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Heading to the bottom: the NSW elections

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Tuesday, 22 March 2011


When it comes to examining elections in Australia, few come close to the analytical fastidiousness of Antony Green, who seems ageless each time he appears with his prognoses on the ABC. His preview of the NSW election packs a punch: 'It is often said that governments tend to win one election more than they deserve, and the consequences for the government at the next election are usually severe. For the NSW Labor government, the extra election win in 2007, and its prospects in 2011 look dire.'

The 2007 victory for Labor was one of history's more poorly deserved ones. It was scored by a vicious attack on the Liberal leader Peter Debnam, who was already leading a deeply divided party keen on committing electoral suicide. That the Iemma government survived was deeply improbable. Such a survival for the incumbent government for March 26 will require a dose of electoral black magic Certainly, Premier Kristina Keneally is hoping for some, and has claimed, in her New World optimism, that she is 'loving the campaign' (Sydney Morning Herald, Mar 18).

The state of politics in NSW is lamentable. Electors are left looking at which political party will hit the bottom first. The main contenders have had four televised debates and seemingly bickered themselves into oblivion. Keneally is running on the government's record on health, education and economic soundness, while insisting that her opponent cannot be trusted. 'I know there is a mood for change in NSW, but I challenge the notion that must mean a change in government,' she told her audience during the last televised debate between herself and opposition leader Barry O'Farrell. She has also made it clear that NSW will back Prime Minister Julia Gillard's carbon tax proposal, footing the bill of compensation that is bound to be large.

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While Keneally seems to be readying herself for a stint on the opposition benches, O'Farrell has struggled to find an enthusiastic streak. One of the worse things in a political struggle is having the prospect of victory handed to you on a platter. It induces complaisance, laziness and a loose tongue. The idea that a loss might occur at the last moment never enters the contestant's mind.

O'Farrell has decided to flood the electorate with promises of reviews, prompting Keneally to note that, 'Barry has more reviews than Broadway.' A judicial inquiry into the electricity sell-off, a review of Infrastructure NSW to see which transport project should commence, and an audit of finances, has been promised. An independent panel of constitutional experts will also be established by the Liberals to examine the idea of recall elections, should they win office.

As any half-educated political eye will note, one only has inquiries to stifle outcomes, and it is little surprising that O'Farrell has been short on detail. Various key promises centre on investing $3 billion in hospitals, removing the 3A planning laws and focusing on the ever hazardous subject of rail links. Inevitable hyperbole features as well. Tourism will be doubled by 2020, an outcome no party can either predict, let alone know. There are 'no plans to sell Sydney Water or Hunter Water', or 'no offshore outsourcing of public sector jobs or services.'

When one is short on detail, swollen claims are duly made. Judging by some of his statements, O'Farrell must have communicated via telepathy with former US speaker of the house Newt Gingritch. The British Prime Minister David Cameron was also not spared the flattery of imitation. O'Farrell, it seems, has fallen for the idea of 'a contract with the people', or, in this case, 'Contract with NSW'. In a rather insensible, meaningless gesture, he has decided to sign a series of pledges with the public – and mail them. 'This contract sets out our commitments. It says to people, put it aside, hold us to account if we don't deliver' (702 ABC, Sydney, Mar 16).

Such signatures are often not worth the paper they are signed on. (O'Farrell's signature is surely not going to be authentic, given that a million 'contracts' is a tall order.) Besides, such ceremonial confessions demonstrate only that O'Farrell is pitching a monologue in the hope that it will have dramatic purchase. The 'people' are hardly there to append their inked signatures to the document in return or accept it. Politicians are there to govern, but one need not be as disingenuous as this. But in the world where public relations, rather than policy, is the engine room of politics, we can get such comments as those by one of O'Farrell's spokesmen. 'It has never been done in NSW before and that explains why there have been so may broken promises' (Daily Telegraph, Mar 16).

Both major contenders have decided to go for the 'big state' option. While the Commonwealth is desperate to cut back on population growth, Australia's biggest state was to get bigger. For Keneally, 'NSW can either shrink or it can grow' (The Australian, Mar 19). O'Farrell was inclined to agree. The future of the state's salvation lies in immigration.

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As ever, political pundits in Australia will be interested to see how the Greens perform in Australia's largest state. The Catholic Bishops have already made their vote clear: don't vote for a group who might be keen to sneak in a whole set of 'questionable' social policies via the backdoor of environmental politics. 'Greens who are elected,' says The Green Agenda document, 'will bring a whole set of policies.' (What a remarkable suggestion – a party with a whole set of policies rather than just one.) 'You cannot pick and choose. They are not only concerned for the environment.' That Greens have not been just concerned for the environment for decades is not something that should shock the gentlemen clergy.

The clincher for the Greens lies in the proposed transfer of $780 million a year from state and federal funding of non-governments to public education. The Greens believe such a move will have little impact on Catholic or independent schools. The Liberals think otherwise.

As always, Green's obsession with figures may be just a fancy, but there is little doubt that a Labour survival is virtually out of the question. The period of dominance by Labour at the state level is at an end. The house of cards is about to fall.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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