s way: opponent Chris Minns is running a highly disciplined campaign, the polls give Labor an edge, independents are a wild card and months of scandal and infighting have taken the shine off the government.
If he pulls it off, even to scrape through to minority government again, many on his own side will see it as akin to Scott Morrison’s “miracle” federal victory in 2019.
Perrottet seems almost nonchalant about the election result. “I’m putting absolutely everything into it,” he says. But in the next breath he adds: “I am relaxed about the outcome … I’m not emotionally connected to this job. I really enjoy it [but] you can make a difference in politics [and] you can make a difference in other places.”
It’s become a standard observation of Perrottet and Minns that they have a number of features in common: similar in age, both with young children and accomplished partners, raised in professional middle-class families and with a strong adherence to the Catholic faith.
Perrottet, though, appears the more mercurial and naturally extroverted of the two.
When he first took centre stage after Berejiklian’s departure, he was little more than a vaguely familiar face to most voters despite his seven combined years in the Finance, Industrial Relations and Treasury portfolios. Long-limbed and gangling, prone to rapid-fire speech, he presented a very different model of leader to the reassuring mother figure who’d gone before him, steering the state through the worst of the pandemic.
He’s grown into a more commanding presence as the months have gone on.
He is popular with his ministers, who enjoy his quickfire wit. He’s assuaged the concerns of progressives in his party who feared the deeply conservative brand of Catholicism he grew up with would influence the government’s social agenda. This is less surprising when you consider that without the support of the party’s moderate wing, led by Treasurer and Energy Minister Matt Kean, he could never have mustered the numbers to succeed Berejiklian.
Perrottet and deputy premier Paul Toole, the NSW Nationals leader, have steadied the Coalition after the operatic dramas which bedevilled John Barilaro’s reign as leader of the Nationals.
Together, Perrottet and Kean have nailed respectable climate colours to the mast with a commitment to renewable energy zones in the regions, investment in pumped hydro and an ambitious target of 70 per cent emissions reduction by 2035.
That’s a marked shift from Perrottet’s scoffing a few years ago at government spending on climate measures, and his 2016 social media post that “if you question man-made climate change you are not a sceptic”.
Asked to explain how he changed his views, he says: “I have never been negative towards it. You get your words thrown back at you, I accept that. Maybe early on in politics I was a bit looser when it came to language.”
He and Kean also appear to have put behind them the tensions of last November, when Perrottet appointed former Snowy Hydro chief Paul Broad to a senior advisory position while Kean was overseas. (Broad had been a trenchant critic of aspects of Kean’s NSW energy road map.)
“I never saw it as a slight [to Kean]” Perrottet insists, saying Broad was brought on board in part to advise on the raising of the Warragamba dam wall.
On the social front, Perrottet allowed a conscience vote on voluntary assisted dying, has given pharmacists leeway to prescribe the contraceptive pill, and promised to ban gay conversion therapy.
That all helps shore up support with two of the key independents, Greg Piper and Alex Greenwich, whose return to parliament is virtually guaranteed and whose backing he must secure should he need to refashion a minority government post-election.
Greenwich says despite Perrottet’s personal qualms about the voluntary assisted dying bill, “he worked with me to make sure there was debate time and that there was a conscience vote … He put an Aboriginal flag on the Harbour Bridge, something that everybody else thought was going to be too difficult.”
Greenwich was also impressed by Perrottet’s empathetic responses during a meeting with members of the trans community after the issue of trans athletes’ participation in sport reached boiling point during last year’s federal election.
Veteran Health Minister Brad Hazzard was delighted when Perrottet agreed to back the city’s first queer history museum, Qtopia, in the old Darlinghurst police station.
“He has grown into the job magnificently since he became premier,” Hazzard says. “Dom had his own views but he did not push them onto other people, never has, never seen it. He is well-liked around the cabinet, and what he says he sticks with.”
Perrottet was often reported to have been at loggerheads with chief health officer Kerry Chant through the most restrictive days of the pandemic, but Hazzard is adamant that “senior health officers respected him greatly, and I include in that Dr Chant”.
“Dom, with me, was one of the people who took the view that in a really complex epidemiological situation, we also needed to keep people in employment both for the economy and mental health.”
Where Perrottet has come to grief, though, is on signature reforms like icare, where close oversight was needed and which, on his own admission, he failed to give.
Icare is the scheme he began setting up as finance minister to rationalise a cumbersome workers’ compensation regime.
An investigation by the exposed gross underpayment of injured workers, financial mismanagement, overly generous remuneration for board members, and the startling fact that icare was supplying two staff members to his private office free of charge, including one Edward Yap, an import from the US Republican Party.
