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How will the NSW election result affect Australia and the parties?

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by IA managing editor David Donovan


 As Labor "slithers slowly and painfully out of the NSW Government departure lounge" what effect will the election result have on the state, nation and political parties? David Donovan comments.

Since the 1975 landslide against Labor following the Whitlam dismissal, seldom has there been a political result more certain than the resounding shellacking received by the NSW Labor Party at Saturday’s election. It was so certain that Labor’s own campaign manager, Sam Dastyari, conceded defeat three weeks ago. And little wonder — over the last four years, Labor has had three different Premiers and seen a veritable host of Ministers and MPs resign through public mismanagement fiascos and drugs, sex and corruption scandals. It’s fair to say, the Government was almost a dead duck before the 2007 election win. If ever there was a case study in why four year terms in politics are too long, NSW must be it.

But now the train-wreck has finally shuddered to a halt and the state, and the nation, waits expectantly for the putrid carcass of NSW Labor to be removed from the driver’s seat, wreckage to be cleared from the tracks, and the locomotive to be restarted under new direction.

The question that needs to be asked is: what difference will it make for NSW, the nation and the political parties?

For NSW, and indeed the nation as a whole, the question is both easy to answer and also, at the same time, almost imponderable.

Easy, because it can surely not be a bad thing to have a thoroughly discredited administration removed from power; it is bound to encourage confidence in the business community and bolster the spirits of a disengaged and disappointed electorate. NSW has been a Labor stronghold for most of the last 50 years and when a single side of politics dominates for so long, it endangers democracy and encourages institutionalised corruption. And so it has proven in NSW in recent years.

On the other hand, the people of NSW and Australia have almost no indication about what the policies of their new Government will be or how they will govern. The Liberals main campaigning strategy seems to have been to proclaim loudly that they are not NSW Labor. In their defence, there is, in fact, a substantial amount of policy material on the NSW Liberal Party website. The problem is — almost no-one seems to have read it. And if the media has read it, then they have decided that it isn’t newsworthy, preferring to focus instead on Kristina Keneally, on Kristina Keneally campaigning with Bob Hawke, and on miscellaneous reports aimed at sloughing the final muck off NSW Labor as it slithers slowly and painfully out of the NSW Government departure lounge.

Consequently, NSW voters, and the rest of the nation – since Sydney news is national news in this nation of ours – have really no idea what might now happen. And, though it is not yet a major concern for most – since the expulsion of Labor has been the key issue in this election – it should be, since the primary reason that the Liberal Party has been unable to attain power on a regular basis in NSW is because it has usually been a factionally divided shambles itself. For example, as recently as 2007, allegations of branch stacking and rorting by the David Clarke led Christian extremist right of the NSW Liberal party virtually condemned the party to yet another 4 years of shambolic Labor rule. These days, the moderate Barry O’Farrell has managed to calm the public displays of dissension and shady practices enough to allow the media attention to focus almost exclusively on the travails of the Labor Party. The question arises, then: how much is this merely a veneer and for how long will O’Farrell be able to keep this perennially riven branch of the party together once he assumes power?

Just what the administration is going to be like in NSW is a great unknown. All the people of NSW and Australia want is for NSW Labor to go and for someone else to take over. For them, it is certain that, at least for a while, anything will seem like an improvement.

But how will this defeat affect Labor nationally? Well, there has been speculation that the loss of power in NSW is an opportunity for Labor to realign themselves strategically. Political columnist for the Australian, Imre Saluzinsky, on the Radio National Breakfast programme on Friday, for instance, speculated that the loss may provide Labor with an opportunity to reinvent itself as more of a progressive middle-class party, moving away from its traditional union/worker base. His argument suggested that as union memberships decline, as they continue to do each year, and the Greens steal Labor’s progressive vote on the left, Labor must reach out beyond its traditional base.

Labor and the unions are closer than Siamese twin, they are in fact alter egos

Sadly, this simply won’t happen, no matter how desirable the goal might be for Labor and the nation. The reality is that the Labor Party could not possibly disentangle itself from the union movement, since the Labor Party is to all intents and purposes just the political expression of the union movement. They are closer than Siamese twins, as Saluzinsky described them, but rather more akin to being alter egos. First and foremost, the unions provides Labor with virtually all its funding, so for Labor to abruptly disengage itself from the union movement would certainly spell the end to the Party as a major political force. It would need to immediately find an alternative source of funding, and businesses and wealthy individuals are, for rather obvious reasons, far more likely to support the right-wing parties. Secondly, Labor is essential to unionists. It provides an avenue and a base for aspiring union officials to practice politics and develop a political career; this is something they are unlikely to willingly forfeit. Even with union membership declining, with 15% of the Australian population still being union members, unions provide Labor with a solid membership (and financial) base to draw on. The thought that Labor would, merely on the back of a state election loss, decide to shun this advantage is simply arrant fantasy.

There is another school of thought that because NSW has been such a bastion for Labor over the last half century or so, the loss of NSW and the reduction of Labor in the NSW state parliament to a rump will be a body blow for the Labor Party federally and in other states.

This is absolutely wrong. Though the Labor Party’s Sussex Street, Sydney, administration has dominated the party nationally for a long time — its current weakness has, by the same token, sorely debilitated the national party machine. It was NSW tacticians, led by Mark Arbib, that foolishly decided to politically assassinate Kevin Rudd in the hope of Federal Labor getting a bounce in the polls. This of course, was standard practice in NSW Labor as shown by the decapitation of Morris Iemma and Nathan Rees. Moreover, the 2010 election campaign was a standard NSW style focus group driven campaign (a la Morris Iemma in 2007) devised by NSW power-broker Karl Bitar. Of course, it was this diabolical campaign that went within a whisker of losing Labor power nationally and delivered them a tenuous minority Government. As Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said, NSW Labor is a disease. It is, indeed, an infection in the Labor Party body politic. Each revelation of sexual impropriety, each allegation of cronyism, each public administration debacle, each drug scandal, simple further opens the weeping sore that sickens and weakens the party nationally—only by the canker being brutally excised is there any chance the rest of the body may survive.

There is one other plus for Labor. The performance of Kristina Keneally has been so courageous and indomitable that she has surely established herself a long-term Labor star. People may deplore NSW Labor, but the steadfastly unintimidated rear-guard action staged seemingly single-handedly by Keneally has generated her a lot of public approbation, not only in NSW, but nationally. Courageously, she has fronted up week after appalling week, never giving in. Perhaps it is too early to say, but it seems quite possible that she may be a future leader of the Labor Party and the nation.

For the Liberal Party, the election win will be a bonus, though it could also be a poisoned chalice. If the new administration is as deeply incompetent as their past performance suggests they may be, it could be the Liberal Party that will soon catch the NSW disease. This could hardly be a benefit for the Party nationally.

To summarise all this in a few words, Julia Gillard will be thrilled by the result of Saturday’s election, as will her federal colleagues. Labor Party officials in other states will be pleased that power will be diffused nationally away from the shambolic Sussex Street mafiosi. The Liberal Party will be warily pleased that they have won back power in the major Australian state. But, most of all, the NSW electorate and the people of Australia will be delighted to see the back of one of the most despised state Governments – current Premier excluded – ever to hold high political office in this country.

(A slightly different version of this story was published earlier today in On Line Opinion under the title 'Curing the NSW disease'.)

 
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