Sunday, March 25

If Labor was so much on the nose, why couldn't the Libs win seats off them?

What an extraordinary election! Opinion polls clearly showed New South Wales voters detested both the Labor Government and the Liberal challengers. Essentially they had to decide whom they distrusted least.

So why did electors decide to stick with the side perceived to have stuffed up so comprehensively? Why were they unconvinced by the Libs' promise to fix things up?

Perhaps it's more accurate to say they had to select the side which would prove least inept in running a State with deep-seated problems, particularly with the growth of Australia's biggest city – public transport, traffic congestion, high tolls for car commuters, health services, public education, unaffordable housing . . . all the problems which beset Sydney.

And soon, perhaps, afflicting a greater metropolis running from south of Wollongong all the way to the Hunter, and well up into the Blue Mountains.

And that's before you address the special worries of regional and rural areas.

It's still hard to fully explain why the Libs across the State could improve their standing by only 2.1 percentage points to 26.8 per cent of the vote (while the Libs' coalition partner, the Nationals, added 0.2 per cent to 9.8 per cent).

The Libs could win only two extra seats – Manly and Pittwater, in each case doing no more than regaining a traditional Lib seat from an independent.

Labor may have lost just two seats, Tweed to the Nationals and possibly Lake Macquarie to an independent . It also lost Murray-Darling, ending the parliamentary life of the colourful Labor MP Peter Black from Broken Hill (however, the new boundaries had brought in so much of the old Murrumbidgee seat, the ABC's analysis made it notionally a Nationals-held seat, and thus one retained by the Nats).

NSW Labor got away with a brilliant move when the austere Bob Carr stood down as Premier, to be replaced by Morris Iemma. On television, Iemma is a natural – coming across as affable, unflappable, likable, genial, sincere and capable.

And the Libs let him get away with the fiction that he was a new man, disconnected from the old guard which had earned so much animosity from the people of NSW.

They failed to drive home the message that Iemma was a senior member of Carr's ministerial team, and that as Health Minister he had been the man in charge of hospitals (although, Carr was to insist, Labor had done well on hospitals, rebuilding them all in the past 12 years).

If anyone could promise a new broom – and be believed by voters – it should have been Opposition Leader Peter Debnam, but instead the Libs ineffectual campaigning let Iemma get away with a message which was, essentially: “Yeah, we haven't done too well, have we? But we promise to try harder.”

Debnam himself came across as sincere and likable, but too rigid in his conservatism. As the campaign went on and the pressure increased, he started to look like a 'roo transfixed in the headlights, but I respected his guts as he fought to the end.

Inexplicably, he failed to stay focused on key messages. He gave up on public transport, just before a train failure on the Sydney Harbour Bridge handed him a great opportunity to highlight Cityrail's shortcomings.

His water reclamation policy was bold, and bettered anything Labor had on the table. Why couldn't he sell it effectively?

Why did NSW voters reject Debnam? I have some ideas (but you should bear in mind that I'm a bit of a leftie).

First, Debnam showed no sign that he'd stand up to Canberra as long as the Libs held power federally.

Candidates from electorates as disparate as Penrith and Monaro reported that WorkChoices was still a hot issue, but Debnam still made it clear he would hand over NSW industrial relations to be put through Prime Minister John Howard's shredder.

Of more concern to me, he refused to stand up to the Feds for a fairer financial deal for NSW and its people. Debnam uttered not a squeak of protest at a grants system which took almost three billion dollars annually (the sum will be somewhat less in future) of the GST paid by NSW residents and handed it to such impoverished states as Queensland.

When Federal Treasurer Peter Costello demanded NSW cut taxes such as stamp duty because of its “GST bonanza”, Debnam did not demur.

NSW electors have a right to expect their Premier to fight for their interests in Canberra, whatever their political affiliations. Debnam appeared to have a lickspittle approach.

As I mention in my previous post, I also worried about the hard-right, backroom Liberals who shafted John Brogden, then warned off Barry O'Farrell to put Debnam in as their own man. Would Debnam toe the line with these people, who represent a formidable anti-abortion force?

They showed their priorities when they stacked Epping, reportedly with recruits from church groups, to ensure the preselection of anti-abortionist Greg Smith ahead of Pru Goward.

Goward was given Goulburn as a consolation prize [after a close count, she was able to claim victory on March 29].

I was also disturbed by the law and order auction – and I don't exempt Iemma from that criticism.

