Voters in Australia’s largest state will today go to the polls in an election where the result, in theory, should be a foregone conclusion. But after recent events in Australian politics, nothing is certain – and a massive upset could be on the cards.
Four years ago, the people of New South Wales delivered arguably the most stunning, brutal verdict on a government in Australian political history, when they threw out the ruling Labor Party after 16 tumultuous and often controversial years in power. The result was scarcely believable; not only did Labor (ALP) suffer a swing against it of almost 13.5%, the conservative Liberal/National coalition (LIB/NAT) won more than 50% of the primary vote and gained a swing of more than 16.5% to break records for the greatest swing and greatest parliamentary majority ever seen in NSW politics.
In fact, the Liberal Party alone won enough seats to govern in its own right – an occurrence unheard of in modern Australia – and in coalition with the rural National Party claimed a total of 69 seats in the 93 member Legislative Assembly. Labor in 2011 lost more than half its seats, collapsing from 52 to just 20 – and lucky even to have the numbers to participate in the annual ‘Journalists vs MPs’ cricket match. It was an unfathomable collapse for the ALP in a place long regarded as a Labor-voting state, and which remains home to its former middle and lower-class heartland.
Led by the electorally popular Bob Carr for its first three-and-a-half terms, Labor prior to 2011 had been rewarded with generous voter support following their successful (if controversial) delivery of several major projects including the 2000 Olympics and several road tunnels. But after Carr’s departure in 2005, Labor descended into a cesspit of corruption, farce and policy negligence on a scale never before seen in Australian history.
Labor spent their final years devoid of ideas, focused on party politics, and clinging to power whilst the state’s economy stalled. Those internal machinations claimed the careers of three successive Premiers (Iemma, Rees, Keneally), and culminated in more than a dozen Labor MPs either being sacked, or being asked to face questions at the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). Indeed, such was the level of corruption and impropiety that the name ‘Eddie Obeid’ – a corrupt former minister – still resonates across the community as a byword for the broader failings of NSW Labor in its final six years in power.
Such was the anti-Labor sentiment in March 2011 that the party itself became toxic to voters.
Not surprising then that, given their political and policy failings, Labor registered their lowest-ever primary vote in 2011. Barely 25% – one in four voters – stuck with Labor four years ago; by comparison, the minimum primary vote needed for the ALP to claim victory is typically around 38%. On a two-party preferred (2PP) basis, it was even worse; Labor collapsed to just 35.8%, whilst the Coalition got almost two-thirds of the vote with 64.2%. All of Labor’s lost votes went straight to the Coalition – the very definition of a protest vote.
Put simply, NSW voters in 2011 went to polling booths with their cricket bats, and bludgeoned Labor into at least two terms of near-irrelevance.
Four years later, though, and it’s a slightly different story. The ruling Coalition has lost its election-winning leader, Barry O’Farrell, on accusations that he misled the ICAC over a donation from a prominent party fundraiser. The donation was a bottle of prestigious Penfolds Grange wine, and although there were no allegations of corruption, it was a swift and sudden fall from politics for O’Farrell, who announced his shock resignation from the Premiership in April 2014 just two days after his ICAC appearance.
More concerning is the fact that the Labor ‘disease’ has spread into the Coalition, with almost a dozen Coalition MPs from the Central Coast and Hunter regions either suspended or sacked for corrupt activities or otherwise unethical behaviour in breach of criminal law and/or parliamentary codes of conduct. It has harmed the Coalition immeasurably in more than a dozen seats between Newcastle, Maitland and Sydney’s northern outskirts, although voters remain wary of Labor given their own history of corruption.
In regional areas, the Coalition has also harmed its re-election chances with its changing positions on coal-seam gas (CSG) mining. CSG mining is a massive issue across the northern tablelands, and local residents are seething about mining proposals and the lack of any clear decision on CSG in what is some of the most pristine and productive agricultural land in the world. It’s an issue about which the National Party has utterly failed to listen to its core constituents, and it is no exaggeration to say that it could single-handedly jeopardise a swathe of seats in the Nationals’ heartland.
Premier Mike Baird is personally popular but championing contentious policies.
In the Sydney metropolitan area, the most contentious issues remain the privatisation/lease of the state’s electricity generators, and the questionable WestConnex motorway proposal – and it is here that we see the greatest difference in the policy platforms of the two major parties. Labor opposes the former and wants to build the latter without the middle part of its tunnel. The Coalition supports both policies in their entirety – and if anyone needed proof of how bizarre Australian politics has become, the two biggest supporters of the Coalition’s proposals are former state and federal Labor ministers Michael Costa and Martin Ferguson, who both advocate privatisation of electricity networks.
