Modia Minotaur

Trawling the airwaves to spare you the agony!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

NSW Election Washup

I crawl out from under a day which started with tying coloured balloons to the gate of a local primary school and ended with a particularly boisterous victory party (praise daylight saving!) to deliver this analysis of last night's results.

In a broad sense, many predictions proved correct - that the swing against the government was not uniform, but differed across seats and areas, and in some places - particularly the traditionally working class Western Suburbs - involved a swing towards Labor. Perhaps Merrick and Rosso's sentiments weren't far off the mark when they told Peter Debnam that the reason not everybody goes to the beach every morning is that some of them live in Penrith (for the record, Debnam is officially the Shadow Minister for the Western Suburbs).

However, several results demonstrate that certain trends have completely gone under the radar of most commentators - and perhaps, also, that over-analysis has distorted predictions. The decisions people made were, ultimately, much less complex than many had predicted. In fact, it largely appears most people have voted on local issues and based on their respect for individual local members and candidates. Fancy that!

As I predicted, the Greens primary vote remained nearly static, both in the Upper and Lower houses. In the inner city seats such as Balmain, seen as serious prospects, the party's primary vote was almost completely static (intriguingly, the Liberal Party made the bigger improvement, up 2.4%) and the seat ultimately won with ease by Labor's Verity Firth. Things initially looked a little more dicey in neighbouring Marrickville but sitting member Carmel Tebbutt was ultimately returned convincingly. Perhaps it's premature to declare the chances of the Greens winning a Lower House seat entirely over - but it's certainly significant to note that they have never once met the high expectations they and others have consistently predicted of them, and that statewide, the Christian Democrats won a larger swing.

One intriguing and unexpected turn of events is the fortunes of the National Party's sitting MPs, who have seen healthy swings towards them in nearly all the seats they hold. This would ostensibly seem to challenge the prevailing wisdom - especially given the distinctly unspectacular Federal National party - that the party is gradually being marginalised by Independents who are seen as better advocates for local issues. However, it also demonstrates the phenomenon - well known to Federal Labor - that it's all very well having the most popular local members, but it won't do you a bit of good if you don't win seats. Nevertheless, the party are likely to be pleased with Geoff Provost's defeat of sitting Labor MP Neville Newell in Tweed, the state's most marginal seat. Iin the end, it wasn't `Better The Neville You Know'. Instead, voters decided to `Give Geoff A Go'. (Yes, those were the real campaign slogans. And the NSW ALP copped it for `Heading In The Right Direction'!)

What of those high profile independents we heard so much about - in particular, the triumvirate of Hunter Valley local mayors, Peter Blackmore for Maitland, John Tate for Newcastle, and Greg Piper for Lake Macquarie? Despite Blackmore winning a large swing towards him and coming second on primaries, Frank Terenzini (succeeding the retiring John Price) retained the seat of Maitland for the ALP. The ALP also held Newcastle, after a controversial and closely run race (which, at one point last night, the ABC's Antony Green called in favour of Tate with some confidence). Dumped MP Bryce Gaudry may have left his run too late and split the Independent vote.

In the end, it was Greg Piper, who was given the smallest chance of the three, who in fact won the safe Labor seat off incumbent Jeff Hunter, in an intriguing result that nobody seemed to see coming. Thinking back, it's a wonder this is the case. Hunter has had to see off a number of high profile local issues - most notably, the highly controversial Centennial Coal mine at Cooranbong, the subject of the landmark Land and Environment Court obliging the company to take the greenhouse gas pollution potential of their product into account. Some pundits suggested this ruling would be a factor in left-leaning urban seats hundreds of miles away - in the end, it doesn't even seem to have been a factor in its own electorate. Instead, a loss of faith not only in Labor, who have held the seat since its creation, but all the major parties (the Liberal and Greens both saw major losses) - was clearly a deciding factor. Though rural independents have made ground, one interesting point is that the majority of gains made by the Liberal Party have come at the expense of urban Independents, such as Manly's David Barr and Pittwater's Alex McTaggart (the latter elected in somewhat abberant circumstances - the by-election following former Liberal leader John Brogden's resignation)

The Centennial Coal issue is a good demonstration of the impact of the `vocal majority' on policymaking and electioneering - well organised interest groups who are ultimately unrepresentative of the larger community. They exist on both ends of the political spectrum. Parties do listen to them, but in many cases, a little too closely. Take the seat of Monaro, for example, where the creation of the Batemans Marine Park stirred massive protests from environment groups, who thought protection measures were not great enough, and local fishermen, who though protection measures were far too stringent. Both groups threatened to use their influence to tip the incumbent, Steve Whan from his seat. In the event, he was returned with an increased majority.

I think it's also fair to attribute this victory - like that of Barry Collier and Alison Meggarrity in Miranda and Menai, their fourth successive victory in `naturally Liberal' seats - to local members who work incredibly hard, sometimes in opposition to their own parties (Whan was a vocal opponent of the government's plan to sell the Snowy Hydro scheme) on obtaining results and winning the trust of their local communities. At a time of endless celebrity candidates, the ultimate value of a good local member is something that must never, ever be neglected.

I won't take off my psephologist hat and make too many broad statements about why the government won and the Liberal Party lost, but suffice to say, this was a poor result for the Opposition and, at least numerically, a pretty spectacular result for a government about to enter its fourth term. However, there is some truth in Peter Debnam's proclamation of the victory as voters giving `one last chance' to the current government, and I say that as a member of the ALP. To win a fifth term without performing spectacularly will be a big ask - almost unprecedented - especially if the Opposition finally get their act together. The Iemma Government will have to work hard to retain or obtain the trust of those who did not vote Labor out of any particular passion. It is possible, especially if Iemma elevates the best talent and continues working hard on defining the party as something new and different from the Carr Government. It'll just be an awful lot of work.

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