Where's The Silver Lining?


A very unpopular government has been replaced in NSW. For Labor, there can be no sugar-coating the scale of the disaster. Plenty has already been written about NSW Labor’s corrupt and chaotic final years in government, its electoral destruction on Saturday, and the profound sense of denial emanating from the party machine. 

All of this was to be expected. Indeed, so badly was Labor travelling that a likely haul of 20 seats is not that bad, all things considered. Some minor solace has been found in the electoral performance of the Greens who failed to win any lower house seats — or even much of a swing — from Labor.

Also utterly predictable has been the behaviour of the new government under Barry O’Farrell, which has suddenly "discovered" a budget shortfall and sacked a number of high-ranking public servants. There’ll be plenty more of this in the weeks to come. The new government will take some time to find its feet, O’Farrell would be wise to spend his political capital early. As Kevin Rudd found out, second term priorities can quickly turn into lost opportunities.

This election sets NSW up for a very different political environment for the next decade. Deregulatory, pro-development and laissez-faire policies will come to the fore. O’Farrell enters office with huge authority and a massive electoral mandate, even if his small target strategy meant his stated policies were relatively innocuous. This pretense will quickly change now the Coalition is in power. O’Farrell and his Treasurer Mike Baird will be itching to cut deeply into the NSW public services and to deregulate and privatise wherever possible. Hence, the policy changes will more brutal than many expect.

In fact, New South Wales is far from the basket case of tabloid myth.

Its hospitals and schools are still some of the best in Australia, even if Sydney’s unplanned sprawl makes transport in the city a constant headache. There is probably scope for O’Farrell to cut fat out of various departments while still keeping the public hospitals off the front pages. Transport is the real challenge. The test for O’Farrell’s government will be whether it can finally build some new rail lines into Sydney’s outer suburbs.

The political dynamic will also change nationally. We now have conservatives in power in Western Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. That’s Australia’s two biggest states, plus the fastest growing state. By mid-2012 Campbell Newman may well be premier of Queensland, giving the conservatives the four largest state governments in the Commonwealth. In other words, we may be moving to the reverse of the picture at the end of John Howard’s government, in which the Coalition reigned in Canberra while Labor controlled the state governments. This will be some comfort for a federal Labor government that needs all the help it can get.

As for the NSW branch of the ALP, the surface rot runs deep. Bob Hawke was quoted this week saying Labor needed to get back to core values, but this only highlights the scale of NSW Labor’s problems. For the NSW Right — but more generally across the party — factional in-fighting and vicious personal hatreds are core values. They might just be the only core values for a party that finds it increasingly hard to articulate its progressive political ideology in a meaningful manner. It may simply be impossible for NSW Labor to abandon factionalism, short-term fixes and its obsession with focus groups, as John Faulkner called for it do yesterday. It knows no other way. The likely ascension of John Robertson reveals a hollowed-out party.

And as the dust settles, attention is turning to the performance of the minor parties.

There can be no doubt that this was a disappointing election for the NSW Greens. If ever there was an election in which the party could make substantial ground on Labor, this was it. NSW Labor was on its way to a hiding to nothing, a mere shadow of its former power, desperately trying to hang on to formerly safe seats in what used to be ALP heartland. The only argument was about how many seats Barry O’Farrell and his Liberal-National Coalition would win (the ABC currently predicts the figure will be 69 compared to Labor’s 21).

Going into the election, the Greens had targeted two lower house seats in inner-city Sydney as possible wins: Balmain and Marrickville. Both seats are exactly the sort of seat the Greens poll best in: inner-urban and high-density, with large numbers of white collar workers, students, bicycles, and trendy cafes. It now appears the party has won neither.

There’s no disguising it: these are big disappointments for the Greens. While Balmain was always going to be a tough seat to pick up, Marrickville looked a lock as recently as a fortnight ago, when a Galaxy poll showed the Greens polling 44 per cent of the primary vote. In the end, Greens candidate, Marrickville mayor Fiona Byrne, polled only 35 per cent, not enough to get her over the line.

Why couldn’t the Greens win Marrickville?

Perhaps the most important factor was the unexpectedly high Liberal vote. Normally, you wouldn’t call a primary vote of 18 per cent "high", but in fact this represented a positive swing of nearly 6 per cent on 2007 figures. While many of these Liberal preferences exhausted, quite a few of them flowed over to Carmel Tebbutt. As a result, Tebbutt not only polled ahead of Byrne on primary votes, but picked up a handy flow of Liberal and other minor party preferences to keep her in parliament for another four years.

This underlines another issue for Greens candidates trying to winn lower house seats: polling enough primary votes. Even in a three-cornered contest, few candidates can win office in the Australian voting system without polling at least 40 per cent of the primary vote. The only Green to have done this so far was Adam Bandt in the federal seat of Melbourne.

Bandt was helped in 2010 by the decision of Labor’s incumbent, Lindsay Tanner, to step down just weeks before the federal election. By contrast, in Marrickville, Byrne faced a very tough local member in Deputy Premier Carmel Tebbutt. Tebbutt’s strong personal standing in the electorate was seized upon by the ALP in the last fortnight of the campaign, embarking on a massive local push to "Save Carmel" that appears to have swung many undecided voters in the week before the election.

The Greens also suffered from the usual dirty tricks campaign. Byrne’s record as Mayor of Marrickville Council came under scrutiny, including a number of high-profile media articles which suggested she organised a boycott of Israel over the issue of Palestine, and was attempting to institute a boycott of China over the issue of Tibet. Byrne did vote for the Israel boycott, but the bigger issue in terms of the campaign was the ability of her opponents to paint her as an extreme left-winger.

The Greens will always be vulnerable to such smears, if only because the party represents that tenth of the electorate furthest to the left of the political spectrum. After all, whether you agree with them or not, it is simply a fact that many of the Greens’ stated policy positions on things like gay marriage and carbon emissions reductions are unacceptable to centre and centre-right voters.

Electorally speaking, the Australian population remains a basically 50-50 proposition, once you combine the Green and Labor vote. This means that returning to government is never out of the question for either major party, no matter how dire a particular election result seems. 2007 marked the high-point of Australia’s progressive vote, with Labor governments in all states and in Canberra. Ever since, a conservative re-alignment has been flowing through the system. After Saturday, in NSW at least, parties representing the centre-right will be holding sway for some time to come.


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Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.