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Labor’s harbingers are already on run in NSW

26 February 2011 1,088 views No Comment

THERE’S a saying in politics that the best day in opposition is never better than even the worst day in government. If this is true then the state election to be held a month from today in NSW will usher in some very bleak times for Labor.

Premier Kristina Keneally and her state Labor Party have become poisonous to voters. NSW Labor’s only chance to recover anything from this election is to dampen down expectations.

Hence Labor “insiders” have been active in the media downplaying their prospects and talking of utter annihilation. The media and voting public can expect more talk of imminent disaster from NSW Labor during its final few weeks in office.

Some small comfort will be taken by Labor if it can save a few extra seats and the result ends up being not quite as bad as expected.

Labor goes into the election holding 50 of the 93 seats in the NSW Legislative Assembly. Recent polls have predicted a massive anti-Labor swing that, if repeated on polling day, could reduce it to less than 20 seats. This is unlikely, and should be seen as an absolute worst-case outcome for Labor.

Liberal strategists, wary of Labor’s media spin and campaign tricks, are privately much more realistic about the challenge they face. For Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell, anything less than 30 Labor MPs in the 93-seat parliament will be a very good result, and should give the conservative Coalition the opportunity of at least two terms in office.

Labor in NSW is so badly damaged by years of poor government delivery, political dishonesty, and a “whatever it takes” spin culture that local Labor MPs and candidates have been going to extreme lengths to hide their party links.

Roads Minister David Borger recently made front-page news for hiding his affiliation by covering the ALP logo on his campaign signs with Post-it notes. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Labor MPs have already sent out postal vote applications to hundreds of thousands of households across the state, and the material has not even the slightest reference to Keneally or the Labor Party.

While many will regard this as cynical politics, the trick may help some MPs limit the anti-Labor swing in their electorates.

By portraying themselves as “local advocates” and focusing their campaigns solely on local name recognition, high-profile government MPs might be able to limit the anti-Labor vote against them in their electorates.

Under this scenario, Labor might emerge from the electoral debris with a few more seats than expected and thus convert this into post-election “good news” amid the expected carnage.

Saving these MPs will not only help Labor’s position in the new parliament. Their survival is also critical to the party’s longer-term prospects.

The size of the expected general anti-Labor swing means that many heartland seats formerly regarded as “safe” are now at real risk of falling.

Over the years NSW Labor has installed most of its parliamentary talent and rising stars into these previously impregnable seats.

Lose too many of these MPs and it will be left with a very shallow talent pool from which to contest state elections in 2015 and beyond.

The NSW Labor brand has been poisonous for several years, but it wasn’t all that long ago that Keneally was seen as a positive for the party. Not any more.

Ongoing stumbles, including the grossly inept mishandling of the electricity sale process, mean that Keneally is perceived as a toxic link to a failed government.

The Premier has become the public face of a botched privatisation despised by the voting public. Citizens who once thought that Keneally offered something different to NSW Labor now regard her as just as bad as the rest of her party.

Primary responsibility for this failure must rest with the Premier herself.

Labor strategists also erred by allowing her to do so many media appearances and press conferences on the power sale issue. It would have been much smarter to hold her back and let the hapless NSW Treasurer, Eric Roozendaal, take the lead, and the heat.

Instead, the public was exposed to several months of intense and negative media coverage on the sale, usually featuring Keneally in a starring role.

As well as extinguishing any hope of a Labor miracle on March 26, Keneally’s political fall from grace will create additional leadership difficulties for the party after the election.

While she is widely tipped to resign from the leadership following the government’s defeat, a better-than-expected result might tempt her to stay.

Despite ongoing speculation, Keneally has publicly denied she will stand aside or seek a federal seat. Any attempt by Keneally to stay will run into trouble from the man most expect to take the reins, the ambitious and politically ruthless Robertson, who after March 26 is likely to be representing Bankstown in the lower house.

Member for Maroubra and Police Minister Michael Daley is also a potential leadership contender, but only if he holds a seat once regarded as safe on a 16 per cent margin but now considered vulnerable.

Whoever emerges as Labor leader after the election faces an uphill battle for survival.

History is littered with the political corpses of failed opposition leaders, especially those who took over the leadership of their party immediately following a change of government.

While a change of leader following electoral defeat may be desirable for Labor, any new leader will be its fifth in five years.

This is hardly an inspiring track record of stability. In the not so distant past, the NSW Liberals were plagued with instability, but Labor now faces its own ongoing, deeply-rooted, leadership tensions.

In contrast, O’Farrell has held a strong grip on the Liberal leadership, and this is only likely to get even stronger following a convincing election victory.

In a deliberately understated manner, O’Farrell is campaigning well. His speech at the Liberal campaign launch was a convincing pitch for a change of government, including key policy commitments involving new hospitals, relief on the cost of living, new express rail services, and more police stations.

By focusing on improvements in these basic yet critical areas, O’Farrell also reminded voters how NSW Labor has failed to deliver.

The expected loss of more than 20 seats will hurt Labor on the ground, but it is not just at the local level that it will feel the sting of defeat.

Political success brings the resources of government, and after years of the Liberal and Nationals state oppositions being starved of proper resources, it will soon be state Labor’s turn to face this reality and all it entails.

Commentators are often quick to highlight the apparent incompetence of state oppositions. A closer inspection of the resources allocated to oppositions reveals a dramatic imbalance compared with the vast resources that are available to governments.

Oppositions are given a limited operating budget and a handful of staff.

With these meagre resources they are then expected to compete with governments comprising dozens of ministers, each with their own office, personal staff, and government departments.

Under these circumstances it is not surprising that oppositions can struggle, particularly in the unpleasant period immediately after losing government.

It can take many years for a party comprehensively thrown from power to adjust to the grim reality of opposition.

After 16 years in office, those NSW Labor MPs who survive the March 26 election face a life of limited resources and the relative political irrelevancy of being in opposition.

Adding to the harsh reality for Labor is the likelihood that an untested and relatively unknown new opposition leader will face years of struggle and toil just to survive until the next election.

With Labor’s reputation destroyed in NSW, the party’s state and federal fortunes in the Premier State are more than likely to get a lot worse before they start to get any better.

The Weekend Australian, February 26-27, 2011