NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro has for a second straight day fanned speculation the government is open to dumping its controversial $2.5-billion stadium rebuilding policy by saying the government would have to respond if there was “red hot” community anger over the plan.
The comments are a distinct change in rhetoric from statements made last week by Premier Gladys Berejiklian who said the government intended to take its $2.5-billion plan to demolish and rebuild both ANZ Stadium at Olympic Park and Allianz Stadium at Moore Park to next year’s election.
“I've learnt in politics, never say never,” Mr Barilaro, the leader of the NSW parliamentary Nationals, said on ABC radio on Friday.
Since assuming the deputy premier's role in 2016, Mr Barilaro has been outspokenly critical of some major government reforms such as council amalgamations.
And he acknowledged the government had changed its policy on a number of controversial issues in response to community feedback, such as the wholesale cancellation of rural and some metropolitan council mergers.
"Sometimes as governments and politicians you've got to learn to listen, and if there is red hot anger out there, we've got to actually take that on board,” he said.
Friday's comments come a day after Mr Barilaro told NSW Parliament the policy was still not yet a “final decision” and would be reviewed by the government’s powerful expenditure review committee which analyses the costs and benefits of budget items.
“At this stage, if those business cases come in and they tick those boxes, the government will have to make an announcement on its next stage,” he said.
The state government has signed a memorandum of understanding with the NRL that the stadiums will be redeveloped and the league has warned reneging on the deal could lead to the relocation of the code's grand final to Queensland.
However senior sources in both parties say the stadium spend has created concerns the government may be perceived by some voters as preoccupied with metropolitan projects.
A majority of the government’s most marginal seats, including Mr Barilaro’s own seat of Monaro, are in regional NSW and held by the Nationals.
The Nationals are also hoping to win back the seat of Orange, lost in a landslide in 2016, in the government's bid for a third term in 2019.
Government sources have also questioned whether the projects will meet the government’s own test for building critical infrastructure: that it deliver at least one dollar in economic benefit for every dollar spent.
But the Premier has refused to rule out dumping the policy if it falls short, saying governments commit to projects for reasons other than financial benefits.
Before being promoted to cabinet Mr Barilaro was an outspoken critic of the government’s 2015 centrepiece election policy: the privatisation of the state’s electricity networks.
Some Liberal backbenchers have openly expressed doubts about the stadium plans including former fair trading minister Matthew Mason-Cox, who said it was difficult to justify spending so much on sporting institutions when the state’s child-protection system was under-resourced.