Baird victory not necessarily good news for Abbott

Much has been made in the past 48 hours of Mike Baird’s likeability. Federal Social Services Minister Scott Morrison said yesterday the NSW Premier was “popular but not a populist”, noting also that he had a “winning smile and that incredible natural charm, which only a few people are blessed with”.

Many others have made a similar distinction. Considerable attention has also been given to Baird’s risky decision to be up front with the voters of New South Wales about his plans to privatise the state’s electricity infrastructure.

According to much of the commentary, Baird has shown his Liberal colleagues how to successfully sell reform. In the words of Scott Morrison, this involves not just the selling of change, but also the benefits of change.

It’s no coincidence that the need to “sell the benefits of change” has become a mantra chanted by leadership agitators at the federal level. The incantation was evoked not only by Morrison in recent days but also by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in response to Baird’s re-election.

But to infer that Baird essentially charmed his way back into government despite an unpopular privatisation agenda would be to misunderstand the NSW election result. It wasn’t Baird’s popularity or charm to which voters responded; it was his integrity.

Integrity is defined as the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles. Like authenticity, it’s hard to fake. According to three captioned pictures that reportedly hang on his office wall, Baird’s driving principles are integrity, passion and results.

So it was in accordance with those principles that the neophyte premier promised to restore integrity to the government when Baird replaced the former NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell last year.

Baird delivered on that promise, overseeing the resignations of 10 Liberal MPs from the party after they were exposed by ICAC to have accepted illegal donations, declining to run Liberal candidates in the by-elections brought about by the resignations of sacked Liberals as an act of “atonement”, and driving reforms to clean up political donations in the state. As a result, Baird is now a politician that people trust.

Even Baird’s opponent, Labor leader Luke Foley, recognised in his concession speech on election nightthat Baird embodies that elusive quality, calling the re-elected premier an “honourable man”.

It may well be that NSW voters re-elected Baird because he successfully communicated the benefits of his privatisation agenda. That’s certainly what his reform-minded colleagues at the federal level are counting on. But it is more likely the state’s electors decided to go with Baird because they trust him to do the right thing for the state, even when it comes to an unpopular policy like selling-off or leasing state-owned assets.

This is what is really meant when it is said that Baird’s election strategy was based on that of John Howard when the former PM took the GST to an election in 1998. In contrast to Baird, Howard was never popular in the traditional sense, although he achieved the second highest approval rating ever as prime minister (67 per cent in May 1996). But in those days, before the Tampa and Work Choices, there were enough voters who nevertheless trusted the relatively unpopular Howard to do right by the nation to see him re-elected at the GST election, albeit with less than 50 per cent of the vote but enough seats to retain government.

Based on last weekend’s election, Baird’s trust factor is far superior to Howard’s, having won 55 per cent of the two-party vote with 48 per cent of people supporting the privatisation proposal, up from only 23 per cent in February. A Newspoll in late February found 75 per cent of NSW voters would describe Baird as trustworthy.

Consequently, the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was only partly right when she claimed the take-out message from the NSW election was “people are ready for reform as long as it’s explained to them”. As she separately recognised, trust was also a key factor.

Considered from this perspective, the NSW election result is not particularly good news for the PM. It would be fair to say Abbott has minimal integrity in the eyes of Australian voters, given his track record in breaking promises and telling little white lies, such as “we have fixed the budget”.

Unsurprisingly, the most recent Newspoll to measure perceptions of the federal leaders’ attributes, conducted in February, found only 43 per cent consider the PM to be trustworthy. While no similar measure is available for another of the government’s key salespeople, Joe Hockey, a recent poll found only 27 per cent approve of the job he is doing as Treasurer.

Now the NSW poll is out of the way, federal Liberal MPs will again turn their minds to their own election prospects, as well as the government’s fractured reputation for sound economic management. This reputation must be repaired if the Coalition is to retain incumbency.

As the PM said in his congratulatory statement to Baird, the NSW premier is a man of integrity who “stayed the course in the face of a concerted scare campaign by Labor”. In contrast, Abbott is the man who has wilted in the face of opposition, dropping or abandoning $27 billion of budget measures, and who has shown little integrity in ditching $3 billion worth of unpopular reforms in the past six weeks simply to shore up his embattled leadership.

In considering what to do next, Liberal MPs will give further scrutiny not only to the PM but also the Treasurer.

In doing so, three things will quickly become apparent. Neither man retains an appetite for the required economic reforms, the skill to communicate the worth of reform, nor the perceived integrity to secure voters’ trust to implement the reforms.

The real question is whether there is anyone at all in the Liberal Party, man or woman, who can fit this bill.

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