When the November-December Newspoll was published on Tuesday 16 December, showing that NSW Liberal leader Barry O’Farrell had overtaken Premier Nathan Rees as preferred premier, I sent an sms to O’Farrell asking how him many days there were before the next election in March 2011.
A few minutes later he replied: "831".
Clearly he’s a politician who is focused on the job. He is living the countdown to the election on a day-to-day basis.
The Newspoll coincided almost to the day with the first 100 days of Rees’s dramatic election to the premiership and it made unpleasant reading for Labor. It showed that the ALP’s primary vote had dropped from a disastrous 29 per cent in September-October to a catastrophic 26 per cent.
On the two-party preferred vote, the Coalition led by 59 per cent to Labor’s 41 per cent, which was up from 56 to Labor’s 44 in the previous survey.
An election would see O’Farrell in power with a storming majority and Labor reduced to less than a third of the 93 seats in the Legislative Assembly and probably out of office for two consecutive terms.
In the preferred-premier stakes, Rees has lost the 35-28 lead over O’Farrell he held three months ago. Now O’Farrell is on 33 per cent and Rees has slipped to 30 per cent, with 37 per cent of voters uncommitted.
For the first time in decades, the Coalition is favored to win a state election while its leader is more popular than the premier.
Still the rumors persist that O’Farrell isn’t safe in the leadership and there are almost constant reports in the media that he will be challenged by federal frontbencher Joe Hockey or Manly MP Michael Baird, son of former federal and state MP Bruce Baird.
But Hockey’s going nowhere. He’s staying in Canberra as the leader of the "wet" faction known as "The Group" and fulfilling his role as one of Malcolm Turnbull’s key lieutenants.
He is addicted to federal politics and wants to stay as far away as possible from the political and economic disaster zone known as NSW. Who can blame him?
You don’t have to be Inspector Clouseau to trace the Hockey rumour to operatives from the NSW Labor Party who are desperately attempting to whip up "internal divisions" in the Liberal Party. Aimed at diverting attention from the ALP’s meltdown, this shameless tactic has a history as long as Henry Parkes’s beard.
The other source of anti-O’Farrell rumors is the mass media and its right-wing commentators. They haven’t recovered from O’Farrell’s decision to oppose the Iemma Government’s failed legislative program to privatise the state’s power industry and they have been sniping at him ever since.
O’Farrell’s decision was vindicated when the Iemma Government collapsed within days of the parliamentary showdown. Iemma, Treasurer Michael Costa, Transport Minister John Watkins and Health Minister Reba Meagher all resigned in a fury of back-stabbing and factional treachery.
This week’s Newspoll also indicates that the voters don’t seem to bear any grudge against O’Farrell for his stand against Iemma’s misguided power sell-off. Indeed, they have rewarded him with an almost unassailable lead.
O’Farrell arrived in the leadership 18 months ago after Peter Debnam’s failed tilt at the premiership in March 2007. He brought a reputation for being duplicitous (his enemies stretched from across the party’s left and right) and lazy.
His approach to the job has been methodical rather than theatrical. He has introduced a work ethic to his leadership and to his recurring weight problem, shedding a lot of kilos through gym workouts and dieting.
Attempts by Iemma, Costa and Rees to bully him haven’t worked: he hasn’t risen to their baiting and he hasn’t reacted or over-reacted to their niggling.
It’s part of a strategy which he has developed around the proposition that he is in a marathon and not a sprint. As the alternative premier he is keen to project steadiness, a safe pair of hands and reliability.
He may irritate journalists by being measured and often predictable, but he is the one standing for the premiership and not them. Again, the latest polls seem to indicate that his approach is working: his popularity is rising and the electorate is starting to see him as "a good bloke". At least he isn’t on the receiving end of the hostility that Peter Debnam generated during his 20 months as Opposition leader.
O’Farrell has also continued the crusade against party factionalism which was begun by Debnam. The hardline Christian fundamentalists and the blinkered John Howard cultural warriors have been bundled into a corner and gagged.
They are still in the NSW Liberal Party but they are licking their wounds after Howard’s humiliating defeat. For the sake of his premiership bid, O’Farrell is hoping they will remain padlocked.
O’Farrell is frequently criticised for not rolling out policy and simply being a negative commentator on Labor’s mistakes and scandals. But he takes the view that Labor strategists will simply grab his good policy initiatives and shamelessly claim them as their own. This makes him over-cautious about laying his policy cards on the table.
Because a federal election will be held before the next state election, O’Farrell has another reason to keep his powder dry. Many Coalition insiders believe that the return of the Rudd Government is not a certainty; indeed, they reckon that federal Labor has all the hallmarks of a one-term show despite its current commanding lead in the polls.
Perhaps he is being over-optimistic but O’Farrell sees little point in wasting his political credibility by making policy announcements which may be out-of-date or marginalised by the defeat of the Rudd Government at the hands of a resurgent Malcolm Turnbull or a born-again Peter Costello. He is much more inclined to wait for the federal election to be out of the way before unveiling his manifesto. Until then, NSW electors (and the media) are unwilling to engage in serious consideration of the Coalition’s platform, he argues.
This means that the electorate is still left wondering: what does O’Farrell stand for? What would an O’Farrell government be like?
He’s not rushing to answer these questions, preferring to build his image incrementally in what he recognises as deeply volatile times.
An avuncular Catholic with an engaging Irish blarney, charm and humour, O’Farrell is a keen book reader with a profound knowledge of Australian history and a regular visitor to the theatre and the Art Gallery of NSW.
Anecdotally, the public seems to be tuning into O’Farrell to hear what he has to say. If anything, they want him to do better than he is. On the other hand, he does seem to have the idea that the premiership is there for the taking.
It isn’t — he’ll have to work for it.
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