The New South Wales treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, looks set to become the next premier of the state at the age of 39 after gathering the support of his own right faction and key moderate powerbrokers.
Perrottet announced his candidacy for the Liberal leadership on Sunday evening, paying tribute to the outgoing premier Gladys Berejiklian.
Stuart Ayres, the NSW investment and tourism minister and a leading moderate, will run as deputy Liberal leader.
Perrottet said he and Ayres would offer stability and continuity as the state emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic and a sharp economic downturn.
“NSW is stronger today because of her tireless leadership for the people of NSW,” Perrottet said.
The deal likely spells the end of the leading moderate and planning minister Rob Stokes’ ambitions for the top job, and breaks with the tradition that the dominant faction in the Liberal party provides the leader of the parliamentary party.
Stokes, well liked in the parliament and regarded as one its most competent ministers, was unable to hold the votes of the moderates’ faction. He announced his intention to run on Friday.
However, the Liberals have not had a contested ballot since 2002 and it is likely the matter will be settled in the next 24 hours.
The NSW transport minister, Andrew Constance, also from the moderate faction, had been mooted as a possible leader, but instead announced his resignation from state politics and his intention to run for preselection in the federal seat of Gilmore.
The other Liberal candidate, the attorney general Mark Speakman, has decided not to nominate.
“I’ve decided that the best interests of the people of NSW are served by ensuring as much continuity and stability as possible when we move into the recovery stage of the state’s biggest crisis since the second world war,” he said.
The moderates have the largest faction in NSW and control of the state party machine, and the leaders of the parliamentary party have traditionally come from their ranks.
However, Perrottet was made Berejiklian’s deputy in 2019 under a previous deal. He has spent the last two years building his profile as her successor.
He is quick on his feet, effective in parliament and has presided over a strong NSW economy. There have, however, been some scandals in recent months, including the stewardship of the state insurer, iCare.
In 2019, soon after the election, Perrottet struck a succession deal with the ambitious environment minister, Matt Kean, the factional head of the moderates, as part of a peace deal to end the bitter factional wrangling that had beset the Liberal party for decades.
Under the deal, Kean was set to become treasurer or deputy leader. Kean now looks set to become the treasurer.
Berejiklian’s leadership enjoyed relative stability, with rumblings against her confined to a small group of disgruntled right and centre-right figures, often triggered by social issues such as abortion reform.
“You just look at this and it’s amateur hour verses the masters of the arts,” said one veteran Liberal backbencher.
“The moderates couldn’t even agree among themselves who was going to run. Rob’s statement announcing his candidacy on Friday, just after Gladys’s resignation was just naive. Then the timing of [former prime minister] John Howard’s backing for Perrottet was a masterstroke.”
The leadership upheavals in NSW have now set the stage for a super Saturday of byelections – possibly coinciding with the local government elections on 4 December.
Berejiklian announced her resignation as premier on Friday after the state’s corruption watchdog disclosed she was under investigation for potential breaches of public trust.
She will also resign as the MP for Willoughby, a safe seat which the Liberals hold with a 21% margin.
Constance’s state seat of Bega is safer with a 7% margin.
But there could well be other byelections depending on the outcome of the leadership tussle.
Unless he becomes premier or is given a very senior role, Stokes could decide on a new direction and has been rumoured to have expressed an interest in moving from planning, a portfolio he has steered for some years.
Stokes holds the safe northern beaches seat of Pittwater, which has a 20% margin against the Greens, who have been chasing the seat.
Jodi McKay, the former NSW Labor leader, is also said to be considering retiring, triggering a byelection in Strathfield, one of Labor’s most marginal.
There has also been persistent rumours that the Nationals leader and deputy premier, John Barilaro, is considering a future outside politics, after he attempted an aborted move to federal politics last year.
Other long-term Liberal MPs are also said to be considering their futures, but may wait until March 2023, when the next election will be held. The health minister Brad Hazzard, who holds Wakefield in Sydney’s north, and local government minister Shelley Hancock are unlikely to seek another term.
Then there are the MPs who are on the cross benches pending investigations. John Sidoti, the MP for Drummoyne, is currently before the Independent Commission Against Corruption over allegations involving property acquisitions by his family, and Gareth Ward is under investigation by NSW police over allegations of sexual assault.
The change in leadership will have immediate ramifications for policy.
Whatever happens, the prospect of NSW now advancing with voluntary assisted dying legislation, similar to that passed in other jurisdictions, now looks even more uncertain.
The independent MP Alex Greenwich had planned to introduce a private member’s bill in the NSW parliament during October.
Both Perrottet and Stokes, both religious, are unlikely to back the legislation and will more likely stick with the position of the former premier Berejiklian: that there will be no more conscience votes within the Liberals this term.
The bill will struggle to gain enough support. The Nationals have said they will support it but Labor is promising a conscience vote and MPs can expect intensive lobbying from the churches.
Perrottet, a conservative Catholic, voted against decriminalising abortion. Stokes, with colleague Speakman, proposed amendments to allay fellow Liberals’ concerns that the abortion laws would open the door to late term abortions.