NSW Premier Mike Baird’s vision of “NSW Inc” is under increasing fire as the year ends. Dubbed the “Smiling Assassin”, “Mike the Vandal”, and “Robert Askin with a smiling face”, Baird’s approval ratings have plummeted as a number of his pet projects face rising opposition.
The former Liberal NSW Premier Askin was notoriously corrupt, renowned for his dodgy dealings with developers and his demand that his driver “run over the bastards” during an anti-Vietnam War protest in 1966 against visiting US President Lyndon Johnson.
Baird was once the most popular political leader in the country. By late September, a Newspoll survey showed Baird’s approval rating had halved — from 61% to 31% — and his disapproval rating had more than doubled.
The Orange by-election in November was a disaster for the NSW Coalition government, as the Nationals suffered a massive swing of 34% against them, losing the seat to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party.
At his November 29 National Press Club appearance, Baird fudged when asked about his future as premier. But rumours have spread that Baird may be considering resigning following the government’s unpopular local council amalgamations and the now reversed ban on greyhound racing.
“There's no point having political capital unless you spend it ... You need to be prepared to make those [tough decisions],” he said while acknowledging his nicknames — “Casino Mike”, “Judas” and the “Dictator”.
Baird’s signature project is the controversial $17 billion WestConnex tollway road tunnel that will slice through the western and inner-western suburbs of Sydney, causing untold social disruption, especially for those whose homes are being forcibly acquired, and damage to the environment.
Commuters from the vast area that makes up western Sydney will also pay through the nose for the privilege, with tolls predicted to be $100 or more a week for those who regularly drive into the city.
The Baird government has a “master plan” for transport, housing, health and education. It essentially involves the wholesale privatisation of public assets — the historic property of the people of NSW built up over two centuries. This plan is nothing more than robbery of the community’s assets, disguised as “urban transformation”.
NSW Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi wrote on November 5: “The NSW government’s privatisation mantra has not only drained the public service of expertise, but it costs ... the taxpayer a lot more than they think.”
Faruqi, an engineer, said: “Every single one of the major transport projects being rolled out in our state has been plagued by ever-increasing costs and marred by bungled and insensitive handling of home acquisitions, changing scale and scope, construction problems and destruction of the environment.
“This scale of messiness and incompetence points to much deeper flaws in the system of planning and delivering transport in NSW.
“According to Engineers Australia, outsourcing and privatisation of engineering-related work has shrunk public sector expertise from about 100,000 engineering professionals about three decades ago to around 20,000 in 2011.
“This ‘hollowing out’ of in-house engineering can increase project costs by up to 20 per cent and results in less than optimal outcomes.”
The construction of WestConnex and other motorways, slated for full privatisation in future, are a massive hand-out to big business.
Even the Sydney Morning Herald, which ran a feature on “Sydney 2026” on November 28, admitted: “Sydney’s toll roads are already a boon for large investors amid a weak global economy, because of their above-inflation growth and reliable returns. Combined with strong growth in traffic from an extra million people calling Sydney home within the next decade, [urban transport multinational] Transurban’s shareholders and other investors in toll roads such as the M7 stand to benefit significantly.
“And the company is setting its sights on the other areas of the city. Transurban is widely expected to expand its grip on Sydney’s toll roads to WestConnex by 2026, and possibly to other planned arterial routes such as the Western Harbour Crossing.”
The Baird government is planning to privatise part of Sydney’s rail system by constructing the North-west Metro, and potentially extending it west. The November 1 Sydney Morning Herald reported: “Large companies are lining up to win Sydney’s most lucrative bus contracts as expectations grow that the Baird government will open to tender services that have been run for decades by the heavily unionised State Transit Authority.”
State secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union Chris Preston reacted sharply: “We would be worried about the cuts in services, the cuts in maintenance and the cuts in wages and conditions of drivers who live in the most expensive city in Australia.
“We would run a very loud campaign if the government said they were to privatise STA [bus contracts]. It has been in public hands for 80 years.”
The Baird government is also pushing ahead with plans to eliminate public housing in favour of the construction of private high-rise apartments, which will line his developer mates’ pockets.
This high-rise development is closely linked to the government’s plans for privatised transport, involving rail, bus and the motorway expansion.
The wholesale sell-off of public housing in the inner-city Millers Point, the proposed demolition and reconstruction of the iconic Sirius building and the plan to replace the Waterloo public housing towers with blocks of private flats are all part of the Baird government’s privatisation mania.
Community and union opposition to Baird and Co’s privatisation push is growing. But the real challenge we face in the new year is to coordinate the growing opposition to the Baird government's neoliberal juggernaut so that its expression is not just left to the ballot box in 2019.