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NSW state election: competing interpretations

By John Warhurst - posted Wednesday, 30 March 2011

There are two alternative propositions that arise from the huge defeat of the NSW Labor government, following the recent Labor defeat in Victoria, that now brings to three the number of non-Labor state governments. It is worth describing these perspectives in their pure form, without qualifications, to set up an informed discussion of what has just happened in NSW. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

One proposition is that this debacle was all about the Labor brand per se and that it therefore signals the end of all or most of the remaining six Labor governments across Australia, including the Gillard federal government, in the near future as the respective elections come around over the next couple of years. This scenario links Labor governments together and foresees a sea-change in Australian politics that will alter the face of Australian governments for some time. Some commentators go further than this and hint that Labor will never be the same again.

The second proposition is that this was an election fought largely on local state issues and that it is just NSW Labor that is on the nose not the Labor Party per se. This proposition views each election across Australia fought largely on local issues and state elections fought on separate issues from federal elections. In this case there were a number of specific issues that do not apply elsewhere.


As always the truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Other Labor governments will be watching and will be nervous. They will fear being swept away by a rolling tsunami. But only time will tell.

There are some lessons from the result that certainly apply to all governments, including the dangers of longevity for long-running governments , increasing electoral volatility, and the pressures from voters for better service provision in matters such as health and transport.

There are also specific NSW factors that appear not to apply elsewhere in Australia at the state level, though Queensland will be a real test of this proposition. The NSW-specific factors included frequent leadership changes, overt disruptive factionalism, and widespread personal misbehavior by ministers and MPs.

In the case of the implications for the Gillard government there is also the broader question of federal-state balance and how the federal electorate might respond in 2013 if faced with wall to wall Coalition governments (to use John Howard-type terminology when he was faced with an array of state Labor governments).

So what were the factors that caused the amazing NSW result; a dream result for the Coalition unlike any ever seen in Australian political history and a total debacle with almost no redeeming features for Labor? First there are the institutional and historical factors then the factors specific to government performance over the last four years.

The NSW state-centred explanation must begin with the 2007 state election result. Labor survived when it shouldn't have and the Coalition, led by Peter Debnam for the Liberals, lost the unloseable state election. How Labor must now wish they had lost four years ago after twelve years in office; their losses would have been respectable and any self-inflicted damage since then would have been hidden in Opposition or not happened at all.


The newly-elected Iemma Labor government then faced a four year term of office. Two years ago the Sydney media were calling for the election to be brought on immediately in order to put the government out of its misery (the whole idea of four year terms came under heavy criticism). If the election had been last year after three years in office the damage to Labor might have somewhat less; though the defeat would still have been heavy.

During the last four years NSW has had three premiers, Morris Iemma, Nathan Rees and Kristina Keneally. Keneally had been in office for fifteen months. Widely praised for her attractive personal presence and indefatigable campaigning she was unable to staunch the legion of defecting voters; in fact things continued to get worse for the government and its leader and it is hard to imagine a worse result under Rees, much less Iemma. The leadership changes projected an image of instability and disunity.

Then there were the personal debacles, almost too many to list. The government descended into farce as minister after minister and MP after MP was forced to resign in disgrace. When nothing worse seemed possible something even more bizarre happened. There were conflicts of interest, sexual abuse charges, general crudity,marital infidelity, children out of wedlock, gay bars, rigging of staffing entitlements, accessing of pornography on parliamentary computers, and so on. Both the Independent Commission against Corruption and the NSW Police were called into play on a regular basis.

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About the Author

John Warhurst is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science with the Australian National University and Flinders University and a columnist with the Canberra Times.

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