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State discontent the weapon to attack federal Labor

27 February 2010 1,373 views No Comment

DESPITE ructions within the NSW Liberal Party and the utter blandness of opposition leader Barry O’Farrell, state Labor, led by the inexperienced and easily influenced Kristina Keneally, is on the nose with most voters.

It beggars belief that in the coming national election the chronic state of Labor in NSW will not translate into a gain for the Coalition of some federal seats, possibly Robertson, Eden-Monaro, Dobell and Bennelong.

Given the federal election will be held well before the NSW election, there is every possibility that voters will punish federal Labor for the sins of state Labor.

Kevin Rudd was supported in his bid to win the 2007 election by the powerful NSW Labor Right but this year, with the web of links between Labor ministers, staff and advisers at both levels of government, there is a risk of electoral contamination for federal Labor.

Unlike NSW Labor, whose electoral situation seems terminal and whose defeat will most likely lead to Keneally being replaced as state Labor leader (probably by Frank Sartor, the former lord mayor of Sydney), Queensland Labor may still have a chance of turning things around in that state, where the government of Anna Bligh is very unpopular.

While there will be state elections this year in South Australia and Tasmania (on March 20), as well as in Victoria, the two least popular state governments in Australia will not face the people until next year in the case of NSW and 2012 in Queensland.

Nevertheless, the poor electoral standing of both governments will have an important effect on this year’s federal election. These NSW and Queensland Labor governments are far too big a target for the Liberals and Nationals to ignore. At the same time, it will be fascinating to see whether, and how, the Prime Minister attempts to distance himself from his state Labor colleagues in NSW and Queensland.

As well as highlighting the hopeless state of Labor in NSW, the feisty, straight-talking Tony Abbott will zero in on state Labor in key federal regional Queensland seats. These include Dawson, Herbert and Leichhardt, where state Labor’s plan to sell Queensland Rail is most unpopular. This is because if Abbott is to defeat federal Labor, it is in Rudd’s home state of Queensland that the Coalition will need to pick up seats.

In Queensland, in particular, the merged Liberal National Party is polling strongly but largely on the back of an unpopular government. The opposition has yet to show to Queenslanders it is ready to govern and this year the LNP will come under increasing pressure to demonstrate it can be a strong alternative government.

There is already some internal criticism emerging from within the LNP parliamentary wing — from two or three maverick backbenchers — about the lack of policy and preparation for government. This will gather momentum if state Opposition Leader and member for Surfers Paradise John-Paul Langbroek and his experienced, country-based deputy Lawrence Springborg don’t lift their game substantially.

The Queensland government has slightly more than two years to run before the next state election. Bligh has decided to tough out her decision to privatise Queensland Rail and port assets against the opposition of a significant bloc of unions, mainly from Bligh’s left faction, and from a vast majority of Queenslanders.

This year will determine whether this move is politically smart and electorally astute.

The other challenge facing Bligh is whether she is able to do what her mentor and predecessor Peter Beattie did in late 2000 and early 2001 when he confronted a large electoral rort scandal in his party. Beattie not only reshaped the state ALP but also the political landscape to win the largest number of seats in the ALP’s history in Queensland at the 2001 election.

To save her government in early 2012, Bligh needs a significant political shift in her fortunes this year and next. Indeed, how she manages the sale of the assets will help determine whether she is still Premier at the end of this year.

Bligh has been saved in the short term by the reluctance of possible alternative leaders, such as Speaker John Mickel, to challenge her. In the long term, trade union opposition to the assets sale will determine whether that reluctance continues.

On the other hand, Langbroek has to prove to Queenslanders he has the policies and character to be premier. To do so, he has a lot of work ahead.

But rest assured, the federal election campaign will have a big influence on the futures of Langbroek and Bligh. If both perform poorly this year there may be a totally different leadership team in Queensland by year’s end.

The situation in Western Australia is more complex as the Liberal Party won 11 of the 15 federal seats in the 2007 election.

There are five marginal federal seats, four of them held by Liberal members who have strong local links. Don Randall, a seasoned campaigner in Canning, has a 4.3 per cent margin but is up against a former state Labor minister, Alannah MacTiernan. However, there is talk that the Liberal Party has attracted an outstanding candidate for the Labor-held seat of Hasluck, which is one of the most marginal seats in the country.

Labor’s new industrial relations laws are playing out very badly in the west, where Abbott’s deputy Julie Bishop is performing well. The return of union militancy in the mining and resources sector and on construction sites near Perth, and large wage claims with no productivity gains, are early signs of the return to the bad old days of union strikes and industrial anarchy that damaged WA’s reputation as a reliable exporter of commodities in the 1980s.

Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard, with her refusal to acknowledge the risks to the local state economy caused by her new workplace laws, will be one of Labor’s biggest liabilities in WA.

More generally, it also remains to be seen whether this year Rudd’s political focus and electoral popularity holds up under the blowtorch of a rejuvenated, Abbott-led opposition.

The Weekend Australian, February 27, 2010