Ms Berejiklian made the right call. Mr Barilaro’s threat was so badly timed and irrational, not to mention inconsistent with the principles of cabinet solidarity and the good faith needed to run a coalition, that Ms Berejiklian had no choice but to face him down.
It should have been possible to resolve the disagreements over the SEPP without tantrums. It was passed more than eight months ago and will likely only affect property developers in a few regions such as south-west Sydney and the North Coast of NSW.
Yet Mr Barilaro provoked conflict by wilfully exaggerating its impact on rural property owners. He refused to accept an assurance from Ms Berejiklian that she was open to discussing any technical improvements and despite the fact the minister responsible, Planning Minister Rob Stokes, had been talking with affected parties for months.
Mr Barilaro seemed determined to hitch his political future to the politically suicidal cause of opposing regulations to protect the state’s threatened koala population.
The bushfires last summer killed thousands of koalas and permanently scarred their habitats. Scientists say there is a real risk the animals could be extinct within 30 years. If the Coalition wants to have any credibility on environmental issues it has to respond. Ms Berejiklian would have been a laughing stock if she had appeared to endorse Mr Barilaro’s anti-koala campaign.
In any case Mr Barilaro seems to have fundamentally misjudged his power in these negotiations. Confronted with the Premier’s “you’re with me, or against me” edict, the majority of the NSW Nationals seem to have decided that losing juicy ministerial salaries was too much to bear. On Friday morning, Mr Barilaro backed down.
Of course, it’s easy to see this is not really about koalas. It is part of a broader strategy where Mr Barilaro pretends he is in opposition, attacking the city slickers on Macquarie Street over policies that he says threatens his party’s constituents in the bush.
He hopes that this maverick pose will help the Nationals protect their patch against the twin threats of One Nation and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party.
It is a game that Nationals play at the federal level, too, led over many years by former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce.
Certainly the Nationals should push the interests of regional voters but they cannot use guerilla tactics or, indeed, open rebellion to undermine established government policy.
If Mr Barilaro wants to continue to enjoy the power and perks of government, he should start acting like he is part of one.
Even though the Deputy Premier is claiming a victory, it’s clear to the Herald Ms Berejiklian emerged on top, buoyed by overwhelming support from her colleagues and with her leadership credentials only strengthened.
Mr Barilaro may have agreed to continue in the Coalition but there are worrying signs this is only another ceasefire. The crisis still smoulders. Having dropped his threat to leave the Coalition, Mr Barilaro on Friday immediately started claiming he had won concessions and made no apology for trying to blackmail the Premier.
This tension seems destined to hang over what has otherwise been a successful government response to the difficult events of the past 12 months.
It is hard to imagine how Mr Barilaro can work productively together in cabinet with Ms Berejiklian when he continues to reserve the right to undermine any collective decisions.
The Nationals could end the situation by choosing a better team player but, as of Friday afternoon, Mr Barilaro remained the party’s state leader.
The crisis has at least confirmed the Premier’s political judgment and should strengthen her hand in future battles. She should draw the lesson from this farce that Mr Barilaro’s bark is frequently worse than his bite. She has the power to stand up to the Nationals and should continue to act in the interests of the whole state, especially on environmental questions.
With another summer of drought, fish kills and bushfire looming, the people of NSW want strong action and Ms Berejiklian can not be held hostage by the political games Mr Barilaro likes to play.
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