For a generation after the colony of Sydney was founded, British exploration parties would assemble near where Penrith is now and attempt to find a way up and over the Blue Mountains to Sydney’s west. On Saturday, the by-election in Penrith served a similar function for the major parties seeking the support of the west. The road ahead is difficult — but after the weekend’s results, it looks increasingly likely that it is the Liberals alone who will be able to go the distance.
The result of the Penrith by-election is significant because it shows that the way the Labor Party in NSW has been run since World War II no longer works. And just how the party will work into the future is not apparent now, at least to outsiders.
The Penrith result also makes it clear that the NSW Liberals can no longer be relied upon to collapse under pressure, as they have for two decades, and that the slow patient work of Barry O’Farrell to put his party into such a position is paying off. It’s a pity that NSW can only have one functioning party of government at any one time — and we can only hope that the shifts in political tectonics will shake out some long-neglected issues in Penrith like transport and health.
In 1941, Labor ousted a conservative government in NSW with an almost equally conservative government, one which built schools and hospitals and roads and with that, built a foundation for careful and stable government in the postwar era. Having been traumatised by police shooting striking coalminers at Rothbury in 1929, and a near-split led by former Premier Jack Lang, the NSW labour movement banded together against political adventurism, an approach that kept it in power for more than two decades, and established it as the state’s default government.
In the 69 years since 1941, the Liberals have governed NSW for only 18 years. NSW Labor must have been doing something right: the party did not split in the 1950s as it did elsewhere, and this has given it the whip hand over Labor nationally. NSW Labor’s Right faction dominated the Whitlam government because its MPs survived the long period of opposition that ground down better MPs from other states.
In the 1970s, NSW led Labor’s post-Whitlam revival with the Wran government, whose media-savvy model was replicated federally. Hawke, Keating and Beazley came to rely heavily on Sussex Street. Labor has only won federal government when it has also won a majority in NSW: the ALP in other states can only envy the party’s redoubts in western Sydney, the Illawarra and the Hunter Valley.
NSW Labor is no longer a redoubt against communism — or much else. It’s no longer an effective buffer against an economically illiterate and politically adventurous left. It no longer offers a context within which its policies can be executed: you can gloss over a few cheesed-off punters here or there if there’s a wider plan, a bigger picture. You can get away with daily shenanigans in the daily media cycle, but after a while you run out of things to say. This is what’s happened to NSW Labor: they’re out of context, they’ve run out of things to say and they have no idea what to do, so nobody — in Penrith or anywhere else — believes what they do say.
Kristina Keneally was appointed Premier in the hope that she might present their message in a way that would be heard, and taken seriously. This strategy depended on Keneally acting, and risking her popularity to make decisions that might earn her the respect she needs — and it hasn’t worked. When something goes wrong with a government service, an increasingly regular event, Keneally says she’s "very angry" — but then does nothing about it. Since the by-election, Keneally has blamed the swing against Labor on the former MP whose breaches of financial entitlements led to the by-election in the first place: a fatal error.
When somebody is as nice as Keneally has portrayed herself as being, the suspicion lingers that she might turn and disown those who make life difficult for her. Having blamed Karyn Palluzzano and other local factors for Labor’s poor showing, Keneally then said she "humbly accepted the verdict of the people of Penrith". Having just denied the verdict involved either her and her party, she can’t then claim to accept it — humbly, disingenuously, or otherwise. When Labor candidate for Penrith John Thain attempted to salvage some dignity from his defeat by talking about his local service, Keneally sneered at the locals who rained on her parade.
The Member-elect for Penrith, Stuart Ayres, is a local with dedication, accomplishments and brains — but the Liberal Party has elbowed aside such people in the past. This is particularly true in western Sydney, where large numbers of small Liberal Party branches enabled that party’s far right to gain influence far exceeding their numbers, and far exceeding their support levels in the community.
That someone like Ayres wasn’t beaten by some hack doggedly loyal to David Clarke and his "uglies" marks a break with Liberal history. It is almost inconceivable that someone so close to Liberal moderate artefact Marise Payne should have not only won Liberal preselection, but been so strongly supported by the whole party to actual victory. Senator Payne watched the cheering crowd of Liberals from the podium at Ayres’ victory party with what looked like bemused disbelief.
Ayres’ victory is a testament to the work of Barry O’Farrell, not the feeble moderates. O’Farrell’s success in bringing in accomplished people to the unpromising arena of state politics — their absence from Labor ranks was recently lamented by Andrew West — has been remarkable. It also provides further proof that he is setting up for a long term government. The far right are flat out just keeping Clarke in Parliament, let alone getting anyone else up — O’Farrell hasn’t played one hack against another, but rather, he has made each vacancy count.
O’Farrell now looks set to build a context within which policies on urban planning, transport, education and health make sense. Labor would have no credibility if it proffered such a context, which was once its reason for existence. It is hard to remember a campaign in which "Laura Norder" has played so little role: there is nowhere to go to the right of the NSW Labor Right, a lesson it has taken the Liberals a decade and a half to learn.
The danger for O’Farrell is that he will take on the responsibility for building and communicating a new policy context — which Labor is incapable of bearing — and that as a result, by March he will look like the shopworn incumbent and Labor the opposition. Penrith gave a pretty clear indication that the ALP’s days of deft tactics and fresh faces are behind them. Half the people of Penrith who voted Labor at the 2007 election did not do so on Saturday: those who did voted for sentimental reasons, not out of regard for the women in far Macquarie Street — either the beleaguered Premier or their former MP — who mocked and sneered at them.
Let’s hope that the Nepean Hospital and the M4 get the attention they deserve, now that the political model that kept those issues from being addressed is crumbling faster than even the facilities themselves. Amazing things happen in times of transition, and the next state government will have to relate to Penrith and the rest of the state in ways that cannot be imagined by the heirs of those who set themselves against political adventurism all those years ago.
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