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State of NSW: A certain victory for the Coalition, but then the real work starts

An election victory is just the start of the Coalition’s “Contract with New South Wales”. AAP/Dean Lewins

All the signs point to a landslide victory for Barry O’Farrell and the Liberal National coalition tomorrow.

Premier Kristina Keneally’s popularity has plummeted with only 30 per cent of voters satisfied with her performance. An opinion poll taken in February placed the Labor Party’s primary vote at 22 percent. Election analysts and political commentators have predicted that Labor might be reduced to holding just 20 of the 93 seats in the Legislative Assembly.

It seems as though even the party has given up on itself. Labor supporters can derive little joy from the Party’s advertising campaign. ‘Don’t give Barry a blank cheque’, as Labor’s television campaign begs voters, doesn’t seem too far off waving the white flag.

While one side of politics is heading for the hills, O’Farrell seems content to play it cool. Campaigning with the knowledge that his party is destined for victory, O’Farrell has stuck to a campaign strategy that serves the leading party well.

It is based on three key principles: let Labor do the talking, make Labor’s performance key the issue in the campaign and be measured on the policy detail.

While the Coalition’s ‘Contract with NSW’ provides a list of promises to electors, more emphasis is placed on accountability and encouraging the public to enforce their end of the bargain: “If we don’t perform, they can hold us to account at the next election”.

Accountability is certainly something that we expect from a good government, but it is only one element of what makes democracy work. Elections are about punishing ‘bad’ government and voting for the most competent manager of the State, but where does that leave policies debates and ideas for the future?

It is a growing trend that elections are fought on the basis of a leader’s image and popularity. Now ‘competence’ and managerial skills are added as the key selling points.

Saturday’s contest will be not decided on the basis of a robust policy debate between two sides of politics that represent distinct interests and visions, but between two leaders and two sides of politics that claim they can do better.

The coalition claims it can do better than Labor, and Labor claims it can just do better – full stop.

But without robust policy discussions, and in an election campaign that has been focused on holding Labor accountable, what can O’Farrell’s government claim a mandate to do?

Policies, issues and plans that are presented to the voters are important because they give an incoming government a picture of what they must do, the issues that need to be addressed and the popular ‘legitimacy,’ and support to get in there and get on with what they said they would do.

But if the only clear message coming from the people at this Saturday’s election is a big kick to the NSW Labor Party, what exactly is the content of the ‘action contract’ the people of NSW will be looking to enforce in another four years’ time?

We will just have to wait and see how the Coalition decides it will get on with the job. In this campaign it has promised tax cuts, more jobs, to oppose a carbon tax, more funding to public hospitals, rail and road infrastructure projects and reforming planning laws.

With four year fixed terms in NSW the public will wait this long for its first chance to hold the O’Farrell government accountable for the progress it has made on these promises. This is not necessarily a bad thing – a longer electoral cycle gives governments a chance to implement more policies and most political problems can’t be fixed in a couple of years. And generally it takes a losing side at least a few elections to claw back all its ground after a significant defeat.

Since the Second World War no government has served a term of less than seven years. Indeed, Labor only faces defeat now after sixteen years at the helm.

Yet there are a few things about governing NSW that might make the task a little more challenging. Many of the State’s problems can’t be solved by a government, Liberal or Labor, overnight.

A growing population that is constantly increasing the demand for housing, for health services, schools and infrastructure requires long term political commitments and tough ‘management’ decisions that unfortunately aren’t suited to our short term electoral cycles and personality driven campaigns.

Tax cuts are a sure fire winner in any election campaign, but who controls the purse strings is a much more complicated issue.

Over the last few decades State governments have progressively seen their ability to raise and expend funds shift to the Commonwealth.

The complexity of federal-state financial relations constrains the ability of States to propose and implement many policy measures that would otherwise require funding from the Commonwealth. The current national health care debate is a perfect example.

Another challenge is the composition of the parliament. Julia Gillard has certainly learned in the federal arena that mustering the support of other political players is not an easy exercise. It involves compromise and negotiation.

While the Coalition will have a clear majority in the Legislative Assembly after the weekend, the situation in the upper house, the Legislative Council, is not so certain.

It is probable that the Coalition will rely on the votes of the Christian Democrats, the Shooters and Fishers to pass their legislation. However, the Greens look set to increase their total seats in the upper house, which means that they may be able to negotiate with Labor, and indeed the other minor parties, to secure amendments to government bills.

While Saturday’s result will no doubt be a clear-cut victory for the National Liberal coalition, O’Farrell’s battle to govern the State, and deliver on his ‘Contract with NSW’ will have only just begun.

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