AS FAR as unedifying displays go, watching Mike Baird back down from his previously “locked in” commitment to end greyhound racing in NSW was about as bad as it gets.
For three months, as pressure from shock jocks like Alan Jones and sections of the media mounted, the Premier stood firm.
It was not an easy decision. Not one he ever expected to make. But, he told us, voters wanted leaders who were willing to do things not because they were popular, but because they were right.
Banning greyhound racing was the right thing to do, and even as sections of his government lost their nerve, the Premier backed himself in.
Until he didn’t. Comparisons have been made to Kevin Rudd’s backdown on his carbon policy in 2009, and while Mr Baird never said greyhound racing was the moral issue of our time, Tuesday’s mea culpa was the kind that can define a politician.
What made the backdown particularly distasteful though, is not so much that it happened – it had been coming for some time – but the manner in which it did; how transparent it was that what we were witnessing was a self-avowed “conviction politician” being brought to heel.
Exhibit A, of course, was his pre-announcement dinner with Mr Jones himself, which, just conveniently, News Corp photographers had been tipped off about.
It wasn’t enough that the Premier of the state had been reduced to kissing the ring of conservative media. We had to witness the humiliation too, just in case any other uppity politician might entertain thoughts above their station.
Exhibit B was in the detail. In his press conference Mr Baird said the change of heart was based on two things. First, the community backlash to the ban. Second, the report from the head of the greyhound transition taskforce, Dr John Keniry, which had apparently uncovered an urge within the industry to reform.
Nevermind that the whole point of the ban was apparently that reform was not possible, and that the very measures now being entertained were the same that were previously either unworkable or insufficient, the real kicker was that the government hasn’t actually received Dr Keniry’s report.
Instead, they were responding to a verbal briefing that he gave them sometime in the last week.
Just to spell that out, and to repeat what one journalist said during Mr Baird’s pres conference, the government is taking the advice of Dr Keniry, who’s spent three months talking only to the industry, over Justice Michael McHugh, who spent 15 months surveying the entire issue.
But sure, it’s not about politics.
The thing is that obviously the move has worked, for now. Followed up by a couple more backdowns – on Sydney’s lockouts, and shark nets on the north coast – the government is once again in the good books of the likes of Mr Jones.
But in bowing to pressure on this issue, Mr Baird has done two things. First, he’s surrendered his image as a politician willing to push unpopular reform no matter the cost, and voters will likely reconsider what they thought they knew about him.
But second, and perhaps most importantly, he’s shown he can be pushed around.
While he may have made the shock jocks and conservative media outlets happy this week, there’s always going to be another issue. They will believe they have him on a leash. It’s going to be a challenge for the government to prove otherwise.