A subsequent probe by independent reviewer Robert McDougall, QC, found that while “well-intentioned”, icare had been “sloppy” in execution, the changes implemented “far too quickly and without adequate testing”, there’d been poor supervision of procurement practices, and a culture had developed at the top where executives had been accepting “gifts and benefits” without proper record.
“That is a dreadful look for an organisation that manages many billions of dollars of what is in substance public money,” McDougall scolded.
Labor accused Perrottet of allowing a “cowboy culture” to take root. The outcry over the secret staffing arrangements forced the resignation of his then chief of staff, Nigel Freitas, a significant loss. A recent Treasury briefing note warned the scheme’s financial position was “equivalent to the situation in the early 2010s when [it] was considered to be in financial crisis”.
However, Perrottet insists the idea behind icare was “100 per cent correct.” “It’s far from perfect but much better than it was”.
When pushed, he acknowledges he learnt a lesson from it, namely “not to set and forget, that you’re actually making sure the execution is followed through”.
I put to him an off-the-record assessment given to me by one colleague, who sums him up thus: “Unbridled enthusiasm and intelligence, a capacity for big ideas … but along with that is sometimes ill-discipline and lack of attention to detail.”
Does he see himself in that picture?
“Yeah,” he replies. “I learnt a lot through [icare] … I acknowledge very much at that point in time that I could have done better … [It’s] better to make mistakes in politics than make the mistake of doing nothing at all.”
Profligate use of consultants, bureaucratic infighting and political expediency have also cast dark clouds over the government’s Transport Asset Holding Entity, or TAHE, a complex piece of financial engineering intended to, among other things, get the state’s rail costly assets off the books, hide their true cost and shore up the budget’s bottom line.
TAHE earned scathing reviews from the Auditor-General, will cost taxpayers billions to recalibrate, and Labor has pledged to abolish it. But Perrottet wants to point out it was not solely his baby.
“It started under Mike Baird, so, Baird, [former transport minister] Andrew Constance, Gladys, me. It was a five-year transition. I was executing the end of it.”
He can’t paper over the fact that on March 25, win or lose, he’ll be farewelling some of his best frontbench talent, with ministers Hazzard, Stokes and Dominello among those deciding not to re-contest. While the premier paints this as an opportunity for renewal, Labor says it’s evidence that the government is “out of gas”.
Fifteen ministers will have left between the 2019 and 2023 elections, on Labor’s count.
The politically ham-fisted decision last year to post Barilaro to a plum overseas trade post tied both the government and senior bureaucrats in knots for weeks, with former trade and investment minister Stuart Ayres becoming collateral damage after a parliamentary inquiry picked the saga apart in excruciating detail.
Last month, Perrottet lost one of his most trusted lieutenants, finance minister and fellow conservative Catholic Damien Tudehope, a man so loyal that he once gave up his lower house seat to allow Perrottet to move from the outer Hawkesbury electorate into the more conveniently located seat of Epping. (Tudehope moved to the upper house instead.)
Tudehope fell on his sword last month following revelations his family superannuation fund hadn’t declared its holdings in toll road operator Transurban, a major beneficiary of the government’s privatisation program.
Perrottet keeps doing his best to gloss over the internecine party warfare that continues to bubble in backrooms even as the government fights for its political life. In early January he was forced into an abject public apology when it became clear his wearing of a Nazi uniform at his 21st birthday party was about to hit the headlines. Many saw this surfacing so close to the election as an inside hit.
Did he think his election prospects were over at that point?
“No,” he shoots back. “I would rather have been talking about metros that day … but I did not think it would cost the election”.
At a Service NSW centre in Parramatta, customers are startled to find their premier hamming it up behind the counter, as staff member Kappy Khuranai coaches him on how to issue new drivers’ licences and the popular back-to-school vouchers.
“Do you like your photo? I think it’s great,” Perrottet tells bemused-looking Filip Cernok, a 31-year-old local business development manager, before handing over a fresh licence that’s taken about 15 minutes longer than usual to issue.
This week, he’s been riffing his way around the city’s popular FM stations, confessing to a vaping habit, talking up his skills at the BBQ, and parrying coy questions about whether he and wife Helen, an army major and part-time senior legal officer, might add to their brood of seven children (aged between 11 months and 13).
Perrottet (the surname is Swiss-French) was raised in the Hills district in Sydney’s north-west by devout parents John and Anne, both members of the ultra-conservative Opus Dei branch of the Catholic faith.
Perrottet says he is not a member, despite going to Redfield College school where the chaplain was an Opus Dei priest and later residing at Warrane College, on the campus of the University of NSW, which “entrusts” the spiritual care of its community to Opus Dei.
“I see myself like any other Catholic”, he says, adding, “I should be a better Catholic.”
