19 January 2017

Mike Baird does a "John Key” and quits politics

Written by: Nic Jarvis, Head of Public Affairs at Edelman

News, Public Affairs

Despite his success in running Australia’s biggest state, outgoing New South Wales Premier Mike Baird, who announced his resignation today after nine years in Parliament, was never going to be a career politician.

Baird, a former Sydney investment banker, carefully considered his future over the recent long Christmas break. He reflected on the highs and lows of his Government and also on the health challenges being faced by three members of his family.

Then he acted, putting his personal situation as a priority and announced his departure from State politics altogether from next week.

Baird leaves behind a government and state in strong financial shape. New South Wales is the leading economy in Australia with low unemployment, a significant budget surplus, a building and construction boom creating thousands of jobs and government infrastructure projects that will continue for two decades.

Baird took over the Premier’s job in 2014 from his friend Barry O’Farrell who resigned over not declaring a $3,000 bottle of Grange Hermitage given to him by a party donor.

Baird’s main competitor for the leadership at the time was Gladys Berejiklian, the ex-banker who did not stand in the end to preserve party unity and became Treasurer and a loyal Deputy-Leader.

A political moderate, Berejiklian has worked hard managing the financial fortunes of the state including overseeing a multi-billion dollar privatization program including the sale of New South Wales’ power assets. As a result, much of the money is being spent on roads, rail and other major projects to transform the state’s transport system.

A hard-working Minister, Berejiklian has the numbers to assume the leadership (she has already declared her candidacy) but there may be conservative candidates considering nominating for the job. The lay Party in New South Wales is factionally very divided between moderates and the hard and centre right groups so competition for all key positions can be expected. We will know the outcome next week.

Despite economic success, the Baird Government has had its problems, most of them self-inflicted.

Responding to public concerns about alcohol-related violence, it put in place regulations to limit late night trading hours for hotels, bars and entertainment venues in the Sydney area around the City of Sydney and Kings Cross. This effectively ruined many smaller businesses and upset people who would traditionally have been Liberal Party supporters. Only a growing wave of protests against the “Nanny State” saw the Government back down in late 2016, loosening the laws.

And in an almost dictatorial move, Baird personally moved to shut down the state’s greyhound racing industry that had been plagued for many years with bad practices including incidences of cruelty to dogs. Without warning many smaller trainers and owners in rural areas (again traditionally conservative voters) were contemplating financial losses including the closure of their businesses and livelihood. Once again, after much hand-wringing (and appalling opinion polls) the government softened its position.

Whoever wins the leadership contest next week the new Premier and government faces electoral challenges. Change will bring new faces into Cabinet and new approaches although the private-enterprise friendly complexion of the government won’t change. The next election is not due until March 2019.

What Baird’s surprise announcement today says that (like the recent departure of John Key as Prime Minister of New Zealand) good political leaders in the 21st century are not focused on longevity but doing what they set out to do then handing over to someone else to take over.

Just as in the corporate sector (with the shelf life of a CEO three years), politics is probably following that trend.

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