The confirmation of Gladys Berejiklian and John Barilaro as Premier and Deputy Premier of New South Wales should be celebrated regardless of party affiliation and public policy differences because of their immigrant backgrounds. Berejiklian herself has commented on how remarkable it is that “someone with a long surname and a woman can be Premier in NSW.”
She was born in Sydney of Armenian immigrant descent. She is also the first woman to have won an election as NSW Premier, though Kristina Keneally was the first to hold the position. Her achievement was celebrated across the partisan divide with congratulations from Julia Gillard and Tania Plibersek. She is a moderate Liberal in the same state which has produced the conservatives Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott.
Giovanni “John” Barilaro was born in Queanbeyan to Italian immigrant parents. He rose to become leader of the Nationals and Deputy Premier in 2016. His job is now to improve the performance of the Nationals following a disappointing state election in which they lost three seats.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Deputy Premier John Barilaro on Boyd Baling farm in Lismore.Credit:AAP
The emergence of Berejiklian and Barilaro reflects the successful engagement with political life of second-generation immigrant communities. Neither is the first to emerge from non-English speaking immigrant communities by any means. Plibersek herself, the daughter of Slovenian immigrant parents, is an obvious example.
The Italian community in NSW produced former Premier Morris Iemma and former Education minister Adrian Piccoli among others. Greens leader, Richard di Natale, is of Italian ethnic background. Elsewhere Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszcuk, recently re-elected, is of Polish/German immigrant heritage.
The twin success of Berejiklian and Barilaro shows that immigrant communities do inject themselves successfully into politics. Those of European background are being followed by those of Asian heritage, like Senator Penny Wong, favoured by many as Labor Party leader, whose father is Malaysian/Chinese and Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi, born in Pakistan, who described herself in her maiden speech last year as a “brown, Muslim migrant”. Perhaps 26-year old newcomer Scott Yung, the Liberal candidate who almost won Kogarah, will be another.
Leaders of Asian descent will be followed shortly by those of African, Pacific Islander and other diverse backgrounds. We should rejoice in these achievements at the same time as we combat racism in the Australian community.
Ethnic diversity is matched by geographic diversity, which has traditionally meant just the urban-rural division or the eastern suburbs-western suburbs divide in Sydney but is much more complex. It is the major challenge faced by all political parties seeking to appeal to a statewide constituency.
It ranks alongside the traditional blue-collar/white collar tensions which has been an issue primarily for the Labor Party. This tension was often expressed as the challenge for a Labor government of appealing at the same time to environmentalists and coal-miners without being two-faced.
NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian during the NSW Nationals campaign launch in Queanbeyan.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
The challenge of geographical diversity was evident in several ways in this state election campaign. Most dramatically it was one element behind the racist remarks of Labor leader Michael Daley which became public in the last week. The video of a politics in the pub event last September in Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains showed Daley making totally unacceptable remarks about young Sydneysiders being forced out of the city and replaced by Asians with PhDs.
It was also evident in Labor’s problem, following the Christchurch massacre, with gun control policy. Labor had exchanged preferences with the Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party in two regional seats. It opened the Opposition to charges of hypocrisy and being ‘soft’ on gun control.
In attempting to improve its regional chances its position endangered its standing among voters in marginal city seats. Christchurch ensured that they would not get away with that tactic and John Howard’s role in the Liberal campaign in Western Sydney as the ‘gun-control king’ was made more potent.
Not that the Liberals were without fault in this regard. They exchanged preferences with the Liberal Democrats in the Legislative Council election, despite that party’s libertarian pro-gun policies. Berejiklian unconvincingly tried to explain this away by the ploy that preferences in the lower house of government were more important than preferences in the upper house of review.
In attacking the Shooters Fishers and Farmers party in city campaigning as “dangerous” the Liberals also made the job of their partner the Nationals much more difficult. Of all the parties the Nationals face the greatest problems with geographic diversity.
The inland-coastal divide problem is not new for the Nationals nor is it new to have to face off against challenges. The federal Nationals under Tim Fischer did so against Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in the 1990s and later against Independents like Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. They survived those challenges so all is not lost.
But they now face as big a challenge as ever. They are under siege in Western NSW, losing Barwon and Murray, failing to win back Orange and narrowly surviving in Dubbo. At the same time they are losing ground on different issues in the North East where they lost Lismore to Labor and failed to win back Ballina from the Greens. Society is changing and traditional party allegiances are weakening.
There will be simplistic arguments advanced, such as ditching the name Nationals by returning to the old Country Party brand or Barnaby Joyce’s advocacy of a shift further to the right, in order to recapture past loyalties or win new friends like coal-miners.
But what the Nationals need, as do all political parties seeking a broad mandate, is an integrated vision for Australia which can deliver policies the party is proud of across the whole country or state.
John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.