NSW voters set to back Baird, but upper house is too close to call

New South Wales Premier Mike Baird looks likely to keep enjoying the view from the top of the state after the March 28 poll. Mike Baird/Facebook

With just one full day of campaigning left in the New South Wales election, the result is already clear. Mike Baird’s Liberal and National government will be re-elected, though with a reduced number of Coalition members returning to the treasury benches.

Had there not been shock results in Queensland and Victoria, where first-term governments fell in narrow races, this completely run-of-the-mill result in NSW would be filed unnoticed among the tradition of Australian voters giving new governments the benefit of the doubt.

For the jaded observer, wondering if all the election sound and fury has signified anything, the evidence is that little has really changed over the course of the campaign. Monday’s Fairfax/Ipsos two-party preferred poll showing the Liberal Nationals ahead on 54% of support to Labor’s 46% is unchanged from Galaxy polling in January.

Given so many journalists put on their party frocks to dance at this ball, the parties could have at least been a bit more creative in their campaigning.

So many of the protagonists have been pictured in grainy black and white images, complete with menacing music, that NSW politics has looked like a 1950s noir film.

NSW Labor.

On some of its “Liberal choices hurt” billboards, Labor has juxtaposed boyband-fresh Premier Mike Baird against grim, Fagin-like images of Prime Minister Tony Abbott. In other ads, like this one, Baird is pictured alongside Abbott, with the question for voters: “What do we really know about NSW Premier Mike Baird?”

NSW Labor.

Meanwhile, the Liberals have played up the fact that Luke Foley became leader of the Labor Party only at the start of this year by attacking him as an “L-plater” – a line straight out of the federal Liberals’ 2004 campaign ads against Mark Latham.

To the NSW Liberals’ credit, they have at least shown a little more creativity in how they have used the L-plate graphic: not in the L for Labor, nor the L for Luke, but in the middle of Foley.

Liberal Party NSW.
Liberal Party, 2004.

‘The Abbott effect’ hasn’t all gone one way

Contrary to most expectations, including my own, the Liberals have done a pretty good job of keeping the prime minister away from the campaign.

Unable to exclude the New South Welshman completely from his home state, when Abbott has not been kept busy eating onions in Tasmania or crow in Parliament, the NSW branch has included him in events related to “signature” Abbott policies. For instance, the prime minister was there for the turning of the first sod of the WestConnex road project, which the federal government has backed via both the Roads of the 21st Century and Asset Recycling initiatives.

Former prime minister John Howard (left) and current PM Tony Abbott (centre) welcome NSW Premier Mike Baird at the NSW Liberal campaign launch on March 22, 2015. Nikki Short/AAP

He was also at the NSW Liberals’ official launch last Sunday, where Baird made a point of saying: “What a pleasure it is to stand here in front of a friend of mine, the prime minister, Tony Abbott.”

As all the news reports noted afterwards, Abbott left the talking to Baird.

The prime minister has played some part in this campaign, with higher education reforms and the looming federal budget keeping national issues in voters’ minds.

A month ago, The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher warned that:

The Abbott effect imposes an average penalty of 3% across state seats held by the junior coalition partner, the Nationals, and 7% across Liberal seats, according to well-placed sources.

As it has turned out, it has not all been one-way traffic. Abbott’s continued visibility on the national stage has also helped highlight Baird’s positives.

When Baird replaced Barry O'Farrell as the state leader just under a year ago, the Liberals played up Baird’s close ties to the prime minister: not only as a surfing buddy of Abbott’s, but as a fellow Christian with an attractive family, who also represents a north-shore Sydney electorate.

However, Baird in election mode is the anti-Abbott: relaxed where the other is wooden; articulate, not faltering; friendly, not threatening.

As the ABC’s Vote Compass has shown, Baird is extraordinarily popular for a state leader. He has a personal approval rating of 60%. Even the worst black-and-white attack ad image just makes the man look more chiselled.

What the privatisation debate revealed

Policy-wise, the election has been interesting in highlighting key differences: though not so much differences between the two major parties, as between Australian voters and the political elite. The most obvious example of this has been the issue of privatisation.

Stripped of the capacity to raise revenue, state governments have had to use asset sales to fund new infrastructure and, at times, recurrent expenditure. This is a basic reality of Australian federalism that structurally pushes parties in government towards neo-liberal policies.

From the outset, Baird has been keen to establish an electoral mandate for “poles and wires” privatisation, stating there was “no Plan B” to fund his A$20 billion of election commitments.

While Labor has had privatisation at the core of its campaign, it has been somewhat disingenuous. The ALP has long been an advocate of privatising various state-owned assets, not only in NSW but nationally.

Its conversion to the anti-privatisation cause has clearly been one of electoral necessity: giving it an issue to beat up the government on, while also attracting vital union members and funds.

NSW Labor leader Luke Foley (centre) is hoping a well-run community campaign can help him emulate the success of his Victorian colleague Daniel Andrews (left). Alan Mascarenhas/Supplied/AAP

Labor has prided itself on the success of its “community organising” campaigns, a la Obama, in delivering recent electoral gains in Victoria and Queensland.

Unions NSW

A union-led volunteer campaign has covered impressive territory: reportedly doorknocking more than 27,000 homes across the state (The Guardian says the residents were home about half the time); putting up fluorescent banners along main streets and highways; and making 3,500 phone calls in the past two weeks.

But Labor’s stance on privatisation left it vulnerable on another key policy front, which voters in Sydney are particularly concerned about.

On transport, Labor split in opposite directions: on one hand, running against major road infrastructure in the inner west of Sydney; on the other, releasing a pro-Parramatta Road expansion policy for western Sydney seats.

Trimming WestConnex’s tunnel and exit into St Peters has been at the heart of this compromise. But it was telling that the ALP released its modest transport policy in the first week of the campaign, and Foley has largely run quiet on transport since.

Minor parties in the major battle ahead

The electorate loathes privatisation, providing minor parties across the state with some traction and a chance to differentiate themselves from Labor, the Liberals and the Nationals in this campaign.

In inner Sydney, the Greens have worked the WestConnex angle hard in an attempt to win the newly established progressive seat of Newtown – though polls suggest a Labor win there. The Greens have also campaigned on the issue of cruise ship pollution in an attempt to retain Balmain, in an odd alliance with broadcaster Alan Jones. That’s an issue neither of the major parties has clean hands on.

Meanwhile, the Greens’ campaigns in regional NSW – particularly their push for a ban on coal seam gas – could deliver more seats in the upper house.

The battle for the upper house is really the one to watch. As this Conversation article covers in more detail, the Baird government’s post-election plans including privatisation could hinge on a single upper house vote.

The new No Land Tax Party has two advantages in its favour: it won the first position on the Legislative Council ballot paper, and it has the ability to raise considerable funds from supporters in the commercial real estate industry.

Having been frustrated by the Shooters and Fishers party in the last parliamentary term over disputes about the NSW Game Council and hunting in parks, the Liberal Nationals are hoping for a strong enough vote in the upper house so they need only negotiate with the Christian Democrats. Polling indicates this will be extremely close.

As preferences will be very important, the unusual way voters have preferenced in recent state elections makes our ability to predict the outcome even less reliable than in the past.

On election night, all eyes will be on the Legislative Council. The 21 seats up for grabs there will – almost certainly – determine if likeable Mike Baird can act on his mandate for privatisation.