The NSW state Opposition? After the massacre of the not-so-innocent at the NSW election on March 26, the official Opposition will comprise just a thin line along the front bench, with nothing behind it. According to ABC analyst Antony Green’s forecast, there will probably be one less Labor opposition member in the Legislative Assembly than there will be ministers in the 22-member Barry O’Farrell coalition cabinet. They can all be shadow ministers – with one of them having to double-up to cover the government portfolios.
Of this rump of only 21, just under half have had no ministerial experience whatsoever, two have been parliamentary secretaries, three have been undistinguished backbenchers and five are newcomers to the parliament, replacing the Labor MPs who either cut and ran or, as former Premier Kristina Keneally unkindly said, had been pushed out in the cause of renewal. And of the 11 former ministers, there are two former Premiers who will not be leading the disgruntled survivors, a former deputy Premier who also does not want the top job and several with some serious axes to grind about the favourite for the thankless job of opposition leader in a newly defeated party, John Robertson.
Not even the upper house looks like providing any salve to Labor’s grievous wounds, with the Labor-Greens combination that keeps Julia Gillard in power in Canberra only able to muster 18 Legislative Council votes (or possibly 19 if the Greens can edge current count leader Pauline Hanson out of the last spot). By going into the election with seven seats on the line and ending up with an extra four, the coalition now has 19 members out of a house of 42. It only needs the support of three of the four (or maybe five) conservative-oriented "others" (the two Christian Democrats, the two Shooters and Fishers and possibly Pauline Hanson) to get its legislation through that chamber. If the O’Farrell steamroller has not run out of puff by the next election, Labor’s 14 MLCs could face further reduction in 2015, when it will have nine members facing the electorate compared to the coalition’s eight.
So the real opposition to the record-breaking 69-MP O’Farrell government will end up being the default settings – the media and the coalition’s 47-strong back bench. The media will need little encouragement to see itself as the de-facto opposition; the opportunity to attack a "conservative" government (even one dominated by the so-called moderates of the Liberal Party) will have much of the media salivating, particularly at the ABC. O’Farrell will doubtless be hoping the Kerry O’Brien paints himself into one of his four corners and that Stateline’s Quentin Dempster goes on a course of mogadon.
If media management will be important for O’Farrell’s long-term survival (but hopefully less transparent than the blatant spin-doctoring that helped destroy Labor), management of a backbench twice the size of his ministry will be a key priority. There are simply not enough jobs to go around and there are some very able backbenchers, particularly in the new intake, who have the potential to outperform some the old-stagers in the O’Farrell shadow ministry that is being converted into the real thing.
The prospect of some sort of reshuffle in a year or so may keep many restless souls on the backbench focussed on the need for discipline. And there is no doubting O’Farrell’s capacity for uniting a party that has a track record of enthusiastic fragmentation – his four years as Opposition Leader demonstrated that. But he faces an even greater challenge on this score in government when the spoils of office are theoretically available to all the victors.
The reality of politics is that with so many traditionally Labor seats now occupied by Liberals (several for the first time ever), the risk of involuntary retirement in four years may well encourage rebellion against the tough measures
that O’Farrell must take to fulfil his promise to make NSW Number 1 again. This was a problem that Malcolm Fraser failed to solve. His election promise to cut back the waste of the profligate Whitlam government foundered within months of the parliament’s first sittings in early 1976 because he chose a politically inept method of demonstrating his determination to remove inappropriate expenditure.
His first symbolic gesture was the removal of the funeral benefit for pensioners, which cost more to administer than the miserly $1 million or so a year that went towards burying them. On the face of it, a benefit that cost even
more to administer was a good candidate for the chop. But there were two factors
he failed to take into account when the proposal was introduced into one of the first party room meetings of a new government full of backbenchers like me occupying what had been Labor seats. Firstly, it was politically foolish to single out dying pensioners as the symbol of the government’s determination to be tough, particularly as the following month’s NSW state election was bound to rest on the outcome of two marginal seats (the Blue Mountains and Gosford) both of which were populated by considerable numbers of incipient corpses. Secondly, the party room had not been told that the administrative cost in reality saved many millions of dollars because applicants for the benefit speedily alerted the
Department of Social Security of the death of their pensioner relative; as a result the relevant pension cheques were immediately stopped.
There is a moral for Barry O’Farrell in this. Fraser’s response to overwhelming objection in a bloated party room (where no votes are taken but rather a search for consensus) was to ignore it and push ahead with the legislation on the grounds that failure to do so would damage the government’s anti-waste credentials – and his own authority. But eight Liberal senators took the view that the party room clearly did not want this inappropriate symbol and crossed the floor to defeat it. Fraser then got the worst of all worlds – seen to have been anti-pensioner and to have been brought down to size by his own party; a big majority made up of nervous nellies became an excuse for first-term fiscal indolence.
And the Liberals then lost government in NSW as Blue Mountains and Gosford fell to Neville Wran. Pensioners certainly turned -- and they were not yet in their graves. Unlike Fraser, O’Farrell must be tough – but not mean.