State of NSW: Absolute power can be dangerous

An easy victory for Barry O'Farrell, but now the real work begins. AAP/Dean Lewins

The trite stuff to say about the NSW election would begin with phrases like “bloodletting” or “slaughter”. It would involve excessive attention to serial mismanagement (political and policy) and the decline of the Labor brand in New South Wales as the cause of the electoral success of the Liberal Party after sixteen years in opposition.

As these themes have all been fully raked through well before voting began on Saturday, we can take all of this as read and move forward to examine the implications of the election on the future. Needless to say, final counting is still continuing so some of the results remain unclear at this point

The first observation I would like to make about the election is about relationships between governments and oppositions.

One of the key problems of NSW Labor was the absence of organised parliamentary opponents. The Liberal Party of New South Wales has suffered from a chronic inability to organise and develop a united and organised response to the machine politics of the ALP. This saw a range of opportunities lost, but also left much of the running of being “her majesties loyal opposition” to the Sydney Morning Herald and Telegraph.

The resulting focus on personalities may have served the Liberals well in wearing down Labor resignation by resignation, but at the cost of a state politics that plays the man, rather than the ball.

The results of this political-media environment has been that there’s a perceived political risk in having real experience. This is evidenced by the ability of Peter Debnam to not win the 2007 election on the back of Labor’s record in government, a loss that saw the Liberals have to ditch a leader who had real world management experience in both the military and private sector.

Barry O’Farrell’s ascendency is a response to this: a complete political insider he doesn’t have the type of personal life history for the boys from Sussex street to trawl through.

Thus, while O’Farrell’s small target strategy was clearly motivated by a fear of doing a Hewson and losing an unloseable election, this is simply a continuation of a tepid approach to campaigning by the Liberal Party in New South Wales which provided Labor the opportunity to squander is last term in Government at the expense of either good management or good taste.

More concerted and organised opposition over the last five years would have either forced the exhausted Laborites to renew, or seen them lose government but retain enough seats to be a viable opposition.

Because of this state of affairs, we see the Liberals come to power on ostensibly the same platform they ran on in 2007 (Debnam’s ‘Let’s Fix NSW’). But they have decimated the ALP whose capacity to be an effective opposition – keeping the government on their toes and with capacity to work seriously on a new policy agenda – is very limited.

This type of outcome has served the UK relatively well in recent months: a change of government which has not prevented the new opposition the chance to be an active part of parliamentary scrutiny.

More significant, however, is the risk of having control of both houses of Parliament. Having promised to make NSW “number one”, but with only a vague set of policy announcements that tend towards spending over reform, the new Government is given a rod with which to beat itself. O’Farrell has to look hard at the problems that beset the last Howard government, or Jeff Kennett in Victoria.

Absolute power can be a deplorable word. We all want to be number one, but following the election it’s not at all clear how we’re going to pay for it.

With the election pushed off the front page by international events and voter ennui, attempts by the media and interested actors like Unions NSW to get clear indicators of the strategic approach of the incoming government were largely unsuccessful.

The second observation is the relationship between politics on the left. The right factions of the ALP were set, following outcomes in inner city electorates in the 2010 federal election, to take considerable delight in the travails of Carmel Tebutt and Verity Firth.

However, the very small absolute swings towards the Greens show that a degree of distance from the centre ground can be insulative against the collapse of the ALP brand in the centre.

This can be seen as a problem associated with the centralising tendency of political positioning we’ve seen in Australia: that the rush towards the centre is both an electoral advantage and a curse, because switching costs are low in markets with largely undifferentiated products.

While some may take heart in this outcome as a slapdown against the famed dark masters of negative campaign management from ALP head office, we should be careful of premature judgement.

The campaign in Marrickville was particularly nasty with allegations of push polling and a particularly well organised and funded campaign of stickers and posters aimed at attacking the Greens on a range of the policy issues they should be able to safely “own” (without the necessary attribution required under the Electoral Act).

That Tebutt looks set to retain this seat shows that these strategies can be seen to be effective, which is a negative outcome all round regardless who’s the victor here. It should be noted it’s unknown who produced this material, but the effective advantage did accrue to ALP in this case.

The Greens too, however, need to read their tea leaves without joy. While their strategy of building a base of support, visibility and campaign capacity within local government is clearly paying off, it’s not without risks.

High profile candidate and Mayor Fiona Byrne spent a considerable amount of time fighting off her municipality’s ban of goods from Israel and a proposed ban on China (a more toxic bomb given the municipality’s increasing Chinese community, which saw Kevin Rudd flown in for a hit and run show of support).

Local government may be generally bread and butter policy making that encourages distraction among the ambitious, but getting involved in international relations is clearly questionable.

A local procurement policy that may play well at the local level is one thing, but these decisions can become a major liability when candidates jump into elections with wider constituencies to service.