NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet faced down a crowd of voters, along with his potential replacement, in a tense debate ahead of the looming state election on Wednesday night.
There were a couple of worrying moments for Mr Perrottet as the group of voters at his final debate against Labor leader Chris Minns applauded criticism of his record.
The People’s Forum was hosted by Sky News and The Daily Telegraph. NSW goes to the polls on Saturday.
Mr Minns received a loud round of applause when he accused Mr Perrottet of making the “wrong call” when he was treasurer, stopping essential workers from receiving a pay rise.
In mid-2020, at the height of the Covid pandemic, essential workers like nurses and paramedics “were going to get a 2.5 per cent (pay) increase and you reduced it down to zero. Do you regret that?” Mr Minns asked the Liberal leader.
“It was a tough decision. We lost 300,000 jobs across the state,” Mr Perrottet shot back, before defending the decision, saying it was his job to make sure as many people remained employed as possible by choosing where to splash the state’s cash.
He said that all those jobs had since come back, plus another 200,000.
Mr Minns continued to press, arguing that, at the time, NSW was the only state not to back the pay rise.
“It was a wrong call,” he said. “The Premier could say he’d made the wrong call, we understand it was a tough time. To double down on it means you can do it again.”
The audience applauded.
The two leaders at the debate. Picture: Justin Lloyd
There was a similar moment earlier in the debate, when Mr Minns said that Western Sydney was set to bear the brunt of the city’s population growth, with some suburbs slated for 100,000 more residents in coming years.
Meanwhile, more affluent areas like Mosman in the north shore are expected to increase by fewer than 500 people in the same period.
“We’ve made a decision that population needs to be balanced along public transport corridors,” Mr Minns said.
“We don’t think it’s fair when Western Sydney has to take more than its share of population growth.”
This also drew applause.
Overall, Mr Minns came out on top, winning the majority of the votes among the 100 undecided audience members.
The Opposition Leader scored 48 of the votes while Perrottet got 32. The remaining 20 revealed they were still unconvinced either way.
NSW Labor Leader Chris Minns came out on top during the debate. Picture: Newscorp Daily Telegraph / Gaye Gerard
In conversation with news.com.au after the debate, attendee Janine Byrnes, 73, said she was still undecided.
The Western Sydney voter was the one who asked the question about population growth and also expressed her annoyance at the Liberals’ plan to raise Warragamba Dam’s walls.
Were Mr Perrottet to win the election, his government plans to spend $3 billion raising the dam wall to reduce flooding in the Penrith area — a policy Labor opposes.
“We don’t support raising the dam wall. It’s going to cost over $3 billion,” Mr Minns said. “Even in the worst flood, the real problem here is the government has plans to double the population.”
Although Ms Byrnes didn’t like Mr Perrottet’s aforementioned policies, she did have more confidence in him, given his background running the state’s finances.
“He does have a lot of good thoughts on the budgets,” Ms Byrnes told news.com.au.
She works for a business, in its payroll department, and says staff are “desperate” as the cost of living crisis bites.
“The average people are living week to week, they’re desperate.”
She said she “doesn’t look at what benefits me”. With grandkids, she is looking to the future.
She has been a swing voter all her life.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has been in office since 2021. Picture: NCA Newswire / Gaye Gerard
Key issues at the debate centred around cost of living, privatisation of government assets, infrastructure projects to prepare for the future, and also essential workers.
The attendees, mostly from Western Sydney, were angry at the government for privatising roads, which had led to them racking up massive costs in tolls on their way to work.
“The M5 east would have been paid off eight times over (if it had been kept as government-owned,” Mr Minns said.
“The M4 gets paid off six times over as a result of those contracts being replaced.
“That’s why we’ve introduced a $60 tolls cap. You shouldn’t be penalised because you live in a suburb not close to public transport.”
Meanwhile, one woman in the crowd who revealed she was a teacher said the profession was exhausting and under-appreciated, with staff shortages and low wages.
“I’ve had a migraine for the past two days but I’m going to work because my kids need a teacher in front of them,” the debate attendee told those gathered.
Mr Perrottet and Mr Minns both thanked her for her crucial work.
Mr Minns has proposed removing the wage cap put in place for NSW public servants, but he will not commit to whether the amount he pays will be the same as or more than other states.
NSW Labor leader, Chris Minns, and NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, meet at the start of The NSW People’s Forum. Picture: Justin Lloyd.
Mr Perrottet’s 17-month reign as premier has been marred by controversy.
Not only did he take over from former premier Gladys Berejiklian, who stepped down due to an ICAC investigation, but the appointment of the John Barilaro to a New York-based trade role led to an Upper House inquiry.
His time in office has also been marked by train strikes amid demands for greater pay, as well as other public service roles like teachers, nurses and paramedics, who are calling for the wage cap that was introduced in 2011 to be abolished.
Since he came into power, it was also revealed the Premier dressed as a Nazi during his 21st birthday party. He apologised for that.
There was also the Hills Shire Inquiry, which saw two of his brothers called to the witness stand. Their failure to attend sparked a search for their whereabouts.
Finance minister Damien Tudehope resigned after the public learned he held shares in major toll road owner Transurban.
On Tuesday night, it was revealed that Mr Perrottet had called the state’s health minister to help secure an ambulance for his wife.
Mr Perrottet denied that his family received special treatment.
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The NSW Paramedics Association have been calling for increased pay and has warned about strikes in the future as ambulance wait times blow out amid the tough working conditions.
NSW residents are heading to the polls on Saturday. Prepolling has been available since Saturday last week. So far polling is pointing towards a Labor win.