Two years on: Premier Mike Baird. Can he sustain his popularity? Photo: Janie Barrett Protesters in Haberfield protest the demolition of homes to make way for the WestConnex motorway Photo: Sarah Keayes
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After two years, the government led by New South Wales Premier Mike Baird, aka Australia’s most popular politician, is showing a few signs of wear and tear.

Actually, it’s probably fairer – and makes more sense – to refer to it as the five-year-old Coalition government that was given a Baird facelift midway through 2014 after Barry O’Farrell’s sudden resignation.

The O’Farrell government was criticised in some quarters for not going hard enough early on.

But, like them or not, the facts are that it used its first couple of years to push through some major and unpopular reforms.

Among them were deep expenditure cuts, such as slashing public servant numbers, restricting their wage rises and cutting education and health funding.

It all allowed the Coalition government to claim within a couple of years that it had balanced the state’s books and NSW was now “living within its means”, as the slogan went.

Getting the finances in order as promised laid the ground, in trust terms, for the Baird government’s most significant reform to date: part privatisation of the electricity poles and wires.

O’Farrell no doubt had this Liberal Party article of faith on his “to do” list before his premature departure from public life. Indeed, he had already gone part of the way by privatising the electricity generators.

In other words, what we are seeing with Baird is largely a case of same policies, different salesman. And this is where the danger signs are emerging for the government a year into its second term.

The switch to Baird from O’Farrell artificially extended the electorate’s goodwill towards the government. But this was mainly useful in allowing Baird to get his electricity plans through an election.

The questions that will no doubt now be occupying some senior government minds are these: where to now? And can Baird’s political skill set see them through to the next NSW election in March 2019?

The answer to the first question is largely about two issues: council amalgamations and changes to the planning system.

Each is a massive undertaking that has historically proved, like electricity, electorally unpopular and therefore extraordinarily difficult to achieve.

It’s where Baird’s political skills will be once again put to the test – which would be fine but for the fact that it is proving difficult for the government to get some “clean air” to communicate effectively at present.

The O’Farrell/Baird game plan was to first get the finances in order, then shower electors with infrastructure projects in an effort to distinguish itself from the former Labor government.

Yet – as widely predicted – the community is up in arms about significant aspects of two of the largest of these, WestConnex motorway and the Sydney light rail.

These political positives are fast turning into significant negatives for the government.

Just this week, the federal auditor-general agreed to report on the use of federal funds in the project following representations by the Greens and Labor.

Over in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Baird is being portrayed as an environmental vandal over the felling of ancient trees to make way for the light rail.

Alarmingly for the government, so far his responses have been largely ineffectual.

The tried and true communications strategy of “explain, explain, explain” to bring the electorate on side appears to have been abandoned in favour of a patrician “you might not realise it now but it’s for your own good” approach.

Another word for that is arrogance – a fatal flaw in politics and one that contributed to the demise of the former Labor government.

This makes it doubly difficult for Baird and his responsible ministers, Paul Toole and Rob Stokes, to gain the trust of the community in regards to the pitfall-laden issues of amalgamations and planning.

A big contributing factor in Baird getting his electricity reforms through was that he was seen as a cleanskin. That’s clearly no longer the case.

The problem for the government is that its future remains heavily dependent on Baird’s popularity. As such, government MPs will be hoping “Magic Mike” can once again pull a rabbit out of his hat.

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