Traditionally, New South Wales election campaigns are tightly controlled affairs. Perhaps because the major party planners think that most elections will be close, they concentrate on one or two key statewide issues and hope that local campaigning will see them through in marginal seats. Law and order ‘auctions’ dominated through the late 1990s and corruption has been the theme of several polls. In 2019 the issue which should determine the outcome is the environment.
Media have been keen enough to publish polling about the relative popularity of the major parties and the premier and opposition leader prior to the New South Wales election on 23 March 2019. The Sydney Morning Herald of 11 March for example cited a poll which showed Labor leading 51% to 49% in two-party preferred terms and that Labor leader Michael Daley was preferred premier among those polled.
Media have seemed less interested however, in ranking the issues which might inform voters’ decisions. A leaders’ debate on ABC television a fortnight before the election was dominated by the issue of the Coalition Government’s decision to demolish and rebuild two sports grounds in the city. The Labor Opposition’s promise to stop the demolitions and instead have the responsible authorities renovate the amenities to a safe standard without cost to taxpayers provided a clear, if minor point of policy contrast.
It is possible that predictions about a close contest are wrong. When the federal leadership of the Liberal Party was changed in late winter 2018, a by-election in former prime minister Turnbull’s previously safe seat of Wentworth in Sydney proved disastrous for the Liberals, as did the Victorian state election. Perhaps before Labor had its own troubles with the resignation of leader Luke Foley following allegations of harassment of a female journalist, pundits might have assumed that the Canberra fiasco would sink the chances of the Berejiklian Government in Macquarie Street. Certainly, it may be significant that at their respective campaign launches, the Liberals did not have prime minister Morrison speak while Labor invited federal leader Bill Shorten to do so.
Voters might have good reason to downgrade promises about health and education. Although these issues are central state responsibilities, choosing between policy platforms probably turns on personal experience of schools and hospitals. Transport will be an important issue for many, particularly commuters, road users and those who see themselves as the victims of the light rail project. There have been over-runs in time and costs and the mess along the route has been an eyesore. The Liberals always emphasise their economic management but their dealings with the private sector on infrastructure projects have been notoriously disastrous.
The urban environment mess around light rail and road transport issues and the sporting venues pale in comparison with the disasters building in rural areas. Species extinction linked to land clearing and the Barka fish kill linked to water use are direct results of government policies. And there are health warnings about eating fish from Lake Macquarie thanks to pollution from power plants. Several articles on the Pearls and Irritations blog have noted the crisis in the state’s National Parks https://johnmenadue.com/?s=national+parks
Meanwhile, at least part of the problem facing both Coalition parties federally has been the growing dislocation between the parliamentary leadership and rank and file members over climate change. Put simply, the problems in Wentworth and the Victorian state election were attributed partly to government inaction on carbon emissions. While state leaders might plead that climate change requires a federal response, premier Berejiklian was happy to weigh into debates about immigration levels because they affected state infrastructures. Of course it is possible for states to take action on climate change and voters are entitled to expect the New South Wales Government to show some leadership in this area.
There is a possibility that the state will have a hung parliament by April. Should the National Party vote collapse in some key seats, the balance of power in the Legislative Assembly could be held by the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party. Already Phil Donato holds the seat of Orange following a by-election and he has proven an active local member. While he might deserve to hold the seat and remain on the crossbench, the prospect of a Coalition minority government reliant on the support of SFF members is daunting for those who value the environment. During the years of the O’Farrell Government, SFF used their influence in the Legislative Council to campaign for shooting of feral animals to be allowed in National Parks. https://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article/trust-is-shot-for-cynical-nsw-premier
While the Coalition’s environmental credentials are poor, Labor statements tend to be cautious. Miners’ jobs are vulnerable when there is talk of closing coal fired power stations. The Greens have been fearless in their advocacy for the environment but their campaign might well be hampered by recent internal divisions. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-12-20/jeremy-buckingham-quits-greens/10639004
In the final analysis, it is up to electors to convince all candidates that they must have strong policies on protection of the environment. The environment sustains economic development and underlies our quality of life. It is the policy area by which future generations will judge those participating in the 2019 New South Wales election. The high school students who walked out of classes to demand greater action on global warming have every right to expect those who have the vote to exercise it wisely.
Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics. He has written widely on elections in New South Wales.