‘No second prize’: Chris Minns and his pursuit of the NSW political throne
In the spring of 2018, Chris Minns looked out from his office in the New South Wales parliament and down into the sprawling greens of the Domain in Sydney.
Gathered under the tree of knowledge – a sprawling fig where state MPs often hold media conferences – was a larger press pack than he’d ever faced. They were there to see him.
Labor was engulfed in the fog of yet another scandal. The previous leader, Luke Foley, had just announced his resignation five months out from the 2019 election after an alleged incident at a parliamentary Christmas party the year before.
Related: Labor well ahead of Dominic Perrottet’s Coalition in latest NSW election poll
Michael Daley, the only MP from Labor’s frontbench with experience in government, was the consensus pick to replace him and become opposition leader unchallenged.
But Minns was preparing to spoil the coronation. Despite no union backing, a hostile Sussex Street, and support from caucus colleagues that could be “counted on one hand”, Minns was about to throw his hat in the ring.
“The party was desperate [and] there was so much pressure. I was getting calls from literally everyone in the party to not do it,” he told the Guardian this week.
As he waited to address the press, Minns said he was relieved to receive a call from a fellow MP he hoped would be a key ally in a challenge that already seemed doomed.
“I go ‘mate how’s it going?’. He goes ‘good mate, what are you doing?’. I say, ‘I’m actually about to get out there and announce’; and he goes, ‘what the hell are you doing that for? I’m not voting for you!’”
Minns eventually lost the ballot 33 votes to 12, not that he would become disheartened. If the public knew anything about him before he eventually became the state’s new opposition leader in June 2021, it was probably this image: the brash, self-confident upstart who wasn’t afraid to upset the party – and often his fellow MPs – in the pursuit of power.
I have shown a propensity to buck the system, upend the table, take chances
When he challenged for the leadership a second time after the 2019 election in a rank-and-file ballot against Jodi McKay, he once again did so without the support of Labor head office, pushing for drug law reform and promising to ban donations from fossil fuel companies. At the time he said of himself; “I have shown a propensity to buck the system, upend the table, take chances.”
He lost, again, establishing a bloc of “never Minns” agitators in Labor’s party room in the process who accuse him of putting his own career prospects ahead of the party’s. Of those doomed challenges, Minns says now simply that he believed he could “do the job”.
“I don’t always get it right. But I’ve thought about this stuff pretty deeply,” he says.
“If I think we’re on the wrong track, what’s the point in saluting and saying, ‘let’s all sign up for something that isn’t going to work or isn’t going to be a good foundation for government’.
“And there’s a funny thing about politics; it’s so finite. There’s no second prize, right? So what I’m trying to say is, yeah, my life would have been easier if I’d just gone along with all the decisions made, but we don’t win, we’re not winning elections.”
Common sense operation
The image of a brash, disruptive Minns stands in stark contrast to the man who has his party within reach – if current polling is to be believed – of forming a Labor government in NSW after 12 long years in opposition. If anything, the criticism from within his own ranks is that Minns has been too cautious, too unwilling to stand up for Labor’s progressive wing.
He vocally supported a Coalition bill that introduced severe new punishments for climate protesters, publicly urged the RTBU to end strikes that hampered Sydney’s rail network during 2022, and was slow in coming around to the need for gambling reform after the premier, Dominic Perrottet, made it a signature election issue.
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The party has stuck to a deliberately narrow platform focused on cost of living relief and services, in particular health and education. Message discipline is repeatedly drummed in at caucus meetings.
Related: NSW Labor eyes build-to-rent development on public land to tackle housing crisis
Gone is the red meat for the base touted in those earlier challenges. The fossil fuel donations ban has been dropped, while he has only committed to a drug summit if the party is elected in March – the same policy Daley took to the failed 2019 election.
Minns pushes back at the suggestion his has been an uninspiring opposition, though, saying his platform is “a genuine reflection of what I’m hearing”. He also points to ambitious policies including a ban on privatisation, and scrapping the controversial public sector wages bill.
The parallels to Anthony Albanese’s pitch of “safe change” are obvious, though. Here is the modern Labor Party – progressive, sure, but not at the cost of losing the centre.
“But, hey, who’s asking for that?” he says. “Who really wants that? The stakes are really big at the moment. This isn’t like the 90s, we’ve had major economic shocks to the economy, there’s been shock waves through large sections of people’s jobs and livelihoods … people want a serious show. They want people looking at big issues like energy, the environment, climate change.
“We’re going to run a commonsense operation, you know. It’s not a big experiment. We’re not trying to take over the government and then run it like a thinktank. It’s a huge responsibility, it’s an $80bn business.”
Who is Chris Minns?
So who is Chris Minns, then? The charming firebrand looking to upset the apple cart, or the pragmatic centrist?
