Minns’ first 100 days: keeping on the lights and cutting out the booze

The Australian, 3 July 2023

NSW Premier Chris Minns has marked his first 100 days in office with a commitment to ensuring the state’s energy supply – even if it means keeping the coal-fired ­Eraring plant open past its 2025 retirement date – and to holding the line on public sector pay rises, despite a continued threat by ­unions to take industrial action.

In an interview with The Australian, an optimistic Mr Minns reflected on the challenges facing his government, and revealed how he had adjusted to the demands of the new job, sticking to his pre-election decision to give up ­alcohol and quarantining time for his kids’ weekend sport.

He acknowledged that cost-of-living pressures continued to be the most pressing economic problem and said his government was ready to deal with a looming energy shortfall.

With electricity prices biting and energy security a top priority, Mr Minns said if necessary, his government would act to keep Origin Energy’s 2.8GW Eraring coal plant – Australia’s biggest – open beyond its scheduled August 2025 closure amid ongoing fears of blackouts.

“We haven’t made a decision in relation to that but if it’s required to keep the lights on, we’ll take action,” he said.

The shutdown of AGL Energy’s Liddell coal plant in April has increased pressure on both Origin and the state government to consider an extension.

During the election campaign, Mr Minns opened the door on buying Eraring, a proposition neither he nor Brookfield, the soon-to-be owner of Origin, has ruled out. However, Brookfield has said any deal would need to fit into its plan to reduce emissions by more than 70 per cent by 2030.

NSW Premier Chris Minns has now spent 100 days in office. Picture: Noah Yim/The Australian
NSW plans to legislate a 50 per cent reduction in carbon emissions on 2005 levels by 2030, and net zero emissions by 2050.

Mr Minns noted that as well as its power generation assets, ­Origin had more than four million retail customers “and a responsibility to provide energy to those customers at the same time”.

“So I don’t think the different parties are a million miles from one another but I’m not going to let the lights go off in NSW and if that means doing what Victoria, Germany, many other jurisdictions in countries around the world have had to do in a period of tight supply for energy markets, then I’ll do it,” he said.

Mr Minns declined to provide further details about talks with Brookfield. “The reason for that is if we were to act, it’s subject to a commercial negotiation between the government and the owners of Eraring and it wouldn’t suit the interests of NSW taxpayers to front-run those discussions,” he said.

Mr Minns said he was “hopeful” the $3.5bn Narrabri gas project – which aims to supply up to half of NSW’s gas needs by 2025 – would get necessary approvals to let energy giant Santos move ahead with an investment decision. The gas project has been supported by both the Coalition and Labor but the regulatory process has been plagued by delays, particularly for the vital Hunter Gas Pipeline that will connect the Narrabri project to the market.

However, Mr Minns said the previous government had already taken “the low-hanging fruit in terms of speeding up the planning process”.

“We’re not unwinding it or trying to put sand in the gears,” he said. “I’m hopeful it’s done soon so they can make an investment decision and we can get the energy.”

Mr Minns echoed the mantra of Treasurer Daniel Mookhey that all levels of government, including the states, had an obligation not to feed inflation and to contain spending and wages.

In his first three months in government, public sector wage rises have proved to be one of the thorniest issues for Mr Minns as he implements his campaign promise to dismantle the public sector wage cap.

In early June, the government offered NSW teachers, police, paramedics and other public sector workers a 4.5 per cent wage increase, inclusive of a 0.5 per cent lift in super, expected to cost $618m a year, but Health Services Union boss Gerard Hayes has been pushing for a 6.5 per cent rise, slamming an earlier offer by the new government as “inferior” to one made by former premier Dom­inic Perrottet in the 2022 June budget.

Mr Hayes has been highly critical of the pace of the government’s wage negotiations, saying after 12 interest rate hikes and inflation running at close to 7 per cent, the state’s lowest paid workers deserved significant pay rise.

Mr Minns said Mr Hayes “had a point” and he expected trade union leaders to fight hard on behalf of their members.

“This is about balancing our ability to pay, given the historical cap that’s been in place, with the natural desire for public sector workers, essential workers, to pay their bills. It’s not an easy circle to square.

“I think we’ve probably got the balance about right for the next 12 months.”

New state Labor leader Chris Minns at home just after being elected new state Labor leader in June 2021 with his wife Anna and kids Joseph (13), Nicholas (10) and George (4). Picture: Sam Ruttyn
Pushed on whether the government had room to move in its negotiations, Mr Minns said: “Well, that’s the offer that we’ve made to public sector workers and some of them have taken it back to their members already. And that’s the offer. I’m hopeful we can get an accommodation with everybody soon, but I guess we’re not ready to announce that yet.”

Mr Minns said he had spoken directly to Mr Hayes, who he described as “both a source of trusted advice over my political career and at the same time a very formidable trade union leader”.

“We’ve had very fruitful discussions with the vast majority of trade unions in the state already,:" he said. “And I think we’ve been able to manage our responsibility to the finances while at the same time doing what we can for pay, which is something that the previous government said wasn’t possible.”

The new government has delayed the rollout of its promised trial of cashless gaming on 500 poker machines in clubs and pubs because of dispute over the makeup of the panel that will oversee the trial.

However, Mr Minns said “the early signs are that there’s a willingness to really look at the new technology and how it will work”.

He said he was “probably more bullish about its outcomes than most people”.

Mr Minns said the government was “looking at a higher number of poker machines as part of the trial than originally thought” but wouldn’t specify a figure.

Reflecting on his first 100 days in office, Mr Minns said it had been “better than I could have ­imagined”.

Labor leader Chris Minns, with wife Anna, holds his election reception at the Novotel in Brighton Le Sands after polling booths close in the 2023 NSW state election. Picture: Sam Ruttyn
“It’s been exciting. And because I’m a natural pessimist, I didn’t let myself believe we could win, so it’s all been happy upside so far.

“It’s just good fun to get in your car in the morning and listen to the radio and realise that what they’re talking about is what you’re going to be doing that day.

“I can’t speak highly enough of it – it sure beats opposition.”

Mr Minns gave up alcohol a year before the election, as he sharpened his focus on becoming premier, and says he hasn’t looked back.

“One hundred per cent still off the booze, and I’m thinking about imposing it on my staff as well,” he says laughing, for the benefit of his staffers within earshot.

Not even not even a celebratory beer on election night?

“No, 100 per cent. In all seriousness, it has been amazing. I’d recommend it if anyone’s thinking about it, because it really does give you more energy and a new lease on life.”

Mr Minns said despite the increased demands on his time, he had so far managed to quarantine Saturday mornings for his kids’ sporting events.

“I’ve caught most of my six year old’s football games this season, so that’s been good.”