The mayor of NSW? How Berejiklian lost control of her own narrative

Premier Gladys Berejiklian does a media door stop after making opening remarks at the 10th World Chambers?????? Congress at the ICC, Sydney on 19 September 2017. Photo:Jessica Hromas
Premier Gladys Berejiklian does a media door stop after making opening remarks at the 10th World Chambers?????? Congress at the ICC, Sydney on 19 September 2017. Photo:Jessica Hromas

Gladys Berejiklian took a detour from her schedule on Wednesday to open, of all things, a pie factory. As it turns out it wasn't any old pie factory. It was the new Kingsgrove facility for Garlo's Pies, owned by the family of former rugby league star Sean Garlick.

More importantly for the Premier, it was an opportunity to try to put a positive spin on one of the infrastructure projects giving her government a headache due to community opposition: the $17 billion WestConnex motorway.

Berejiklian highlighted the jobs, but also how the old Garlo's factory in St Peters had been compulsorily acquired to make way for the massive road project.

The issue of compulsory acquisition has dogged the government due to the unfairness of homeowners being forced out of their properties without enough compensation to buy a similar property in the same area. It has also faced legal action from businesses.

Berejiklian's take was that because the new Garlo's factory was larger than the old, it was "an example of a business which has turned the relocation into a positive".

She was photographed cutting the ribbon for an article in the local newspaper which celebrated the factory's arrival in the area. It all sounded a bit desperate.

Berejiklian has been cutting a lot of ribbons of late. Some are arguing it's about all she's doing.

Greens MP Jamie Parker probably got it right this week when he dubbed Berejiklian "the mayor of NSW" in a conversation with Fairfax Media.

Parker, the member for Balmain, is a former mayor of Leichhardt in inner Sydney, but his comment wasn't designed as a compliment.

Berejiklian is eight months into the job but, apart from an initial declaration of her "priorities" - housing affordability, infrastructure and a strong economy - has quickly settled into a classic small target strategy.

The Premier's energies are increasingly channelled into media opportunities highlighting the major infrastructure projects under way across Sydney.

So desperate is the government for any kind of high-vis media opportunity that earlier this month it celebrated the questionable milestone of the NorthConnex tunnel reaching its construction halfway mark.

The government clearly believes its infrastructure investments are its best-selling point after the relatively barren Labor years.

It also apparently believes the electorate has had enough of the tumult of Mike Baird's premiership, which featured electricity privatisation, greyhounds and council amalgamations.

Fair enough. But there is calm and then there is catatonic.

Berejiklian has been Premier since late January, but is still struggling to construct a narrative. The average elector would have little idea of what she stands for.

As a consequence it is being written for her, strongly influenced by major policy backdowns including on forced council amalgamations and introduction of the fire and emergency services levy.

The most commonly used phrase to describe Berejiklian's style as Premier around Macquarie Street is "managerial".

Taking such a position risks your opposition defining you instead.

So right now Labor and Luke Foley are hammering the government on energy prices - a hip-pocket issue guaranteed to get cut through.

The government has responded to the issue by announcing new energy rebates for low-income families and some financial incentives to upgrade to more energy-efficient appliances.

But this effort was largely spoilt by an Auditor-General's report this week slamming the rebate schemes in general as unfair and confusing.

It also does little to address the pain felt by the broader community as electricity and gas bills blow out.

Berejiklian risks the perception that her response to soaring family electricity and gas bills is to don a hard hat and point to the latest bit of motorway tunnelling or light rail construction.

The government's next test is three by-elections on October 14, in Blacktown, Cootamundra and Murray.

The Liberals have abandoned the field in each. But this will not prevent significant swings against the Nationals in Cootamundra and Murray being interpreted as the most recent verdict on the government's popularity.

If so, it will be the next opportunity for Berejiklian's political opponents write another chapter of a narrative she and her government would rather not have told.

Sean Nichols is state political editor.

This story The mayor of NSW? How Berejiklian lost control of her own narrative first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.