Our risk-averse political leaders are in danger of boring us to death


Two weeks ago Gladys Berejiklian was given the honour of delivering the inaugural address to the Canberra-based National Press Club’s new outpost in Sydney.

As anyone who has watched press club speeches knows, for politicians in particular they provide a great opportunity to grab national headlines and possibly set an agenda.


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They are long form, set pieces with a national audience that give the speaker an opportunity to go a little deeper into a subject or perhaps make a persuasive argument for reform.

So when Berejiklian climbed to the podium anticipation was high that we might witness the new Premier place a marker; perhaps offer a signal as to where she wanted to take NSW in the two years before the 2019 election.

Instead, we got what amounted to little more than a stump speech. Yes, the Premier called for Canberra to butt out of NSW’s business and for the state to get a greater share of GST receipts.

But neither of these remarks is groundbreaking. For a Premier who has yet to establish her reputation and is struggling to escape the shadow of her predecessor Mike Baird, it was a significant missed opportunity.

The fizzer of an address did tell us something, however. It confirmed that, post-Baird, NSW politics is suffering an inspiration deficit. Indeed, our risk-averse political leaders are in danger of boring us to death.

It’s not just Berejiklian who is to blame; when was the last time something opposition leader Luke Foley said registered with you?

In both cases it may be symptomatic of a deliberate small target strategy that could well run right up until the next state poll.

Ask a cabinet minister why it seems very little is going on in government at the moment and they will likely smile and respond with: “Isn’t that a good thing?”

Inside the government there is a view that the electorate remains shell-shocked by the pace of change under Baird as Premier; that voters need a period of calm.

So, despite Berejiklian’s repeated claim that she is full steam ahead on reform, thus far her government appears determined to be quite the opposite. The determination to not make waves extends even to a reluctance to comment on topics of significant interest.

Take the debate over voluntary assisted dying legislation this week that was sparked by a cross party working group’s unveiling of a draft bill that will go before parliament in August. When news first broke in January of the group’s intention to develop a bill, as befits a political leader, then Premier Baird was happy to put his personal view on the record as did Foley. Yet when Berejiklian was invited on Tuesday to do the same, she declined.

Given the entire parliament has been on notice since January, this is extremely unlikely to be because she has yet to form a personal view. As for Foley, you would think an oxygen-starved opposition leader would be jumping at the chance to fill the void. Yet still we hear very little.

Each leader likely has their reasons. Berejiklian has the Baird backlash. In Foley’s case it may be the desire to make the government the story while there is still residual voter anger over reforms such as council amalgamations and the impact of major infrastructure projects.

He also could be keeping his powder dry until closer to the election so as to not have the government attack his policies for two years.

Foley and Labor seem to be adhering to a classic small target strategy, honouring the adage that the electorate doesn’t vote oppositions into government, they vote governments out.

Both strategies are an insult to voters, who deserve more than to have two of the highest offices in the state effectively running on automatic pilot.

Whether this changes before the election campaign is anyone’s guess, but the signs are not encouraging. The next opportunity is in next month’s state budget.

Pressure is building on Berejiklian to make good on her pronouncement that housing affordability is a priority of her government, alongside local infrastructure and a strong economy. A couple of days later Foley gets a moment in the spotlight with his budget reply speech.

For both it’s a set piece opportunity to make a splash. They should take it.

Sean Nicholls is state political editor.

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