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Thinking the once-unthinkable in New South Wales

Is a Labor victory possible? David Clune looks at what’s working in Mike Baird’s favour, and what isn’t

David Clune 4 March 2015 1388 words

Well-oiled machine: premier Mike Baird and transport minister Gladys Berejiklian at the opening of the Leppington-to-Glenfield South West Rail Link. Beau Giles/Flickr

Four years ago, Barry O’Farrell led the Coalition to office in New South Wales with a two-party-preferred vote of 64.2 per cent – and a remarkable swing of 16.9 per cent – giving his government sixty-nine out of ninety-three seats. For most of the time since then, the 2015 election has looked set to be an unexciting event, with the government likely to be easily returned. O’Farrell was a competent and popular premier, and opposition leader John Robertson was seen as unappealing and unelectable. Compared to a Labor Party besmirched by the scandals surrounding Eddie Obeid, the government appeared honest and untainted. With conservative politics seemingly in the ascendant across Australia, a swing of the size required to defeat the NSW government was all but inconceivable.

None of these propositions remains valid today. O’Farrell resigned as premier on 17 April 2014 after misleading an ICAC investigation about a $3000 bottle of wine. By the time ten more government MPs had fallen victim to ICAC, it was clear the Liberal Party had been running a large-scale, illegal fundraising operation. Labor’s stocks were lifted when Luke Foley replaced Robertson on 5 January. Elsewhere, conservative governments were self-destructing: Victoria and Queensland returned to Labor and the Abbott government found itself in deep trouble. This new volatility means that a government elected with a record majority can be swept from office by an even bigger shift in votes.

A restiveness and unpredictability runs through the electorate. Voters no longer seem willing to accept short-term pain for long-term gain. Social media allows aggrieved groups to mount noisy protest campaigns, which are then amplified by mainstream media. Politicians who over-promise and under-deliver are distrusted, and this disillusionment increases the volatility: if you have no attachment to them, you don’t hesitate to throw them out.

The small-government agenda is hurting a lot of people, and they are making their pain felt politically. Premier Mike Baird has thrown Labor a lifeline by making privatisation of electricity “poles and wires” his campaign centrepiece. Polling shows that voters identify Labor as more committed to health, welfare and education spending and this has residual appeal. When Labor governments are truly awful, the electorate shows its displeasure by banishing them, but it seems to believe that once they’ve been punished they can return to the room. All of this means that the re-election of the Baird government is by no means a foregone conclusion.

The NSW government does have a number of things in its favour, however. The transition from O’Farrell to Baird was accomplished seamlessly. Transport minister Gladys Berejiklian, one of the government’s best performers, became deputy leader on a ticket with Baird; the new team clicked into place; and the government moved on like a well-oiled machine.

Baird has proved to be a very popular premier. With his open face and boyish grin, he still has something about him of the kid coming up from the beach with his surfboard. He followed his predecessor’s example by not being obsessed with winning the day in the media using an endless stream of thought bubbles. There was no gush of “vision statements,” “ground-breaking programs,” “major initiatives” or “transforming strategies” from the government media machine. Baird says something when he has something relevant to say and comes across as concerned and genuine.

In essence, the government has stuck with the O’Farrell model: careful, capable administration; forward planning; avoidance of ill-considered decisions; an eye on the electorate; a preference for compromise rather than confrontation. One break with the past was Baird’s announcement that he would seek a mandate at the 2015 election to lease out 49 per cent of the state’s electricity transmission and distribution network for ninety-nine years – something O’Farrell refused to countenance. It was a brave initiative, particularly looked back on less than four weeks before polling day.

In spite of the problems with ICAC, the November–December 2014 Newspoll showed that Baird had established himself convincingly as preferred premier over Robertson by 56 per cent to 17 per cent. Foley has closed the gap, but not significantly, with a Newspoll in February reporting a split of 55–25.

As treasurer, Baird presided over painful cuts to the public sector. But this was as much motivated by financial rectitude as ideological zealotry. In fact, the government was heavily criticised by commentators on the right for “squandering” its massive majority by not making deeper cuts. After becoming premier, Baird stressed that he did not espouse “efficiency for efficiency’s sake.” Although his philosophy was “if government doesn’t have to do it, it shouldn’t,” he said that the state had a significant role to play in protecting the vulnerable. He would have “an open door to the community” and would be listening to “mums and dads from one end of New South Wales to the other.” The government’s financial policies have had demonstrable benefits for New South Wales. According to CommSec’s January 2015 State of the States report, New South Wales had consolidated its position at the top of the state economic performance rankings.

Treasurer Baird implemented a major privatisation program, chiefly of the ports at Botany, Newcastle and Wollongong, with the profits channelled back into infrastructure via the Restart NSW fund. The proceeds from the poles and wires will also fund a massive infrastructure program, including a second harbour crossing, new motorways, regional water and road improvements and upgrades to schools and hospitals. The government has stressed that its privatisation program is not ideological but a means of delivering practical benefits and much-needed improvements. If there is a strong anti-privatisation groundswell, though, this may not persuade a majority of voters.

An interesting aspect of the coming poll will be the fate of the swag of heartland Labor seats in the Hunter Valley and Sydney’s western suburbs won by O’Farrell in 2011. If it isn’t reversed, Labor’s loss of support within traditional constituencies, including among wage earners, tradespeople and ethnic groups, has the potential to alter NSW politics fundamentally. The general expectation is that, as the electoral contest tightens, these seats will return to Labor. But the Newcastle by-election on 25 October 2014 didn’t produce the expected major Labor victory. The poll came after the resignation of Liberal MP Tim Owen, who had been caught out by ICAC accepting illegal donations. As an act of atonement, the Liberal Party didn’t field a candidate, but the de facto Liberal who did run polled 26.1 per cent of the primary vote to Labor’s 36.9 per cent.

The transformation of Sydney’s western suburbs has eroded old electoral certainties. In Luke Foley’s policy launch on 1 March in Auburn, the western Sydney seat he is contesting, the opposition leader used a cricketing analogy concerning Balmain-born fast bowler Fred Spofforth. As Alex Mitchell commented in Crikey, “A total of 80.4 per cent of the Auburn electorate were born overseas and many have never played or heard of cricket, let alone the ‘demon’ Spofforth, who lived out his non-playing life in England as a wealthy tea trader.” Rapid immigration-fuelled demographic change and a changing workforce make outcomes in the western suburbs unpredictable.

Polling in February 2015 shows the government shedding support but still ahead. Newspoll has the Coalition leading Labor in the two-party-preferred vote by 54 per cent to 46 per cent, a substantial drop from 64 per cent in 2011. The Coalition’s primary vote has declined from 51 per cent in 2011 to 43 per cent, while Labor’s has increased by ten points to 36 per cent. Nonetheless, the result is far from certain. Much will depend on the campaign: if there is a subterranean swell of anti-privatisation sentiment Foley can tap into, a surprise result is possible. A well-funded and well-targeted union campaign against electricity privatisation will be the spearhead. The key question is this: are NSW voters persuaded that the government is so bad it needs to be dumped and that Labor has changed so much it can be trusted with government again? The answer will determine who governs after 28 March. •

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Time to let go: former PM John Howard speaking at Oxford University in 2009. Flickr

Time to let go: former PM John Howard speaking at Oxford University in 2009. Flickr