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For NSW voters divorcing Labor will be the easy part

By Malcolm Colless - posted Monday, 21 March 2011

A fundamental question which NSW voters will be asking themselves after they tip Labor out of Government in next weekend's State election is: Now what?

And the answer to what should be a relatively straightforward question does not immediately spring to mind. This is because the Coalition Opposition parties, led by Liberal Barry O'Farrell, have adopted a small target, risk averse, strategy over the long haul to polling day.

As a result a general feeling of community relief at finally terminating Labor's 16 year which has ended up plunging the State into a management crisis could well be tinged with apprehension at the shape of things to come.


When the conservatives under Prime Minister, John Howard, were thrown out of office in 2007 the policy choices were clear. Labor, under Kevin Rudd, was offering a younger more vibrant team to replace an aging leader who had lost touch with community aspirations. Labor's ability, with the help of a well heeled union movement, to drive a stake through the Coalition's heart on the debacle of Work Choices said it all. It was, simply, time for a change and the electorate felt comfortable enough, with a booming economy and full employment, to take the risk.

That the economic situation quickly deteriorated under the global financial crisis and the Labor Government set about triggering a whole series of costly policy disasters which brought down Rudd along the way is another matter altogether.

The choice confronting the NSW electorate is totally different. It is similar to the one faced by the hapless Victorian community in 1992 after years of appalling administration by successive Labor leaders.

They had a pretty good idea about what was in store when they swept the bombastic, larger than life Liberal leader Jeff Kennett into power. And he did not let them down taking office with all guns blazing.

Kennett immediately began a rapid and sweeping restructuring of the public sector on a scale never seen before in Australian politics. Within 18 months he had cut spending by 10 per cent, slashed the size of the public service , imposed a $100 a year levy on all households and overhauled the state's local government system scrapping nearly 380 councils in the process.

During his long march to power O'Farrell has always been quick to slap down suggestions that he is acting in a policy void. Indeed he has showered the route to the Treasury benches with policy statements that have fallen like confetti. But maybe this is a big part of the problem. For example how many have resonated with the voters?


They certainly know what Labor is doing wrong, particularly in areas such as transport, hospitals, education and power costs. And the Opposition has lost no opportunity to remind the electorate of Labor's track record of mismanagement--if they needed any reminding.

But anecdotally the question which keeps surfacing is : This is all very well. But what does O'Farrell stand for? The answer, in a nutshell, is: Better Government.

One would hope so because it is hard to see how things could get much worse. Winning next Saturday will guarantee the Coalition four years in power. But it will take at least a second term to start reaping the benefits of the arduous rebuilding process that is necessary in NSW to get it back on its feet.

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About the Author

Malcolm Colless is a freelance journalist and political commentator. He was a journalist on The Times in London from 1969-71 and Australian correspondent for the Wall Street Journal from 1972-76. He was political editor of The Australian, based in Canberra, from 1977-81 and a director of News Ltd from 1991-2007.

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