With NSW voters facing a State Election on Saturday, March 23, politicians are nervously asking each other, “How are we going?” Meanwhile, journalists on the campaign trail are equally nervous, asking colleagues: “Who do you think will win?”
If the political and media classes are hopelessly confused, it is hardly surprising that voters are divided as well. Many are wisely keeping their powder dry until the last week of the campaign when the fog of fake promises, downright lies and exaggeration will mercifully clear.
NSW Labor, led by Opposition leader Michael Daley, has the more attractive campaign. Who can argue with the main slogan, “Putting People First”? Admittedly, it is a bit moth-eaten because it has been used by US President Bill Clinton and in Australia by Bill Shorten (2016), Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (2014) and WA Premier Mark McGowan (2017). It works as a vote-catcher because pollsters are paid millions of dollars to tell political parties that it “re-connects out-of-touch politicians with their base” and as a democratic virtue it is unchallengeable.
Daley’s other slogans are equally enticing: “Delivering Cooler Schools”, “Boosting nurse and patient ratios”, and my favourite of all, “Free TAFE”, which recalls Gough Whitlam’s 1972 declaration of free university education.
The other big vote winner, “Schools and hospitals before stadiums”, was first unveiled by former Opposition leader Luke Foley but everything associated with his disgraced name has been cremated and buried. Which is a shame.
It appears that the original clearcut slogan has been turned into a legalistic and speculative promise after Labour was flogged by the National Rugby League (NRL), Sydney sports writers (with the notable exception of Herald columnist Peter FitzSimons) and candidates who want gleaming new stadiums on their record of accomplishments. (With perhaps a plaque or a stand named after them?).
Twelve months ago the Coalition, an unhappy alliance of Liberals and Nationals, looked a near certainty to grab a third consecutive term but then the wheels fell off.
Premier Berejiklian’s frenetic attempt to build railways, motorways, tunnels, bus ways and light rail corridors in a single four-year term of government was a short-term policy disaster. Communities responded angrily and used talkback radio and social media to explain their case and quickly aroused a huge following not only in Sydney, but right across the State.
The NSW uproar coincided with a shift against unchecked infrastructure spending in the UK, Europe and the US when it was recognised vast sums of public money was going to political chums in the property and construction industries. Overseas voters were no longer clamouring for infrastructure if it simply meant more cars, more congestion, more privatisation, more expensive tickets, more lucrative salaries for directors and executives and richer dividends for company shareholders.
In place of “infrastructure overload”, voters are now demanding that their taxes are used for a better life for their communities, their children and grandchildren. Things like schools and hospitals rather than prisons, more motorways and missiles.
Twenty years ago the Berejiklian government would have been lauded for infrastructure spending, but voters at the next election are uncertain. Is the extravagance, disruption and inconvenience worth the price of light rail or roadways which carry exorbitant tolls?
NSW Labor is tapping into this community unrest and turning itself into a viable proposition to win extra seats in the election. Voters are not switching to vote for Daley himself who remains an unknown quantity to most voters but to “Labor to the rescue”.
In response to Labor’s increasing poll numbers, Ms Berejiklian’s Coalition is doing what it promised not to do: it is dredging up the name of Eddie Obeid and ICAC reports on Sussex Street’s alleged links to Chinese donations.
Treasurer Dominic Perrottet, who has positioned himself to succeed Ms Berejiklian when she returns to the banking sector, has flagged Supreme Court action to recover taxpayers’ money spent defending government personnel in a failed court action by Obeid and his family.
Perrottet and his colleagues are determined to resurrect shocking memories of the last Labor era when Obeid’s right-wing Terrigal faction ruled the roost. It is a sign of Coalition desperation and not strength. Liberal internal polling must be dreadful.
Much is made of Ms Berejiklian’s undoubted honesty, her migrant success story, extraordinarily high sense of “putting something back” and “getting things done” while ignoring the fact that her closest advisers are three former centre-right Liberal premiers, Nick Greiner, Barry O’Farrell and Mike Baird.
The idea that she is mistress of her own house does not really hold true. Yesterday’s men and the right-wing faction led by Planning Minister Anthony Roberts and Corrective Services Minister David Elliott are running the show.
Like its predecessors, Ms Berejiklian’s Coalition Government will be remembered for its secrecy, incompetence and flagrant disregard for community feelings until it was too late. The Coalition’s sheer arrogance was unbearable. Its message to opponents went along the lines: “We’re right and you are just stupid.” It was unlucky for the Coalition that the banking Royal Commission uncovered a similar attitude among bankers.
The reality is that NSW is divided into two or three camps, depending on your age, income and where you live.
Commentators seem to forget that NSW is politically divided between conservatives and reformists. In 1991 Liberal Premier Nick Greiner was forced into minority government and a “coalition” with Independents, and in 1995 Bob Carr became Labor Premier with only a one-seat majority.
Since you ask, I believe that neither the Liberals, Nationals nor Labor will win a majority to rule in their own right. Independents and candidates supported by GetUp! might yet be the big winners on March 23 at the expense of the established political parties. “Putting People First” suddenly seems like a canny slogan and people, not parties, might win on the night.
Alex Mitchell is a former State Political Editor and columnist with Sydney’s Sun-Herald and former President of the NSW Parliamentary Press Gallery.