Whacking the Labor Party


As expected, the Labor Party did extremely badly in the NSW local Government elections on 13 September. They polled particularly poorly in the inner city of Sydney. This area, which comprises five state seats, is socially progressive, yuppy and increasingly prosperous. Solid base Labor voters, public housing tenants and ethnic communities are being squeezed out as gentrification takes over.

The Labor Party lost the majority of its votes to the Greens and left-leaning Independents. However, premature backslapping by the Greens in anticipation of the holy grail of lower house parliamentary seats is still premature.

It is very clear that the educated, informed and picky voters of the inner city make great distinctions when they cast their vote. The voters wanted to whack the Labor Party and they had their baseball bats ready. The council elections were quite clearly a referendum on the performance of the state Labor Government.

There could not have been a worse week for the election to have taken place. The state Government appeared to be in meltdown losing the Premier, Deputy Premier, Treasurer and several senior ministers in lightning succession in the week prior to the election. Then, two days before polling day, it was revealed that the new Police Minister had cavorted in green speedos on a couch in his Parliamentary office.

"Underpants guy", as he is now known, probably cost the Labor teams that extra percentage that would have got many of them over the line. For instance, in the City of Sydney, the Labor pre-poll vote in the two weeks before election day was 8 per cent higher than its vote on the day itself.

In the City of Sydney, which comprises 22 suburbs, another interesting statistic was that I as the Lord Mayoral candidate polled much stronger than the Labor team as a whole. I outpolled the Green candidate by 15 per cent whereas the Greens as a party outpolled us by a similar amount. Our voters were happy to vote for me as a long-time lefty and anti-developer activist but could not bring themselves to put pen to paper for a team simply shown as "Labor". This illustrates the electorate’s ability to make distinctions between individuals and the party and does not bode well for future forays by the Greens into Labor heartland.

Choosing good candidates is a problem for the Greens. Although Labor as a brand is on the nose, Labor individuals can still be widely popular and voted for in the inner city. It is an extremely informed electorate, the "chatterati" is in fact a good description.

The individual performance is important and therefore the two state seats most at threat from a Greens or left Independent challenge are unlikely to fall. The two sitting Labor members are widely respected and now very senior in the Labor leadership.

Carmel Tebbutt the Member for Marrickville is the Deputy Premier and Verity Firth the Member for Balmain is the Minister for Education. Both have strong left wing credentials and good local support. Two years is a long time in politics and those issues which were most raised by voters as we doorknocked the city area may well have faded into the background by the time the next state election in March 2011 comes around.

The latest shift against Labor in the inner city began when the Planning Minister Frank Sartor, pushed by Iemma, started to "reform" the planning laws. With no political skills of persuasion or negotiation, Sartor was simply perceived as corrupt by the public and quickly became a whipping boy for the media.

This underlying uneasiness about the ALP and developers was further nurtured in February when the Wollongong scandal hit the headlines. Wollongong Councillors, some of them Labor, were found to have corruptly supported developments which were quite clearly contrary to planning guidelines.

Thus the ever-present inner city fear that if you voted Labor you would get a ten storey block of flats next door now seemed even more real. Lord Mayor Clover Moore and the Greens were adept at pushing this perception helped by an increasingly anti-Labor media.

More subliminal but also important was the view that the blokey "tribal" culture of the Right faction of the Labor Party had got out of hand. The fact that Labor now has a Left wing leadership and many senior women in charge will help in the long run but in the short term it made no difference.

The Greens are beginning to experience the problems that come with a maturing party and an increased number of elected representatives. While they previously took upon themselves the easy role of oppositionists, they are now in the position of having to make decisions. Previously they have shown that they are not immune from making pragmatic deals, even with the Liberals, in order to gain office. The more they act like a political party the more they will be seen as similar to the despised Labor Party.

One of the problems the Greens have had is the inability to attract and preselect quality candidates. There are many occasions when the Labor Party has breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing which candidate has been chosen by the Greens. The Greens work on a strict numbers-based preselection process which as the Labor Party has discovered does not always turn up the best candidate. Those that are good at numbers games are rewarded.

It will be interesting to see if the new Left Rees/Tebbutt leadership can turn around the fortunes of the Labor party and hold the expected swing against a 16-year-old Government to a respectable 4 or 5 per cent. If that can be achieved and Firth and Tebbutt run strong personality-based campaigns, the ALP will keep their inner city seats.

For the Rees/Tebbutt leadership to get the breathing space to make the policy changes to which they are committed, important decisions need to be made by the Party. They must immediately move to ban developer donations to political parties and they must wipe out that blokey tribalistic culture typified by Joe Tripodi and Eddie Obeid.

If this does not happen our longsuffering loyal inner city voters will never return to us.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.