According to his father, Perrottet was a child with a “fertile” brain running “at a thousand miles an hour”, sometimes so fast “his mouth really couldn’t keep up”.
The future premier was the third of 12 children who were encouraged to debate current affairs around the dinner table from the time they were in late primary school.
He forged a particularly close bond with his brother Charles, who is a year younger. The two went through school and university together, shared digs before Perrottet got married and were seen as brothers in arms inside the Liberal Party.
In his inaugural speech to parliament in 2011, Perrottet singled out “my brother Charles, who has worked alongside me in politics. We have been a team from the start and will be a team to the finish”.
At Sydney University, where he took degrees in law and commerce, Perrottet was a keen combatant in campus politics. Inside the Liberal Party he joined forces with future federal minister Alex Hawke (later chief consigliere to Scott Morrison), to battle the party moderates for control of the Young Liberals.
Perrottet not only succeeded Hawke as president of the Young Liberals, he worked for Hawke briefly between finishing his degree and entering legal practice. “He and Alex Hawke were two of the best political organisers of any type of any faction in the country,” says a rival who saw them in action at the time.
Later, as civil war worsened within the right of the party and the faction split, the Perrottet brothers remained with the hard right, while Hawke ended up in a rival “centre-right” faction along with state MPs Ray Williams and David Elliott.
Liberal Party branches in the Hills district in Sydney’s north-west became an epicentre of these battles.
This near 15-year feud, then, has become the backdrop to the Labor and Greens-led upper house inquiry which last month unsuccessfully attempted to summon Charles and another younger Perrottet brother, Jean-Claude, as part of a probe into allegations of impropriety involving developers and agents of the Hills Shire Council. The inquiry had been sparked by a speech Williams gave in the parliament, complaining of alleged deals to install pro-development councillors in local government elections.
Neither brother co-operated with the parliamentary probe. Charles lives interstate and was under no obligation to attend. Jean-Claude could not be located despite what the media described as a “manhunt” by process servers, though he surfaced this week in Mosman, shortly after the proroguing of parliament.
Both brothers deny any wrongdoing. But the inquiry heard claims under oath from one businessman that Jean-Claude and an associate sought financial help to stack local branches to unseat Hawke.
I ask Perrottet whether he’d rung either of his brothers to check there was nothing untoward about their activities in relation to the Hills council?
Q: “Don’t you think you need to?”
Q: “Why not?”
A: “Because I believe it’s a complete political beat-up.”
Given he’d earned plaudits defending the Independent Commission Against Corruption in the face of Scott Morrison’s attacks on it, didn’t he have a responsibility to urge his brothers to similarly respect an organ of the state parliament?
“It’s a matter for them,” he says. “I’m not my brothers’ keeper, and I have 11 of them … 11 siblings. I’m here to do a job. They have called Charlie to politicise this a month before an election. I’m sick of that stuff, it doesn’t interest me and I know Charlie has done nothing wrong.”
Several days after our interview, though, as it becomes clear the issue is not going away, he changes tack and green lights the party’s state director to “throw the book” at any party member found to have done the wrong thing.
Perrottet insists his own days of factional combat are behind him. “I’ve never really had enemies,” he claims. “You are not defined by what side of the party you are on or what party you are in.”
He has friends on the Labor side who stretch back to his university days, including Sam Crosby, who is married to ALP frontbencher (and frequent government critic) Rose Jackson.
He worked hand in glove with Victorian Labor Premier Dan Andrews to co-ordinate the two largest states’ relaxation of pandemic controls. As treasurer, he enjoyed such rapport with his Victorian counterpart Tim Pallas that Pallas memorably referred to himself and Perrottet as the “Lennon and McCartney of reform”.
When Perrottet went head-hunting for a new chief of the powerful premier’s department, he landed on Michael Coutts-Trotter, who is married to federal Environment Minister and Labor stalwart Tanya Plibersek.
Perrottet tells me he’d long had Coutts-Trotter marked out for this role.
“He is the best public servant,” he says. “I formed the view a number of years ago that if I was ever in the position of being premier, he would be secretary of the department.”
It’s a blistering Sunday in mid-February. A press pack is waiting in stupefying humidity as the premier, with a posse of his western Sydney MPs and candidates, walks slowly across a large scar in the earth, the future site of a new metro station for the western Sydney aerotropolis.
Out here on Sydney’s far outer fringe, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the midst of a Jeffrey Smart painting. New roads shoot off into the phantom suburbs of the future. The sense of a flattened, featureless landscape is overwhelming.
Perrottet, in his manifestation as Dom the Builder, is spruiking plans to fund the business case for four future extensions of the metro network, filling in missing links across the west.
After the media conference, he makes a beeline for four-year-old Liam Ward, whom he spots standing with his construction manager father, both in hard hats and orange vests.
