Saturday’s election to determine who, and in what form, will govern Australia’s largest state, NSW, has woken the political classes – though none seem confident of an outright winner.
That is the surprise. Just a few months ago this election was considered a ‘no contest’ for the Coalition government, led by the hard working Gladys Berejiklian. A strong economy with a relatively low unemployment rate, few political scandals and a colossal number of expensive, city-wide infra structure projects should have made it a shoe-in for her Liberal National Coalition. Yet, no one is predicting that. Last week, one poll had a tie of 50:50, another gave Labor a two-point lead. The Coalition needs to lose six seats to forfeit its majority status, easily predicted on the proposed swing. Labor’s task is tougher. It needs to win 13 seats to govern in its own right. That is a massive task for any well- oiled campaign machine.
Still, though rare in this country a minority government – of either persuasion – is the favoured prediction. How did it get to this?
Commentators point to the woeful performance of the NSW Coalition’s federal brothers and sisters who make up the (current) Australian Government. They have matched – and even beaten – the infighting of the (federal) Labor government they replaced six years ago, with almost carbon copy scandals, leadership coups and policy paralysis. The diligent and affable Ms Berejiklian and her NSW team have been stunned by the behaviour of their own, such that Ms Berejiklian unsuccessfully beseeched her Canberra counterparts to call their ( federal ) election earlier than the announced May slot. That is, hold it before NSW’s – which is fixed for March every four years -and allow angry voters time to punish the Feds and then (hopefully) be in a better mindset to re-elect her team on Saturday.
However, it is too simplistic to place all the blame for Ms Berejiklian’s electoral flimsiness at the feet of the federal team.
There is general acceptance that NSW Labor has out-campaigned Ms Berejiklian’s team, despite this last week of the campaign not being Labor’s best. Three days of headlines revealing a recorded gaffe (made last year) by Leader, Michael Daley about Asians taking Aussie kids jobs and houses – footage the government has strategically kept for this killer moment – dented the Opposition’s mojo. However, commentators point to the Coalition’s lack of a consistent message, other than to point to its expensive development projects (none of which are operational) and to remind the electorate of NSW Labor’s failings when it was in government almost a decade ago.
Unlike in neighbouring, infra structure mad, Victoria, the development issue is not working for Ms Berejiklian, who is still trying to construct a narrative that resonates across the state. Sydney, in particular, has been strangled by her ambitious projects, which include light rail, a sport stadium and expressways. These enormous city and suburban construction sites have not only been disruptive, but also costly and poorly managed. And after years of consistent jackhammers, no ribbons have been cut. Then there is the government’s determination to knock down a city sports stadium and rebuild it, at a cost of $730 million when a cheaper refurbishment would have done the trick. Labor has campaigned hard on this issue, saying the money should be spent on health, education, climate change resilience and energy.
Those in the State’s regional cities and hamlets see the stadium issue – and even the infrastructure projects – as yet more Sydney-centricity. Regional voters have little or no developments to be disrupted by. Rather, in the middle of a drought, rivers are dry, stock is dying, crops are withering and some towns have only bottled water to live on.
This is dangerous for many reasons. Politically, it is in the regions (where the Coalition’s National Party is usually strong) that the NSW election will be decided. And it is here that Government seats will fall, if previous by-elections can be relied upon. It lost ‘safe’ seats of Orange and Wagga to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party (SFF) and an Independent, respectively.
Labor is unlikely to pick up many of those seats ( though Goulbourn is a 50% chance, apparently). The SFF is favoured, and also touted as likely to help Labor form a minority government. No wonder in the days after the NZ tragedy, the Liberals churned out warnings that the SFF would pressure a Labor government to weaken gun laws.
Regardless of the Daley gaffes (he didn’t do so well in a debate with Ms Berejiklian this week), it is extraordinary that after eight years trying to live down its past, Labor has managed to get back in the race. After Mr Daley took the leadership late last year – following another appalling scandal that forced the then leader to resign – Labor is level with, or even leading, the government. In some preferred Premier polls, Labor’s consistently labelled ‘unknown’ leader, Mr Daley has beaten the very well known Ms Berejiklian.
However, it is not that simple. Any swing against the government would need to be uniform. That is, across the state for Labor to have any chance to unseat the Coalition. Then there is the changing electoral dynamics that make Saturday’s election so difficult for strategists. That is to say, the electorate no longer identifies as either Labor, Liberal or even, National. Independents, Greens, Shooters and even One Nation are all in the mix. As well, the divisions between city, rural and regional voters are more extreme than ever. Political parties struggle to easily describe their ‘base’, a term mentioned all too frequently in campaign engine rooms. A ‘base’ within a single party is as diverse as Australia’s geography. This means that campaigns are fought almost guerrilla-style; electorate by electorate. Messages and candidates are shaped for each separate region. Candidates must be recognised as standing for issues that are specific and local, like a new hospital, a bridge and even access to telecommunications (often cited by regional voters despite being a federal issue). What happens when a city signature policy – like a new sport stadium – enforces an entrenched perception of city focus at the expense of the regions, presses the over development buttons of some voters ( as in the Liberal held seat of Ryde in Sydney’s north west) or is pitted against a regional need for action on waterways? A very mixed message and a bewildered electorate.
As has been the norm in recent federal elections, the winner is not likely to be clear on election night, with counting and horse trading continuing well into next week.
Jacquelynne Willcox is EVP and MD of Powell Tate Australia. She will be live tweeting the election @jacwillcox