Long before Premier Kristina Keneally was tapped on the shoulder by NSW Labor powerbrokers in the political execution of Nathan Rees, the people of NSW had given up on the current state government. A common refrain that I have been hearing for months at public meetings and private briefings — even from left leaning people — is that Labor deserves to lose the next state election and they need a term out of office. Of course, a significant number of people also add "and in no way do the Coalition deserve to win".
After a year of scandals in both the Labor and Coalition camps, Premier Keneally and Opposition leader Barry O’Farrell must be looking forward to the holiday season. Time can heal many wounds but for Labor, who have experienced so many nights of the long knives, it is hard to see how the Christmas break will lessen voter anger.
Managing this anger will be the job of Labor strategists in the new year. Of the 93 seats in the NSW lower house, Labor holds 51 and the Coalition 36. The remaining six are held by independents. As the Coalition has to win 11 seats to form government, it is a fair bet that in the run up to the 2011 state election, Keneally and her ministers will be making regular visits to their marginal seats on the central coast and in south-west and western Sydney.
But Labor will also pay close attention to the electorates of the six independent lower house MPs — and any other electorate where an independent has a chance of winning a seat from the Coalition.
This strategy was honed by Labor under former premier Bob Carr, who saw the small cluster of diverse independents in the NSW parliament as Labor’s insurance policy — if Labor could not win the election then a hung parliament scenario such as that created by the 1991 election was the next best option. For more than a decade the Labor Government has provided a range of programs and service upgrades for these electorates. The independent MPs in these seats are seen as effective advocates and in many cases win comfortably.
And behind closed doors, Labor strategists may have determined that a hung parliament is in fact the best outcome they can possibly hope for in the next election. According to ABC psephologist Antony Green, a uniform swing of between 4.9 per cent and 7.6 per cent would produce a NSW lower house where no one party had the numbers to form government in their own right. That means Labor will be aiming to contain the overall swing to under 7.6 per cent and limit the Coalition’s gain in seats to 10 or less.
Of course, the Coalition’s game plan is certainly not for a hung parliament — taking government is their aim. While the Liberal and National parties are light on policy details, their MPs are already out and about attending public events and making promises that it is hard to believe they will keep.
On the central coast, federal and state Coalition MPs have backed a strong, well-resourced local campaign to stop a Korean coal company, Kores, from opening up a coal mine. And Liberal MPs have apparently taken a stand against over-development in a number of Sydney suburbs and have singled out the notorious Part 3A of the Environmental, Planning and Assessment Act for repeal.
But these positions are out of step with the Coalition parties’ usual policies, which are traditionally geared to the interests of the big end of town.
The last Liberal premier in NSW, Nick Greiner, provided an insight into his party’s MO when commenting on how he won office in 1988:
"We ruthlessly separated the issues of getting elected from the issues of governing. I literally had a drawer for elections and a drawer for government … We had directions rather than policies that avoided the pitfalls of detail. I remember the transport one which managed to convey in positive terms the directions [in which]we were going to go rather than we are going to shed 33 per cent of the workforce … In most cases we had a directions speech, which we published, and in most cases we had a policy behind it, which we didn’t publish."
This honest assessment of how the Liberal Party operates from one of their own strengthens the argument that, despite their pre-election promises, the Coalition do not deserve to win government.
The increased influence of the extreme right faction of the NSW Liberal party is also a concern. This group, dominated by the upper house member David Clarke, controls the numbers on the Liberal State Executive which gives it a much greater say on preselection outcomes in seats that could determine who forms the next government.
While O’Farrell has worked hard to create a veneer of unity, the tension between Liberal factions is considerable and at times breaks out publicly. Branch stacking, abusive YouTube postings and harassment at local party branch meetings have brought the tactics associated with the NSW Labor Right into the heart of the Liberal Party. The falling out between David Clarke and his former staffer Alex Hawke, now the member for the federal seat of Mitchell, has been particularly unpleasant.
The public are fed up with such antics on all sides of politics, and when it comes to the ballot box, the choice between a Coalition dominated by an extremist group and a dysfunctional right wing Labor government will look like no choice.
In the end, a hung parliament with more independents and minor party MPs holding the balance of power will be the best possible outcome for the people of NSW. (And this scenario could well include a first lower house seat for the Greens, who are well placed to take Balmain from Labor’s Verity Firth.) Imagine the NSW parliament engaging in common sense debates on policy platforms and serious negotiations on government proposals! Without absolute power, the party in government would be forced to engage in a more democratic and consultative process — and that would be a breakthrough for the state of New South Wales.
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