He kneels down, gently turning Liam towards the cameras, and says, “one day you can say Daddy helped build this.”
Perrottet has long been one of the most ardent advocates of the government’s privatisation or “asset recycling” program, selling off state-owned entities like ports, poles and wires and the WestConnex tollway to fund the transformative road, rail and metro projects which have been part of a $178 billion infrastructure build.
Handily, the sale of the WestConnex has also bankrolled a $5 billion “Westinvest” fund, now being liberally tapped by ministers as they shower largesse on crucial seats on the city’s fringes.
But in late February, Perrottet had a Damascene conversion on the subject of privatisation. There would be no more of it, he declared, thus ditching one of the central tenets of the Coalition’s economic program.
It was a clear political win for Labor which had been pummelling the government over Sydney’s punishing toll-road regime and rising electricity prices, tying both to the government’s sale of road and electricity assets. Labor was also getting up a fruitful scare campaign on supposed Coalition plans to sell off Sydney Water.
Perrottet denies the about-face is a sign of government panic.
“I’ve played an integral role in that [spruiking privatisation] but you’ve got to have the right policies for the right times,” he says.
He’s sticking to his guns on slowly replacing stamp duty on housing transactions with an annual land tax, confined for now to first home buyers on modest incomes. (The opposition had been running hard on this too, branding it a “forever tax” on the sacrosanct family home, but the attack lost some of its sting when Perrottet modified it to make it opt-in only.)
Perrottet has also stuck to his guns on pokies reform, claiming the moral high ground over Minns on that issue. But behind the scenes, the road to that reform was bumpier than outwardly appeared.
Coalition MPs were alarmed when Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello first kicked off his campaign in favour of a compulsory cashless gaming card two years ago. Soon after becoming premier, Perrottet reshuffled his cabinet and moved gaming out of Dominello’s portfolio, transferring it to the Nationals.
But it appears that by then, Dominello had already quietly approached the head of the NSW Crime Commission, Michael Barnes, suggesting he kick over a few rocks to investigate links between poker machines and money laundering.
Barnes’ subsequent bombshell report gave Perrottet the political cover to launch his reform package. Dominello calls both men heroes. “Given what I’ve seen, given the pressure that’s been brought to bear on MPs and leaders, it takes a once-in-a-generation leader to stand up for the public good against these vested interests.”
Perrottet bridles at the suggestion that heavy industry pressure played a part in him moving Dominello. “No, no one from industry ever spoke to me about that. When we were putting the ministries together, the Nationals were very keen to take gaming… Any sense that I would move people out of portfolios because of external pressure is completely wrong,” he insists. “I have a track record of not giving in to vested interests at all.”
Perrottet once planned on becoming a barrister and then seeking a seat in Canberra. That changed when the then-retiring member for the state seat of Castle Hill, Michael Richardson, phoned him up and urged him to run for preselection.
“I always wanted to go federal, and now I love state. I think state affects people’s lives more – this is the best job in the country.”
His hankering to tinker at the national level is undimmed. He’d only been premier for several weeks before he floated the idea of a deal with Canberra whereby the Commonwealth would take over all of the NDIS in exchange for the states taking on childcare and early education.
Reality soon bit. “What have I learnt? That you can’t do it all, particularly at national cabinet level. So yes, you’ve got the BAU [business as usual] but you’ve got to choose one or two things and do them well. Health is at the top of the list.”
He reels off some of the things he believes the government has done particularly well: the infrastructure build, bringing the state through the pandemic, setting up a new Reconstruction Authority, government-funded vouchers to help parents with the cost of raising their families, forging ahead with multibillion-dollar plans for universal free pre-kindergarten education for 4 year-olds, and expanded investment in childcare.
If he gets back into government, reform of the political donations system is also on his to-do list: “If you took donations out of elections, that would have a really strong impact on public confidence.”
But he could be left making some hard choices given the most recent deterioration in the budget outlook.
His time as leader has taught him, he says, not to “worry about issues that you can’t control, of which there are just so many in this job. Outside of [that] … it’s just white noise”.
“The work is hard. You make a lot of sacrifices on things, you miss things that you don’t want to. That drives you … that certainly drives me to make sure that while I’m here, I’m making a difference and putting absolutely everything into it. And making sure I’m doing what’s right over what is politically expedient. Because if I wasn’t doing that then it would not be worth the sacrifice that I’ve made and my wife’s made and the kids have made.”
Maybe that thought is in the back of his mind when, on a campaign stop in Goulburn, he calls into a gift shop on the town’s main street. Soon afterwards, a casual observer would have seen a very tall man, carrying a small paper bag, with a bright orange bear peeking over the top.
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