When he was first elected leader of the NSW Parliamentary Liberal Party, John Brogden was asked if he could win the next election. His reply was that he was a Catholic and he believed in miracles. Well, miracles don't always happen when you want them, no matter how much faith you might have, and John Brogden is not going to win this election.
Last Sunday, on Terry Lane's The National Interest, Brogden was talking up his chances, citing results like the so-called "Queensland effect" in 1995 when Rob Borbidge and Joan Sheldon beat Wayne Goss, then Australia's most popular premier. Talking these results up is not the way to maximise his chances of doing well in the New South Wales election.
The focus group research that we have been doing tells us a number of things. One is that Bob Carr is not very popular. Rather voters see him as capable - like a "bull-terrier" - but they are also conscious that after eight years he doesn't seem to have achieved much of what he has promised. They are uncomfortable with his team, seeing many of them as "thuggy", and they believe that Carr will not see out his full term. There is a protest vote against him, but it is going to the Greens (recent polling by Roy Morgan puts the Greens vote as high as 16 per cent but don't pay a lot of attention to their take on the Iraq war effect, it is not borne out by the qualitative research). In fact, of our respondents, 48 per cent of Greens voters normally vote Labor. The drift of Greens to the ALP has been amplified by the ALP's perceived lack of "moral fibre" over the Tampa.
When John Brogden says that "We need a fresh approach that will confront the issues that matter, not avoid them, especially in the areas of crime and safety, health and education", he gets a head nod for the issues but voters believe that Bob Carr is better placed to deal with them. This is because they see Brogden as too young and inexperienced, and because they see the NSW Liberal Party as an unstable destroyer of leaders. Worse, when the party runs conventional political lines and says that it is going to win the next election, voters turn away. Their strong expectation is that Labor will win, and the Liberal Party's contradiction of this just proves that politicians are out of touch and untrustworthy, reducing their tendency to vote Liberal.
The Liberal Party has been running hard on law and order but we have yet to find a focus group that believes that any government is going to improve the problem. Rather they tie drug reform into the crime problem, believing that harsh drug laws create crime. Our focus groups share a similar view on drugs to the Greens. One of the major strategic blunders of the Liberal Party has been refusing to preference the Greens. With Liberal Party preferences the Greens could have been a threat to the Labor Party in seats like Port Jackson and Marrickville, setting them up to be as unsettling to NSW Labor as One Nation was to the Queensland National and Liberal Parties. The Liberal Party's decision appears to have been based on the Greens' drug policy. Our groups would suggest that this only compounded the mistake showing that the Libs were out of touch with community thinking.
How should Brogden's Liberals have run this campaign? I'm not going to directly answer this question but I am going to suggest how Brogden could have rescued his campaign yesterday, at its launch. Here is the speech that he should have given:
Mr Chairman, I came into this campaign inexperienced as a leader, but I've learnt a lot in the last 4 weeks. People have been saying to me "John, why are you doing this? You've got no chance of winning". I've been telling them and you that we will win.
What I've learned in this campaign is that make believe won't work. The truth is that we will not win next Saturday. The polls say it, and the people of NSW have been telling me that for weeks. This campaign is not about the Liberal Party winning, it is about holding Bob Carr accountable. And when Bob Carr leaves state politics it is about keeping Carl Scully or Craig Knowles, or whatever other person succeeds him accountable.
It's true that Bob Carr has a lot of experience. But after his 15 years as ALP leader our class sizes are still the worst in the country, crime is rising and the queues for hospital beds stretch over the horizon. He still has a lot to learn, and what he has learned so far has been at our expense.
You've all come here because you want to see us win. It's not easy for me to make this speech. In fact, I've been advised not to make it. "No-one wants to work for a candidate that's planning to come second," they say.
But what we all have to understand is this. This party will never be trusted to come first unless it can demonstrate that the trust is deserved. And that means going out there next Saturday and working hard, knowing that while we will have some notable successes amongst our candidates, Bob Carr will still be Premier on Monday 24 March. Knowing that our goal this election is not to be number on, but to be in a position to keep number one honest.
One thing is for certain. Bob Carr expects to win in a landslide, and if he does, who then will be able to reign him in?