In fact, Michael Costa was part of Bob Carr’s team when Labor tried, unsuccessfully, to privatise the NSW electricity network in the 1990s. Former Labor Premier Morris Iemma also attempted the same thing, only to see his job disgracefully taken from him by the union movement. It’s an issue that has beaten one Labor Premier, killed the career of another, and which now stands to jeopardise the career of Liberal Premier Mike Baird. That being said, the soundbites from Costa and Ferguson have fed the Coalition’s attack ads, and it is telling that two former Labor stalwarts have criticised NSW Labor for the opposition to the plan.
Indeed, whilst Labor has gained some traction through the unions’ hysterical bleating on the issue, it is refusing to mount a truly vigorous opposition to the plan or provide any alternatives, no doubt in an effort to avoid accusations of sheer hypocrisy. It’s a particularly important issue because electricity privatisation is the keystone policy on which all other Coalition election promises have been predicated. Without the money provided by the sale/lease, the Coalition will be unable to fund its suite of transport, community, health and education projects. For its part, Labor has promised almost nothing of substance, knowing full well that, without privatisation, Treasury funds will be limited and thus policy spending will be curtailed.
Two popular and trusted leaders, but none of the Presidential-style politics – a unique occurrence in contemporary Australian politics
In an era of Presidential-style politics, it is refreshing to see an election actually fought on policy. That being said, neither of the major parties had any real choice, given Mike Baird’s rise to the leadership following Barry O’Farrell’s spectacular implosion, and Luke Foley’s rise to the Labor’s top job just four months ago following revelations that unpopular former leader John Robertson wrote in support of Sydney siege perpetrator Man Haron Monis whilst ignoring his criminal background. Also hanging over this election is the unparalleled unpopularity of Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
In hindsight, the resignations of Barry O’Farrell and John Robertson were a blessing in disguise for the Liberals and Labor respectively. For the Liberals, it meant O’Farrell was replaced by Mike Baird, whose immense personal popularity has single-handedly protected the Liberals’ brand in the face of corruption scandals and Tony Abbott’s incompetence. For Labor, it meant that Robertson – a union hack – was replaced by Luke Foley, who is not only more articulate and popular, but whose career has also been devoid of the scandal, political machinations and questions of judgment which so afflicted Robertson.
On the available evidence, the ruling Coalition should win, and win comfortably. Last week’s Fairfax/Ipsos polling data suggests that the Coalition leads Labor 54-46 on a 2PP basis, with the Coalition’s primary vote stable around 46-47% and Labor’s hovering around 32-33%. On those numbers, the Coalition would lose between 15 and 20 seats, whilst Labor would find themselves with 35-40 seats and in a more competitive position for the 2019 campaign. To lose government, there would need to be a statewide, uniform swing of almost 15% against the Coalition.
It would take a miracle for Luke Foley & Labor to wrest power from the Baird-led Coalition, but Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk has already proven it can be done.
But the recent result in Queensland has injected absolute uncertainty into what previously seemed a foregone conclusion. There are some parallels between the Queensland experience and New South Wales – not least the fact that just three years after Labor suffered an even greater humiliation in Queensland than they did in NSW, they surged back into office on a tide of anti-privatisation sentiment and the belief that the QLD Coalition government was ignoring the wishes of the electorate.
Queensland also has the same optional preferencing system as NSW, and the Queensland preference flows demonstrated the folly in relying upon polling data, as they failed to account for changes in how voters and parties directed their preferences compared with the previous election. The unpopularity of Tony Abbott was also a critical factor in Queensland, and the size of any swing against the NSW Coalition will depend greatly on whether voters are similarly aggrieved as their Queensland counterparts.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that they simply aren’t. In short, the NSW Coalition has done what its Queensland and federal colleagues couldn’t – rejuvenate the economy, explain and fight for its key policies, govern largely in the interests of the electorate, and avoid the general incompetence that dogged the Newman and Abbott governments. To that extent, a majority of voters seem to think that the Coalition deserves a second term.
It’s why this election is seen as a foregone conclusion rather than an upset waiting to happen. Whilst a natural correction is expected in the election immediately following a landslide result, logic and reason nevertheless dictate that Mike Baird’s Coalition will comfortably retain power, albeit with a significantly reduced majority. But as the last 18 months in Australian politics attest, stranger things have happened.