New South Wales (NSW), Australia’s most populous state, came under new leadership on Monday. After Gladys Berejiklian’s dramatic resignation last week, a flurry of last minute wheeling and dealing over the weekend resulted in former state treasurer Dominic Perrottet assuming the premiership after overwhelmingly winning the internal Liberal Party vote.
At just thirty-nine years old, Perrottet is the youngest-ever premier of the state, and his career has seen him determinedly and swiftly rise up the ranks of the NSW Liberals, becoming president of the party’s youth wing in 2005, a member of the NSW Legislative Assembly in 2011, and just six years later, state treasurer.
Now, his election to the state’s top job is raising eyebrows among many. A figure from the right of the — right-wing — Liberal Party and a staunch Catholic with alleged links to Opus Dei, Perrottet’s election promises a new era of even deeper social and political conservatism.
Power Without Glory
Gladys Berejiklian had weathered countless political storms during the pandemic. Health crises aside, corruption scandals had claimed several scalps in her state government. But Berejiklian remained popular, in part due to a relentlessly fawning media that at one point declared her “the woman who saved Australia.” On the morning she resigned, the Australian Financial Review had just crowned her the most powerful person in Australia.
Behind the scenes, however, Berejiklian’s ministers were reportedly contemptuous of this coverage. In leaks to the media, her ministers complained that, far from being an anti-lockdown hero, Berejiklian was trigger-happy when it came to harsh pandemic measures. It was her cabinet, they claimed, that was truly pro-business and anti-lockdown. Time and time again, they said, they had talked her down.
Berejiklian’s downfall was dramatic. She was publicly knifed by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) just a stone’s throw from the scheduled end to Sydney’s lockdown. In a bid to take ownership of the NSW “Freedom Day,” Premier Perrottet has sped up the state’s withdrawal from lockdowns and loosened several more restrictions than originally planned.
His Service to God Today Had Required . . .
A staunch Catholic, Perrottet has denied being a member of Opus Dei — an organization best known to the world as the villains from The Da Vinci Code. Yet the fact that Opus Dei seized control of the NSW Liberal Party’s youth wing in 2004 — just one year before Perrottet became its president — has led many to believe the link can’t be denied.
Whatever the truth of Perrottet’s links to popish plots, he has long been open about the strength of his religious convictions. Riding on the coattails of Donald Trump’s religious revival, he famously declared in 2016:
If you stand for free speech, you are not a bigot. . . . If you want a plebiscite on same sex marriage, you are not a homophobe. . . . These are mainstream values that people should be free to articulate without fear of ridicule or persecution by the Left. It’s time for a new political conversation that reflects the concerns of everyday people. It’s time for a conservative spring.
One decidedly nonmainstream aspect of this “conservative spring” involved Perrottet opposing laws that would force priests to report incidents of sex abuse in the church. Indeed, Perrottet has made a name for himself championing all of the very nonmainstream preoccupations of the Liberal Party’s right-wing faction at the federal level: maintaining the criminalization of abortion, catastrophizing about the tyranny of gender identity, and fighting against same-sex marriage.
Like so many on the Right, Perrottet is fairly skilled at brushing aside criticism of his social conservatism by using the language of tolerance, positioning himself and his faith as part of Sydney’s celebrated multiculturalism. “Diversity should be celebrated. It shouldn’t be criticised,” he declared. Perrottet did not extend the same celebration of diversity to different kinds of families during the same-sex marriage debate in 2017, when he argued very explicitly that “marriage is about every child’s fundamental right to grow up with their own mum and dad.”
Perrottet’s premiership is likely to serve as a megaphone for his socially conservative pet causes. On the day he assumed power, he noted that, while all previous Liberal premiers had been “infrastructure premiers,” he would be a “family premier.”
Obligation, Not Opportunity
As NSW treasurer since 2017, Perrottet was one of the most prominent political representatives of big business during the pandemic. He has consistently opposed lockdown measures, making the case for capital at every point.
Asked what he thought about the idea that fundamental changes are required to make capitalism fairer, he argued that COVID-19 has created not an opportunity but an obligation to reduce taxes and remove regulations in markets. Despite having worked with the federal government to oversee JobKeeper and COVID disaster payments — some of the biggest stimulus packages in Australian history — he argued that “we need government to be getting out of the way.”
So far, so predictable. But Perrottet has diverged from his federal Liberal Party counterparts in the sheer scale of his tax-cut vision. He has persistently championed large-scale reform to Australia’s Goods and Services Tax (GST) that might make way for more dramatic tax cuts down the line. He’s attacked other state premiers who want to keep state tax revenues the way they are, even labeling the West Australian Labor Party premier “the Gollum of Australian politics. You can just picture him over there in his cave with his ‘little precious.’”
His stance on tax cuts and deregulation — harder than that of the federal government — has earned him the loyalty of lobby groups like the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia. Despite the Scott Morrison government’s promise of far-reaching anti-worker legislation, the tax cuts and labor market deregulation these groups were hoping for have simply not materialized. Perrottet seems to be positioning himself as a more ambitious figure. The nation’s financial press has well and truly fallen in behind his agenda: Even before he assumed the premiership, he was being touted as “the right man for the job.”
Struggle for Survival, Not a Pay Raise!
Perhaps most worryingly, Perrottet has been using the pandemic as an opportunity to sell workers a pay cut. As treasurer, he froze the wages of NSW public sector workers: paramedics, nurses, and other hospital workers fighting COVID-19. He maintained that public health and education workers were squeezing private sector employees by refusing pay freezes. Unionized workers with good conditions, he implied, were holding hardworking private sector workers with bad conditions for ransom:
I don’t think there’s many people across NSW right now who’d be knocking on their boss’s door asking for a pay rise in this environment. The 90 percent of people [in the private sector] aren’t fighting for a pay rise — they’re fighting for survival. And we stand with them.
But far from robbing unionized Peter to pay non-unionized Paul, Perrottet has spent the pandemic enthusiastically trying to rob them both. The new premier knows full well that public sector wages have a hugely beneficial impact on the economy, and that the legacy of pay freezes — always excused as temporary, no matter the context — is to shift income from workers to business. He also knows that the new jobs being created are mostly precarious, and that he helped to win the new right for employers to unilaterally deem any new employee a casual worker. Far from being a comrade to workers in need, Perrottet’s schemes kick them when they’re down. His workers’ compensation scheme iCare — the biggest in Australia — was found to have underpaid 52,000 workers by up to $80 million, while its executives’ salaries skyrocketed.
This is Perrottet’s true vision for New South Wales. A society where homophobia is “mainstream,” where business always gets its way, and where all workers are fighting for survival rather than a pay raise. Given the lean and hungry look of the young premier, it may well soon be his vision for all of Australia. Scott Morrison should watch his back.