Selling electricity assets is the policy that will define Mike Baird as Premier

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

Less than two months into his job as Premier, Mike Baird has rolled the dice on his political future and that of the government. Despite its boosters in the business community and the media, the proposed sale of the state's electricity poles and wires remains deeply unpopular in the electorate.

As a Fairfax/Nielsen poll revealed in March, tying the proceeds to building new infrastructure makes it more palatable, but only marginally so.

It showed 74 per cent are opposed to the sale of the poles and wires, including 67 per cent of Coalition voters.

When those opposed were asked for their view if the proceeds were to be spent on infrastructure, the figures were 47 per cent in favour and 45 per cent against.

Acceding to the Nationals' demand that Essential Energy - which services regional and rural areas - be retained in public hands will presumably help those numbers as the party's MPs can argue they have protected local jobs.

But Baird knows what he is doing is a risk, with the potential to either cement the state government's long-term future or cut it dramatically short. It is a remarkable turnaround in the hyper-cautious approach the government has been known for during its first three years in power.

What has prompted the new attitude? If you believe Baird, it's because he believes it's the right thing to do by the state. The Premier opened the media conference by declaring he came into politics - from a career in merchant banking - ''to make a difference''.

There are probably other reasons, though, not the least of which is the electoral challenge that is the Independent Commission Against Corruption's inquiries into Liberal party fund-raising, former minister Chris Hartcher and other ex-government MPs. Baird's announcement has ensured electricity privatisation, not corruption, will be the battleground on which next year's poll is predominantly fought.

But it's an enormous gamble. However it turns out, the announcement ensures that, like a couple of his predecessors, electricity privatisation is the policy that is likely to define the Baird premiership.


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