The Return of Ideology

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Morris Iemma has won a reprieve, not a victory. The outcome of last Saturday’s NSW State Election has all the hallmarks of Paul Keating and 1993.

The public is resentful, even surly feeling it had little choice but to re-elect an undeserving Government, because the alternative was not ready for the responsibility of office.

If the opinion polls were generally accurate in predicting the result a swing of around three per cent against the Government then we have to assume that other polls showing unremitting public anger at, and reluctant support for, NSW Labor are similarly accurate. This was the most grudging of election victories for a government in recent history.

In the next four years, it is likely that Iemma Labor will lose one or two seats — and safe ones at that — in by-elections, just as Barrie Unsworth’s Labor Government lost the seats of Northern Tablelands and Bass Hill after the 1984 election.

For Kevin Rudd, there are two ways to look at the result. One is that Iemma’s reprieve makes it harder for Labor to win where it really matters, which is in the Federal election later this year. Even with a thorough housecleaning of Iemma’s poorly performing Cabinet, problems will persist.

Public schools will remain in a state of disrepair, trains will still be late and achingly slow, and the much-feted big rail project a new line to Sydney’s northwest will not be ready until at least 2014. Iemma and ‘da boyz’ will continue to embarrass Rudd; and John Howard will be able to ask voters to hedge their bets by re-electing him to offset the ‘wall-to-wall State Labor Governments’.

But the other way of looking at the result might be that, even with such an incompetent Government in power, run by such arrogant Ministers as Michael Costa and Joe Tripodi, the people were unwilling to support the Liberals because of that most unfashionable of word ideology.

I believe the Iemma Government lied about its plans for the public service. Given Costa’s free-market fundamentalist predilections, and his never-denied comment that NSW had 20 per cent more public servants than it needed, this Government will almost certainly eliminate government jobs (although not at the top, where they place their cronies on fat six-figure salaries). But, if you took Iemma’s campaign at face value, he appeared to represent traditional Labor support for the public sector, as opposed to the Coalition’s textbook public service bashing.

Even starker was the difference between the Parties on employee rights. Again, Iemma was deceptive in claiming he could protect NSW workers generally (as opposed to those on the State payroll) from Howard’s punitive laws. But if you accepted his assertions, the Premier looked like the workers’ friend, even a comrade. By contrast, Liberal Leader Peter Debnam was a garden variety union-basher.

Howard is in deep denial, arguing that his industrial relations laws did not turn voters against the NSW Opposition. The one seat where there was a substantial swing to the Iemma Government — Penrith — was also the seat in which the anti-WorkChoices campaign was strongest. Two days before the election, Rudd addressed a rally in the heart of the electorate urging voters to make the election a referendum on workplace fairness. Star Liberal candidate Pru Goward who, in the interests of democracy requiring a strong Opposition, needs to win has admitted WorkChoices made her fight in Goulburn that much harder.

The Coalition also subscribed to the standard Right-wing line on privatisation, nominating the publicly owned waste removal company, WSN Environment Solutions, as a candidate for the auction block, and hinting that the Lotteries Office and parts of the water supply infrastructure could also go. The Iemma Government also flirted with privatisation, notably attempting to sell its share in the iconic Snowy Mountains Hydro-electricity Scheme. But faced with an unco-operative Federal Government and a public backlash, it capitulated and, for purely public relations reasons, re-fashioned itself as a defender of the peoples’ assets.

But in modern politics public relations is all that matters and one Party stood for privatisation, the other opposed it.

For the unsuspecting voter, the choice was between neo-liberalism and social democracy limp and warmed-over, admittedly, but a form of social democracy nonetheless.

Rudd will be hoping that it was not merely a belief that the NSW Coalition was ill-prepared and too divided that kept NSW Labor in office, but that it was public opposition to the Coalition’s ideological agenda that helped Iemma to victory on Saturday.

I suspect Labor, in line with historical trends, secured one more term than it deserved and that it is living on borrowed time. But for the Coalition to win in 2011 it will have to restyle itself as a Party of centrists. For inspiration, they might cast a glance to Britain where David Cameron’s ‘new’ Conservatives are scurrying as fast as they can from the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. The NSW election suggests that a Party that clings to a small-government, anti-union agenda, will not win office no matter how rancid the incumbents.

New Matilda

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