NSW Parliament’s “bear pit” might need renaming after the upcoming state election. Perhaps the “butterfly house” would suit because a behavioural transformation is reshaping the state’s usually combative brand of electoral politics.
The nearer the March 25 poll gets, the more the differences between the incumbent Liberal-National Coalition and the Labor opposition melt away. Asked what they like about each other at a recent campaign debate in western Sydney, Premier Dominic Perrottet and Labor leader Chris Minns agreed each other were “good company” and great conversationalists.
Maybe a podcast is in the works? “Let’s chat, with Dom and Chris”. It could feature, say, reflections on Sydney’s brutalist architecture or the tonal quality of AC/DC riffs. The audience figures might be modest, but the reviews would surely be glowing when set against the typical vitriol and toxicity of parliamentary culture.
It’s not just a leaders’ detente. This campaign is shaping as a unity ticket in major policy areas once defined by intractable party-political difference.
After nearly a decade of staunch disagreement, privatisation is now officially off the table for both parties, not just Labor. The infrastructure funding strategy former premier Mike Baird successfully took to the electorate in 2015 bankrolled the Coalition’s record of major road and rail project delivery, including WestConnex. It is now a thing of the past, pledged Perrottet, as he abruptly jettisoned a renewed “asset recycling” commitment he’d made just a few weeks earlier.
Not so long ago in Australian politics, division seemed a virtue. Federal parliament resounded with “nope, nope, nope” mantras of discord, and the NSW arena was described as “dysfunctional”, even portrayed as a Dostoyevskian realm of “retribution and punishment” by one disaffected combatant.
Elected unopposed to the Labor leadership in June 2021, Minns made a point early of taking the heat out of opposition, perhaps sensing the public had grown tired of the vitriol.
The Labor leader began by supporting former premier Gladys Berejiklian’s lockdown measures. He held to this consensus, even amid criticisms the harshest restrictions unfairly targeted Labor heartland areas of southern and outer western Sydney. In July 2021, the Labor leader urged Berejiklian to back her then-treasurer Perrottet’s federal push for the reinstatement of JobKeeper payments.
With minor exceptions, an uneasy peace has held between the government and opposition over the past 18 months. The fiercest attacks on the premier have come from within his own ranks. On revelations of his Nazi costume choice at his 21st birthday, Minns did not criticise, instead acknowledging Perrottet’s genuine remorse.
But less than two weeks out from election day, the mutual obsession might end in discord. As it is in marketing, product differentiation is a defining feature of electoral contests. So far, neither the Coalition nor Labor have strayed from a shared political centre.
When, in February, Perrottet pledged to build a $1.3 billion hospital in the highly marginal electorate of East Hills, Minns confirmed Labor’s plans for a $700 million hospital at Rouse Hill, plus scoping work on another hospital within the “aerotropolis” zone surrounding the coming Western Sydney Airport. The Coalition committed a further $1.2 billion to hospital upgrades, while Labor in turn promised a comparable sweep of health system capacity improvements.
On toll relief, the major parties are also sharing a lane. If elected, Labor would maintain the Coalition’s existing rebate schemes, plus set a $60 per week cap on tolls for an additional 51,000 drivers.
Convergence abounds. Be it bill concessions to mitigate rising energy costs. Rental bond rollover schemes. A rental commissioner. Stamp duty concessions, options, and exemptions. Party strategists will insist there are important nuances in approach, but the Coalition and Labor are broadly pursuing similar objectives in many areas.
On public sector wages, the government wants to see increased productivity before it considers lifting its cap. Labor wants a dialogue. Crucially, “essential workers” will note neither side is firm on wage growth beyond the election.
And Perrottet’s campaign launch pledge of a “future fund” for under-10s to fund a home deposit or education directs support to individuals that Labor comparably invests in the school system via its “future education fund”, designed to end the underfunding of public schools.
There’s a distance to run before voters enter the booths, but the most profound campaign contrast might occur on moral grounds.
Not unlike Baird’s fateful crusade against greyhound racing, Perrottet has carved out a stance on poker machines. It is an issue particularly poignant in western Sydney, where around one-third of total votes will be cast. The region is home to among the largest concentrations of poker machines in the world, and he is uncomfortable with the “misery” problem gambling inflicts.
In February, NSW cabinet agreed to make poker machines cashless within five years, enabling a series of harm reduction measures. Labor instead wants a cashless trial on “less than one per cent of the state’s 90,000 machines”.
Interestingly, Perrottet affirmed his vow to “never stop fighting” gambling harm at his campaign launch, held at the Liverpool Catholic Club, a large-scale poker machine venue in a local government area where pokies losses total around $520,000 per day.
If voters are seeking political conviction, gambling reform is perhaps an unanticipated place to find it. Other divergences may appear before March 25. For now, this looks to be the only ditch in which the combatants are prepared to fight.
If, post-election, the NSW parliament is to be dubbed the butterfly house then it might be only temporary. The life cycle of these placid insects can last as little as 30 days. Bears, on the other hand, are famous for winter hibernation. And they don’t always wake up contented.
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