New Premier Mike Baird has foreshadowed changes to the way lobbyists operate in NSW, declaring people are ‘‘incredibly disappointed and shocked’’ at what has unfolded before the Independent Commission Against Corruption in recent weeks.
An hour after being elected unopposed by Liberal MPs on Thursday, following the dramatic resignation of Barry O’Farrell the day before, Mr Baird conceded there were community concerns about lobbyists, fund-raising and political donations. ‘‘We will in coming days and weeks have more to say about additional measures to bring that confidence back in government,’’ he said.
Mr O’Farrell resigned after giving misleading evidence under oath to the ICAC about the gift of a $3000 bottle of Penfolds Grange from Liberal fund-raiser and former lobbyist Nick Di Girolamo shortly after the 2011 election.
The commission is investigating Mr Di Girolamo’s role in an infrastructure company Australian Water Holdings, which has links to the family of corrupt former Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid.
The inquiry has heard Mr Di Girolamo lobbied Mr O’Farrell both in opposition and in government in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to secure support for a lucrative public private partnership.
ICAC has previously recommended a tightening of the rules around lobbyists in NSW, including a requirement for companies and associates lobbying ministers to be registered and for details of the meetings to be made public.
Mr O’Farrell resigned despite not being accused of corrupt conduct, prompting criticism of ICAC’s role his downfall.
While expressing his disappointment at Mr O’Farrell’s fate, Mr Baird strongly defended ICAC and its processes. ‘‘ICAC is doing exactly what is should be doing,’’ he said.
During his first news conference after assuming the leadership, Mr Baird was asked about a range of policy directions, including the potential sale of the state’s electricity distribution network – the poles and wires – but he repeatedly declared ‘‘today is not about policy’’.
He was also challenged on how well he knows Mr Di Girolamo, given he was involved as shareholding minister in his appointment to the board of State Water Corporation in mid-2012. Mr Baird said he was not a friend of Mr Di Girolamo’s, but declined to elaborate. ‘‘Appointments are signed up to by the full cabinet,’’ he said. ‘‘In hindsight, should that have been done? No.’’
Flanked by his wife Kerryn and three children, Mr Baird outlined the type of premier he hoped to be.
‘‘I’m someone that believes in consultation, I’m someone that believes in merit, I am someone that is in this game to make a difference for the people of NSW,’’ he said.
‘‘My hope is by the time I’m done that’s exactly what they’ve seen.’’
Mr Baird was also joined by the newly elected deputy leader of the Liberal Party, Gladys Berejiklian, who was also elected unopposed.
Despite speculation Ms Berejiklian might seek the job of treasurer, she confirmed Mr Baird had agreed with her decision to remain as Transport Minister. Mr Baird indicated he could remain Treasurer to see through the budget on June 17. Passing the responsibility to a new treasurer would be ‘‘a difficult affair. It would pretty much be a classic hospital pass’’.
Asked if he expected to undertake a significant cabinet reshuffle, he said: ‘‘Stability is important, experience is important, but clearly there will be some changes’’.
Mr Baird said he had spoken to Mr O’Farrell, who was ‘‘in incredible spirits despite events’’ and indicated he wished to stay in parliament. ‘‘We are shocked and saddened at events in the last 48 hours,’’ he said.
One question appeared to stun Mr Baird, a committed Christian who is socially conservative on many issues. ‘‘Do you still believe homosexuality is a lifestyle decision?’’ he was asked. After a pause he responded: ‘‘That’s not a question I expected at this press conference. Listen, that’s not something I’m going to get into here’’.
Opposition Leader John Robertson said Mr Baird was ‘‘part of the cultural problem in the Liberal Party and its close relationship with donors and lobbyists.’’
‘‘As treasurer Mike Baird appointed Liberal Party donors, including Nick Di Girolamo, to lucrative taxpayer-funded positions on government boards.’’
Why Gladys could not be premier
Factional warring threatened to break out within the NSW Liberal Party if Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian, a warrior of the party's left-wing, became premier.
Just as Barry O'Farrell knew he risked being undermined by the right wing of his party if he stood as opposition leader after the resignation of Liberal Party leader John Brogden in 2005, Berejiklian stepped aside for the sake of party unity.
She formed a "unity ticket" with Treasurer Mike Baird, making way for him to be elected as premier unopposed.
While Mr Baird is said to be philosophically aligned with Berejiklian's faction, known as the moderates, he is also supported by the right wing of the party. The right wing views Baird as a successful Treasurer, having maintained the state's triple A credit rating. He is conservative in his economics, has a strong Christian faith, but is also progressive in social views on issues such as the treatment of asylum seekers.
The right wing of the Liberal Party is split into three sub-factions. The soft right is understood to include Wollondilly MP Jai Rowell and upper house MP Matthew Mason-Cox. The centre right is said to include Baulkham Hills MP David Elliott, Hawkesbury MP Ray Williams, Family and Community Services Minister Pru Goward and Charlestown MP Andrew Cornwell. The so-called hard right, or "religious right", is understood to include Energy and Resources Minister Anthony Roberts, Castle Hill MP Dominic Perrottet, upper house MP David Clarke, Attorney General Greg Smith, upper house MP Marie Ficarra and former Energy and Resources Minister Chris Hartcher.
The dominant left-wing faction, the moderates, is understood to include upper house MP Don Harwin, Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian, Hornsby MP Matt Kean and Londonderry MP Bart Bassett. Mr O'Farrell was independent, but loosely associated with the moderates, which gave him its strong support.
Members of the party's conservative right and centre right said they strongly supported Mike Baird as Premier.
One member of a right-wing faction said the three sub-factions backed Baird over Berejiklian.
"The right would have unified against her as leader," the MP said.
"She had been a factional heavyweight.
"Gladys wisely read that and withdrew. A number of right wingers thought that she showed loyalty to the party by doing that and said they would not stand in the way of her as deputy."
It is understood that the right wing would have supported Finance Minister Andrew Constance as leader if Baird didn't stand.
As the son of former NSW minister and Federal MP Bruce Baird, Mike Baird is viewed by some as Liberal Party establishment.
However, the factions are not clearly aligned in their philosophical views. For example, Ms Berejiklian is said to be in favour of privatising the state's remaining electricity assets, while right winger Chris Hartcher is understood to have been opposed to the privatisation, and is a republican.
"There are people who call themselves conservatives who are in favour of gay marriage and gay adoption," one MP said. "The factions are not more than preselection co-operatives."
A member of the moderates faction said former premier O'Farrell was successful in bringing the entire party behind him and creating an accord between the factions.
In 2007 when former Opposition leader Peter Debnam lost the state election there was broad agreement the party had been hijacked by the so-called hard-right and had become unelectable.
"Barry O'Farrell has united the party with the exception of a small group on the extreme right," one right-wing MP said.
When the right's Anthony Roberts bowed out of nominating for the position of deputy leader on Thursday, he said his decision "underscores the strength and unity of the NSW Liberals".
"I believe Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian will make a terrific leadership team for the NSW Liberal Party and I will be strongly supporting them," he said.
- ANNA PATTY