Australia: Premier Baird Wins Election, Now the Hard Part

April 1, 2015 Updated: April 27, 2015

SYDNEY—Liberal Premier Mike Baird faces a challenging term after a comfortable win in the New South Wales election. Not only must he ensure his signature policy, electricity privatisation, is implemented smoothly but he must also deal with a range of other contentious issues including coal seam gas mining, transport and housing affordability.

Mr Baird was quick off the block the day after his win, declaring Sunday, that the plan to privatise the state’s electricity poles and wires, “starts today”.

Really it is time to get on with it.
NSW Premier Mike Baird
“I am very humbled by what has been given to us last night and really it is time to get on with it,” he said.

The Premier is considering a public float for half of state electricity distributors Ausgrid and Endeavour Energy and all of the high voltage business Transgrid, so that small investors have a chance to participate, the ABC reported.

Mr Baird hopes to raise funds for a promised $20 billion infrastructure plan which includes a new rail line over the harbour bridge, new railway stations, roads, hospitals and schools in urban and regional areas.

There were concerns that the privatisation plans, which had contributed to a massive loss for conservatives in Queensland, plus Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s low standing in the polls, would impact the conservative vote – and it did. The Liberal Coalition registered a 9 percent swing against them but Mr Baird’s personal popularity and a relatively unknown opposition leader, Labor’s Luke Foley, gave the conservatives a comfortable win.

The Coalition is expected to win 53 seats, Labor 34, the Greens four, with two independents.

Challenges Ahead

Mr Baird may be ready for action but it will not all be smooth sailing. He is claiming a mandate to proceed with privatisation but without a majority in the Legislative Council he will be forced to negotiate with minor parties in the upper house.

The Greens, Labor and the Shooters Party are all opposed to privatisation leaving the Christian Democrats with the balance of power.

Leader of the party, 80 year old Rev. Fred Nile, says he is not opposed to privatisation but support for it is conditional. He wants a parliamentary inquiry to ensure prices do not rise and a jobs guarantee for workers.

He is also concerned that the state’s electricity poles and wires will fall into the hands of foreign companies, an issue raised by Labor’s Luke Foley after it was revealed Mike Baird had met with officials from the Chinese state owned utility company, State Grid Corporation.

Rev Nile may also be looking to further his own agenda including raising the drinking age to 21 and making religious education in schools more accessible.

Mr Baird has other major issues to accommodate too. Evidence of corruption in the mining approval process, plus environmental and food safety concerns over coal and coal seam gas mining in rural areas, saw a strong swing against conservatives outside urban areas. In the Illawara and Hunter regions, the Coalition experienced a 15 percent swing against them.

Mr Baird acknowledged the concerns and has promised to look at the issue more closely, but it will be the Nationals that are likely to pay the higher price.

There have also been criticisms that the focus on electricity privatisation has deflected attention from other issues like transport and housing.

Dr Mark Rolfe, political analyst at the University of NSW says unlike Labor, the Coalition did not outline plans for future growth in Sydney to 2031 or address housing affordability.

Railway capacity in Sydney is approaching “crisis proportions” and traffic congestion is growing, he says.

Mr Baird has proposed a controversial 33 kilometre freeway, WestConnex, which will link the inner west with outer south western regions. There is also a plan to to build 60,000 new apartments along Parramatta Road but critics say the two projects will only create more congestion.

“Such urban in-filling is controversial,” Dr Rolfe said.