Everyone wants Keneally to go down…
When voters hit the polling booths in NSW on March 26, many will have no memory of a time before Labor. Such has been the party’s success in the Premier state, that it had come to regard government as its birthright. It’s a conceit that comes from ruling for the last 16 years straight and for all but 18 of the last 70 years.
But now the jig is up.
In fact, it has been up for quite a while but the state’s fixed four-year term has delayed the day of reckoning. Labor fell over the line in 2007, thanks mostly to a hopeless Opposition, but the diseases of hubris, of fatigue, of abuse of trust, had already begun.
Since then, voters have been treated to an undignified soap opera of governmental disintegration.
This decay has seen a cavalcade of sordid affairs and sexual incidents, added to the standard fare of broken promises, failed policies, factional and union bastardry, and waste. You name it, it has happened in NSW.
Rarely in the history of democratic governance has a party with such numerical dominance - it started this term with 52 seats to the Coalition’s 35 in the 93 seat House of Assembly - so comprehensively surrendered its moral and strategic authority.
At the end of all of this, sits the glamorous if doomed Premier, Kristina Keneally.
Initially popular after taking over from Nathan Rees, who had taken over from Morris Iemma, who had taken over from Bob Carr - Ms Keneally, in other circumstances, might be hard to beat.
Attractive, articulate, intelligent, and exotic, thanks to her American origins, the state’s first female premier is perhaps the only thing standing between Labor and annihilation. Yet even that hope now seems forlorn with the latest opinion polls showing her personal support has collapsed.
Worse, the animosity seems greatest among traditional Labor voters, as recent by-elections have shown. In one, the ``safe’’ seat of Penrith, the anti-Labor swing exceeded 25 per cent.
A mere fraction of this would see Labor swept from office.
Enter the attractively safe, even boring Liberal leader, Barry O’Farrell. The moderate Mr O’Farrell is now poised to become the most powerful political leader in the nation outside the PM.
But what for him will be an historic win, will be viewed less favourably by that other NSW Liberal, Tony Abbott.
This is the private dimension of this election. While federal Liberals will publicly celebrate the defeat of Labor in the country’s most populous state, privately, they will rue the loss of one of their best assets, a toxic Labor government that has infected its federal party.
And that is before they even factor in an expectation problem certain to stalk O’Farrell. Such is the anti-Labor feeling among Sydneysiders in particular, that a belief that a new government will fix chronic gridlock on the roads, rebuild a badly under-capitalised rail system, and stem soaring electricity prices, is unrealistic.
``These problems were decades in the making and will take a decade to fix,’’ said one observer. As Kevin Rudd and Barack Obama can attest, failing to meet expectations, whether realistic or not, can be fatal.
And therein lies a potential problem for Mr Abbott towards the end of this federal term. There is no place for sentimentality here. Given the choice between retaining an unpopular and dysfunctional Labor government in NSW, or switching to an initially popular Liberal one, Mr Abbott would take the former every time. He just can’t say so.
For Julia Gillard, conversely, the defeat of the NSW party can’t come soon enough. ``Voters will finally get to lance the boil,’’ says one senior federal player. This is now the accepted wisdom in Canberra - that voters in the big Labor states of NSW and Queensland need to vent and will not cut the Gillard Government any slack until they’ve done so.
In that vein, Labor insiders believe one of the bigger tactical errors of their federal campaign in 2010 was the decision to promise $2.1 billion for the Epping to Parramatta rail link. Apart from failing to convince voters that the service would actually be built this time, the announcement had a more pernicious effect. What was meant to link the two big population centres to relieve diabolical traffic congestion actually succeeded in linking Julia Gillard with the NSW state government.
During his time, John Howard understood these dynamics well, striking agreements with political opposites that cut a lot more ice with voters than if they were done with other Liberals. Post COAG press conferences featuring smiling Labor premiers such as Peter Beattie and Steve Bracks became so commonplace that the press grumbled that the once tetchy inter-governmental meetings had become ``love-ins’‘.
This is the unspoken reality of national/state politics. It is not always what it seems. Just as Obama will probably have a better second two years now that he faces a hostile congress, the rise of conservatives in NSW and Queensland - which is due for an election in a year’s time - will do Gillard no harm.
So, despite what they might say publicly, both Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard would be better served if the other side were to win next month. Only one will get that wish of course and it is not going to be Mr Abbott.
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