No one – with the exception of full-time writer and occasional prophet Bob Ellis – falsely anticipated the result of last Saturday’s NSW election. Even so, many commentators misread the campaign and now have misunderstood its outcome. It is now appropriate to consider the 2011 election myths in the light of available empirical evidence.
Much of the focus, both before and after the election, has been on Labor. Last night Late Night Live conducted a prearranged forum at the ABC‘s Eugene Goossens Hall. Phillip Adams said that this would be “a program on how one might go about resurrecting a party that’s gone about destroying itself”. On Sunday the ABC TV reporter Matt Wordsworth reported on the result in terms of how many seats Labor had lost.
There are not many contests where the focus of analysis turns on the loser rather than the winner. What was interesting about the NSW election is not that Labor lost but rather that the Coalition won so convincingly. Only two Liberals have won office in NSW from opposition since the end of World War II. Namely, Robert Askin in 1965 and Nick Greiner in 1988. Barry O’Farrell’s primary vote in 2011 was bigger than that attained by Askin or Greiner and the Coalition’s two-party preferred vote in 2011 was dramatically larger than in 1965 or 1988. That’s the real news of the election.
O’Farrell led the Coalition to the biggest political victory in Australian history in what is traditionally a Labor state. Few commentators are focused on likely consequences. The reason is that there was an assumption that Labor’s left-of-centre support base would collapse and
find its way to the Greens. Instead much of Labor’s vote went straight
to the Coalition.
It was generally assumed that Greens candidates Fiona Byrne and Jamie Parker would easily win Marrickville and Balmain respectively. Byrne has lost to the Labor incumbent, Carmel Tebbutt, and it seems that Parker has failed to defeat Labor’s Verity Firth. This should not have come as such a surprise since the Greens polled poorly in Victoria last November. In Victoria, the Liberals directed their preferences to Labor ahead of the Greens. NSW has an optional preferential system and the Liberals decided to recommend a primary vote only.
It appears that Byrne’s middle-class radicalism, symbolised by her advocacy of a boycott of Israel, was too much even for the inner-city left. The Greens in NSW are a leftist party. This will be cemented when Senator-elect Lee Rhiannon goes to Canberra in July. She is the daughter of the late Stalinists Bill and Freda Brown and graduated from the Socialist Party of Australia to the Greens.
The focus on Labor and the Greens has undervalued the performance of O’Farrell and the Liberals along with Andrew Stoner and the Nationals. O’Farrell is very able. He is one of the best-read politicians in Australia – a habit he shares with former Labor premier Bob Carr. Moreover, O’Farrell is a man of the suburbs, whose wife, Rosemary O’Farrell (nee Cowan), was a one-time political staffer and the daughter of a long-serving National Party MP. They make an astute political couple.
Despite what Labor, the Greens and the independents might say, there are some clear implications in the NSW election for federal politics. First up, the collapse of the independent vote in Port Macquarie and Tamworth should send a clear message to Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor respectively. Electors in those conservative seats now seem to prefer Nationals to independents.
Also, the strength of the Coalition vote in the Hunter Valley, the Illawarra and western Sydney suggests that the Coalition’s anti-carbon tax campaign had an impact. To some, O’Farrell is a moderate, non-ideological Liberal – unlike Tony Abbott. But O’Farrell attacked the carbon tax proposal with as much vehemence as Abbott. Both cut through on this issue.
When O’Farrell became opposition leader four years ago, he appointed himself the spokesman on western Sydney. He has worked hard in western Sydney as well as regional NSW and understands the aspirations and concerns of voters outside of the inner city, the eastern suburbs and north shore.
Yesterday on ABC News Breakfast, the Melbourne academic Waleed Aly told the Melbourne journalist Michael Rowland that a carbon tax had nothing to do with the extent of Labor’s defeat in NSW. Don’t believe it. Academics and journalists spend a lot of time speaking to each other and to well-educated and relatively well-off professionals in permanent or at least secure employment.
The Coalition made its biggest inroads on Saturday in outer suburban and regional areas, among the less educated and the less well off and where employment (for those who are in the workforce) is not all that secure. The fact is that men and women who run their own businesses, and who have dependent children, are less likely to embrace a carbon tax than inner-city sixty-something professors. Sure, Labor was almost destined to lose in NSW after 16 years of office. However, the extent of the defeat is not explained according to normal criteria. This election was different.
In the lead-up to the federal election last year, Labor underestimated Abbott. In the lead-up to the NSW election this year, Labor failed to appreciate that O’Farrell – and not the likes of Byrne and Parker – was the threat to its heartland. Labor’s error at both federal and state levels has been to focus too much on inner-city concerns at the expense of the voters living in the suburbs and regions.
If you are of modest means and having trouble paying the power bill, it stands to reason that climate change is not the greatest moral challenge of our time.