When Debnam promised that on the morning of March 25 – the day when in his dreams he would be Premier – he would order the Police Commissioner to arrest 200 men of Middle Eastern appearance and charge them with anything, I realised how ignorant he was. Although, of course, it also confirmed that today's so-called conservatives sneer at the rule of law.

When he proposed charging children as criminals, I wondered whether it was a “dog whistle” for rednecks who thought it would affect only Aboriginal children.

Promising to abolish 20,000 public service jobs (Debnam did cut the number from the 29,000 set by his predecessor, John Brogden) surely alienated many voters who happen to work for the government.

Labor's brutal advertising against Debnam dismayed me, but as I pointed out in a previous post, it did little more than copy the Federal Government's campaign against Mark Latham. Expect to see more negative advertising for one good reason – it works.

Of particular interest is the turmoil Labor encountered in the Hunter, a traditional Labor stronghold. In Newcastle itself, manipulation by Labor's head office ended up splitting the Labor vote between three candidates (although preferential voting drew it back to a two-person contest).

I've never been impressed by the Hunter's parliamentary members, and the Labor heavies down in Sussex Street must have agreed, because they decided to dump Bryce Gaudry, the member for Newcastle since 1991 (perhaps because he'd fought Michael Costa's plan to close the railway into Newcastle).

They approached the popular Mayor of Newcastle, John Tate, who – it was reported – agreed to stand as endorsed Labor candidate until he found the deal involved shafting Gaudry.

Sussex Street then cast around for a more personable candidate, and decided on a former Newcastle television personality, Jodi McKay. Reports at the time said she did not join the Labor Party until she was preselected.

The moves drove the Carrington branch of the ALP to resign en masse. Carrington! Have you ever been to Carrington? Well worth a stroll, it's one of the best preserved remnants of 19th century Newcastle.

Well, Jodi had the preselection, while Gaudry and Tate decided to stand as Labor-leaning independents. Then, in the wheeling and dealing which followed, Gaudry swapped preferences with Greens candidate Michael Osborne and Tate did a deal with McKay.

The depth of McKay's political knowledge came into focus when she couldn't name the Labor Premier of Queensland.

As I write this, Jodi looks set to win. With three-quarters of votes counted, she had won 31.2 per cent of the vote, which is a fall of 17 per cent for Labor. Gaudry had won 21.5 per cent and Tate 24.1 per cent. After preferences are distributed, the ABC forecast McKay to win with 54.2 per cent of the vote to Gaudry's 45.8 per cent.

The Libs' poor showing surprised me, because I had the impression the burgeoning apartment blocks and the gentrification of old working class streets would have delivered more Lib voters to the electorate.

Lib candidate Martin Babakhan won only 9.3 per cent of the primary vote, a fall of almost 17 per cent for the Libs. Even the Greens did better, with Michael Osborne winning 11.2 per cent – and that was a fall of 4.2 per cent.

Elsewhere in the Hunter, Labor found itself losing ground to strong independents. In Lake Macquarie, mayor Greg Piper looked a good chance to take the seat from Labor's Jeff Hunter, who had succeeded his father. In Maitland, mayor Peter Blackmore was in a tussle with Labor's Frank Terenzini.

How about telephone canvassing? Up my way, around the electorate of Gosford, phones everywhere were ringing at the end of last week with an automated message from Liberal candidate Chris Holstein. Chris, a former Mayor of Gosford, appears to be a good bloke – his family run one of my favorite coffee spots, the Gnostic Manor in Woy Woy.

But he, or some bright spark on his staff, should be told how much we Central Coast people hate cold canvassers on the phone. Those calls probably cost him votes. Perhaps the same is true elsewhere around the State.

And surely the Liberal Party could have arranged a better photo for his posters. The smudgy image made him look like an overweight Con the fruitologist.

Those photos made the Labor member, Marie Andrews, look sparkling by contrast. Marie has one great strength. Probably remembering Spike Milligan's remark that Woy Woy is the world's only above-ground cemetery, she courts the aged vote assiduously.

Notionally, the new Gosford electorate boundaries could have favoured Holstein, but they added more retirement areas to Andrews's old electorate of Peats (and the more affluent eastern areas went over into the new seat of Terrigal, where former Gosford member Chris Hartcher made a solid gain for the Libs).

By the close of Saturday night's counting, Holstein had increased the Libs' vote by 4.3 percentage points and Andrews had lost a similar amount. The ABC predicts Andrews will win with 54.4 per cent after prefs to Holstein's 45.5 per cent. To be fair, it would have needed a Lib landslide to give Chris a chance.

No comments:

Post a Comment