The son of a school principal and a solicitor who grew up in the southern suburbs of Sydney, Minns joined Labor aged 17 under the influence of his father, a Paul Keating devotee. A right-faction member, he made his way through a familiar Labor path, serving as the president of Young Labor, a local councillor, an assistant secretary in Sussex Street, as well as stints as a staffer for former NSW Labor ministers Carl Scully and John Robertson.
The only detours were a stint as a retained firefighter, a master’s degree at Princeton University, and time spent as a stay-at-home father (he has three sons, aged six, 12 and 14) while his wife, Anna, pursued a successful career in law and business. They met at a Labor party function while volunteering during the 1999 state election campaign.
Minns is unusually relaxed for a politician, but often visibly uncomfortable when talking about himself (when asked what he’d learned about himself during his stint as a stay-at-home dad he asked to go off record, then revealed that it was “great”).
Interviews with friends, colleagues and enemies dating back to his time as president of Young Labor reveal a portrait of a highly ambitious, politically savvy operator who has never lacked self confidence. But, as Amanda Tattersall, the GetUp co-founder who has known Minns since Young Labor, says, “there always has been intention behind his involvement” in politics.
“Look, some people in politics are empty spaces, they’re voids. Chris has never been like that in terms of his politics,” she says.
A youthful Chris Minns was photographed in 2002, alongside Tattersal and the then future Australian Workers’ Union leader Paul Howes, celebrating a successful push for Labor to adopt a more progressive stance on refugee policy at the party’s annual conference.
“In politics and particularly youth politics some people want to suck up and climb a certain path and others have the intention of making change and are prepared to make choices and sacrifice things. He was on that side,” Tattersal says.
Others are less convinced. As one MP from Labor’s left told the Guardian, “Chris Minns’ greatest passion is Chris Minns”. Criticisms were particularly pronounced during his period as shadow transport minister when McKay was leader. The same MP said it was at the time Minns was “just waiting it out before challenging again”.
Another Labor MP said Minns’ recent caution was an example of him being “one of those people on a certain pathway”.
“You know, Young Labor. Party officer. Senior adviser to a minister. He’s done all the stops,” the MP said, speaking anonymously.
“I think he looks at the world from the perspective of the conservative wing of the party and has just made a strategic assessment that he needs to narrow the political battlefield and anything that doesn’t fit in that box is a distraction.
“The gambling issue is a perfect example. It’s not a philosophical issue for him, it’s a strategic question of how to define the terms of the debate.”
Making peace with the unions
Though he had been identified as a potential future leader before he even entered the parliament, Minns’s maiden speech in 2015 set off a firestorm internally when he called for union power in Labor to be curbed, saying its influence had “shackled” the party.
Bob Nanva, who was then head of the Rail Tram and Bus Union and who was this week selected to run for Labor in the upper house, declared at the time that “out of touch” MPs should do “a week of work experience in the real world”.
Minns has since distanced himself from the comments, but the pushback continued to cost him later. When he ran against McKay in 2019 the Newcastle branch of the meatworkers union, for example, released a statement saying it had “well-honed knife skills for dealing with rogues”. As one senior figure in NSW Labor said, Minns “quite probably would have” become leader before the 2019 poll if not for pushback inside the unions.
Related: NSW Labor promises to ban political donations from clubs amid fight over poker machines
Gerard Hayes, secretary of the Health Services Union and a member of the powerful NSW Labor Administrative Committee, tells the Guardian he didn’t know Minns “from a bar of soap” when he made the speech in 2015, but decided to meet him “to close the gap of our points of view”.
“I don’t know if outraged is the right word but it was pretty close,” he said.
The two met for coffee in Brighton-Le-Sands in Sydney’s south. Hayes came away thinking Minns was “a smart guy, a reasonable guy”, and would later become a key ally. While some unions ferociously opposed his bid for leader in 2019 the HSU became an early backer and was later involved in commissioning polling showing the party was headed for an historic defeat under McKay’s leadership.
“I think he was willing to listen, and that mattered, for one,” Hayes says now.
Almost two decades after they first met, Tattersall watched Minns’s first press conference as leader in 2021 in which he identified tolling relief as a priority. She thought “geez, that is just incredibly small politics”. But, she says, the political narrative since then has shown that his instincts were right.
“For heaps of people it’s huge, it’s sucking money out of their lives at a time they can least afford it. He’s shown a capacity to listen, I think. And the progressive inner city brigade like me might not think it’s a big issue, but it’s clever and it’s important to so many people,” she says.
It’s those well-honed political instincts that Labor now hopes will lead it out of its long, long march through the political wilderness in NSW.
To get there, he’s planning to continue focusing on voters’ hip pockets, and buttressing health and education systems that continue to creak in the wake of Covid-19,
“I don’t think I’m bullshitting when I say that the hospital system’s never been under more pressure. You know, the human capital of public services is gone. My sense is, this is what the public is saying,” Minns says.
“And we either say, no, you’re wrong and we’re going to try and jam you up with what we think the election should be about or … we address that.”