Premier Dominic Perrottet says his predecessor Gladys Berejiklian wasn’t unfairly treated by the state’s corruption watchdog which forced her resignation from top office, but believes NSW is a better place because of her leadership.
Perrottet and Labor leader Chris Minns squared off in a televised Herald and Nine debate on Wednesday, clashing over privatisation of government assets, Sydney’s cost of living crisis and the two sides’ policies to deliver poker machine reform.
In a relatively even debate, both men said Berejiklian was not unfairly treated by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
The ICAC announced in 2021 it was investigating whether she breached public trust or encouraged the occurrence of corrupt conduct during her secret relationship with disgraced former MP Daryl Maguire. Berejiklian has insisted she acted with the highest integrity while in office.
Perrottet wouldn’t be drawn on whether he was a better premier than Berejiklian, but said people had a lot to be grateful for for her contribution to NSW.
“I worked very closely with Gladys, she was an amazing premier for the state through some of the darkest times in our state’s history and I saw firsthand the diligence that she took to that job every single day,” he said.
Seeking to deliver the Coalition a historic fourth term in government, Perrottet repeatedly plugged the Coalition’s plans to splash $850 million on a “future fund” for children and denied his predecessor Gladys Berejiklian was treated unfairly by ICAC.
Despite Perrottet recently ruling out further privatisation under a future Coalition government, Minns pressed the premier on his government’s track record on asset recycling and warned the extra infrastructure the premier has promised would inevitably lead to more state assets being sold off.
“As soon as the polls closed [in the past], the rest of WestConnex was sold off by the Liberal Party,” Minns said. “They’re going to repeat the habit of a lifetime to do the same thing with Sydney Water if they get re-elected on the 25th March.”
Perrottet was forced to again deny his government would sell Sydney Water if re-elected.
“No one has spoken about privatising Sydney Water except Labor,” he said. “We are not selling Sydney Water. This is a Labor lie.”
In a debate that ranged from the cost-of-living crisis to the best pie in Sydney, both leaders were peppered with questions over the city’s sprawling toll road network and public sector wages. Confronted over Labor’s reluctance to take a strong stance on poker machine reform, Minns said his party’s approach to gambling reform would be evidence-based and comprehensive.
“We’ll have a trial of 500 machines and an independent panel that will make a recommendation to the NSW government,” he said. “If it works, we’ll do it, but I want to make sure that … we know that it will work.”
He also talked up his party’s alternative gambling reforms, including the banning of signage and advertising outside pubs and clubs and outlawing political donations from venues with poker machines.
Meanwhile, Perrottet was quizzed over his government’s controversial 3 per cent wages cap, and whether it was driving public sector workers out of NSW.
He said his government’s policy was fair and responsible, and changes to the cap could only be made through budget savings and productivity gains.
“This is 40 per cent of the state’s expenses … removing that cap will result in expenses spiralling out of control, and that means services will have been cut, infrastructure, schools and hospitals not built,” he said. “Just like last time that they [Labor] were in office.”
Minns said Labor would scrap the wage cap but, when pressed on the issue by the state political editor Alexandra Smith, he stopped short of guaranteeing nurses and teachers would get a higher pay rise than the Liberals’ offer of 3 per cent.
On housing affordability, Perrottet said the decision by his government to give first home buyers the option to pay an annual tax rather than stamp duty was something that younger people were “very attracted to”.
“We have already seen so many first home buyers across our state take it up … If you give them choice they [homebuyers] will make the decisions that best suit them,” he said. “Under Labor, you will be paying stamp duty for the rest of your life.”
Minns said the state government needed to focus on making housing near the CBD more affordable and creating reliable public transport options for families in Sydney’s outer suburbs. He criticised the Coalition’s growth targets in western Sydney, saying “the Liberal Party’s plan in relation to housing growth in NSW have been monstrously unfair”.
The debate also had its lighter moments. Both leaders were asked to recite each of their children’s names. Perrottet was asked to name Sydney’s two AFL teams (he answered correctly with GWS Giants and the Sydney Swans), while Minns backed the Bulldogs to win the 2023 NRL premiership.
After a relatively lacklustre campaign and more than a decade of Coalition government, polling indicates NSW Labor is on track to return to power for the first time since its 2011 landslide loss.
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