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NSW Labor woes make O’Farrell a shoo-in

18 December 2010 1,216 views No Comment

THE Keneally government’s March poll will most likely add to the ALP’s national troubles.

IN recent years Labor’s much-vaunted marginal seats campaigning skills have lost their lustre. The results speak for themselves.

Labor lost six seats to the Country Liberals in the August 2008 Northern Territory election; a net loss of 10 lower house seats to the Liberals in the August 2008 election in Western Australia; 11 seats to the Liberal National Party in the March 2009 Queensland election; and a net loss of 14 lower house seats to the Coalition in this year’s federal election.

Most recently Labor lost 13 lower house seats in the 2010 Victorian election. The loss of two seats to the Liberals in the last South Australian election and three seats to the Liberals in the last Tasmanian election are the only exceptions to losses on such a scale, but brings the national total to nearly 60.

This is a significant transfer of power at grass-roots level from one side of politics to the other. The outcome in NSW in March next year will almost certainly add to Labor’s woes.

Four-year fixed parliamentary terms can prove frustrating for voters itching to exact their electoral revenge on a bad government. For NSW Labor, sitting on the political equivalent of death row, the clock is ticking.

Those voters impatient to dish out their pain on Labor on Saturday, March 26 next year can take comfort from the opportunities for preparation the fixed term has provided to Liberal leader Barry O’Farrell and his Coalition team.

Having assumed the leadership days after the last NSW election, O’Farrell has had the benefit of an entire four-year term in opposition to get his political affairs in order.

Knowing the date of the next election so far in advance enables planning with certainty, with no risk of being caught off-guard by an early election. With an increasingly healthy lead in the opinion polls, it is apparent that O’Farrell has spent his time as Opposition Leader wisely.

First and foremost, in part due to close co-operation with the NSW Nationals, he has kept his Coalition team largely intact. This is in stark contrast to NSW Labor, whose escalating public woes and mass sackings and resignations have been aired for all to see.

While various NSW Labor premiers have lurched from crisis to crisis, the O’Farrell team has experienced no personal political scandals, with the only frontbench resignation in four years that of former leader Peter Debnam, ostensibly on a matter of policy difference.

O’Farrell’s political opponents and some media commentators have regularly underestimated him on policy. In fact, his policy rollout has been deliberate and calculating. Since March 2009, when O’Farrell launched a 65-page manifesto outlining key priorities, his policy commitments have regularly been updated and reinvigorated.

On tax, O’Farrell has committed to repeal the new homebuyers’ tax introduced by Labor in the state budget in May last year. The tax hit NSW homebuyers by applying a sliding-scale fee for land transfers and was expected to raise more than $400 million in revenue over the forward estimates. O’Farrell’s promise to remove it is a significant fiscal commitment.

On infrastructure, O’Farrell took a big political risk to oppose the CBD to Rozelle Metro train in Sydney, opting instead to commit to delivering the northwest and southwest rail links. At the time, the Sydney business community was critical of O’Farrell, but Labor’s dumping of the project vindicated his position.

The southwest rail link, which has been announced and dumped twice by Labor, is now proceeding, largely thanks to pressure from O’Farrell.

Similarly, the $5 billion northwest link has been a litany of on-again, off-again announcements, intermingled with another dumped commitment by Labor to build a single-decker metro line instead of the heavy rail link clearly needed to take pressure off the existing Sydney rail network.

O’Farrell is committed to completing the southwest link and commencing the northwest link in his first term of office.

While NSW Labor has been to war with itself over in its attempt to pursue electricity privatisation, O’Farrell has committed to his own version of privatisation, albeit on a smaller scale, with little fuss. His commitment to the long-term lease of the Sydney Desalination Plant is expected to provide significant revenue, with the proceeds to be placed in a capital fund called “Restart NSW” to build essential infrastructure.

O’Farrell has committed to top up this capital fund through the issuing of “Waratah Bonds”, and one-third of the funding is to be quarantined for key projects outside of Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong.

O’Farrell has also begun the rollout of the NSW Coalition’s social policy agenda.

This has included a commitment to establish a dedicated drug rehabilitation facility within the NSW prisons system, as well as providing an additional $2m a year for Lifeline.

One key indicator of the readiness of an opposition to make the transition to government is the operation of the shadow cabinet. Senior Liberals confirm that, unlike previous leaders, O’Farrell runs a tight ship, no doubt made easier given that he is comfortably ahead in the polls.

Discussions are reportedly robust, but there have been no big public breakouts or displays of acrimony from those on the wrong side of a decision.

Long periods in opposition can make it difficult to attract new talent into shadow cabinet, but O’Farrell’s team looks stellar compared with NSW Labor’s line-up, massively depleted by the exodus of 22 sitting MPs who will not face the voters in March.

Two Labor MPs have also been found guilty of corruption by ICAC, including the former member for Penrith Karen Paluzzano, who subsequently resigned from parliament last year (the Liberals won her seat in the by-election with a 25 per cent swing). The other MP named by ICAC, Angela D’Amore, although protesting her innocence has been suspended from the Labor Party and will not contest her seat of Drummoyne at the March general election.

In contrast, new Liberal talent brought into the parliament at the last election includes Treasury spokesman Mike Baird and community services spokeswoman Pru Goward. Both will add depth to an O’Farrell ministry.

Goward joins an impressive list of Liberal women set to make an impact in the new government, including Liberal deputy leader Jillian Skinner and Gladys Berejiklian, the transport spokeswoman.

Berejiklian has held the shadow transport portfolio since November 2006 and is clearly across her brief. Skinner has been health spokeswoman for even longer, and has earned a strong reputation for knowing more about the NSW health system than most of the Labor health ministers she has shadowed in the two-house parliament.

O’Farrell has also taken heed from the lessons of the 2010 federal election.

The NSW division of the Liberal Party has been rightly criticised for its failure to deliver more seats for Tony Abbott this year. Federal candidates in several key seats were not preselected until the eve of the federal poll. This has been avoided for the state poll.

In most cases, the candidates for state key seats have been in the field for months.

The failure of the Liberals to break through on the Central Coast and in the Hunter at the federal election was a stark reminder of the need to focus more campaigning resources into that region. Again, this has been rectified for the state poll.

Although Labor in NSW looks set for defeat, it is important to realise that the opposition needs to win at least 10 seats in the 93-seat Legislative Assembly to form government in its own right.

This does not allow much margin for error, but all indicators suggest O’Farrell is in the box seat to deliver an electoral thumping to Kristina Keneally’s decimated and deeply dysfunctional government.

The Weekend Australian

December 18, 2010