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Why Iemma isn't 'Italian for Unsworth'

By Graham Young - posted Monday, 5 March 2007

If “Iemma is Italian for Unsworth”, according to Barrie Cassidy, then what is “Debnam” English for? Certainly not “Greiner”. In 1988 Nick Greiner beat Barry Unsworth in a landslide, Unsworth having been given the hospital pass of Labor leadership by Neville Wran.

When Cassidy made his linguistic quip on The Insiders he obviously expected history to repeat itself. But our On Line Opinion polling shows that history will not be repeated, and that the blame for that lies squarely with the Liberal Party.

The research says that if the Liberal Party had stuck with Brogden then they would be likely to be winning with a landslide. Instead, if there is a protest vote it will probably go to punish them, for being such a woefully inept opposition.


As one participant says (note that all quotes are verbatim, including typos): “The NSW Government under Iemma (and formerly under Carr) has shown itself to be incompetent, media driven, and cringingly toadying to corporate interests. Iemma has no spine, no plan, and is a total moral vaccuum. The problem is that the Liberals are infected with the religious hard right, and are likely to be even worse. So it's the lesser of two evils between a Labor state government which deserves to be thrown out of office, and a Coalition state opposition which doesn't deserve to win. Great choice.”

And for balance, another: “An opposition has to be an alternative. Peter Debnam is a nurd. No one votes for a nurd. It is impossible to see the Liberal party beyond this poor leader. Heaven knows that with Iemma leading labor we needed a strong effective opposition and we get Debnam. What did we do wrong!”

How did things come to this pass?

When asked whether the state was heading in the right direction the majority of our voters decisively say “No”. Only 16 per cent agreed, with 59 per cent disagreeing, and this was fairly consistent across parties, with only Labor supporters - 51 per cent thought the state heading in the right direction - bucking the trend. The reasons for this answer variously came back to the performance of the government. Around one-third nominated the government directly, while 10 per cent fingered under-investment in infrastructure and a further 9 per cent a failure to address the issues.

But dissatisfaction with the government is not translating into support for the opposition. Our polls are qualitative, so while they give a very good feel for the issues, they can only infer support for various parties. What we can infer tends to support Newspoll and the other properly randomised surveys (PDF 20KB), which is that the Coalition vote is probably worse than last election; Greens are also down, Independents up, and no matter how implausibly, Labor up as well.

While many of our respondents (28 per cent) expect a hung parliament, based on their own voting intentions, this is not going to happen.


Part of the reason for this must rest with the issues that voters find important. The most important to voters is water (25 per cent), followed by climate change (11 per cent). Then follows health (8 per cent), infrastructure (8 per cent), environment (6 per cent), sustainability (6 per cent), and probity (5 per cent).

Traditionally the Labor Party does better on conservation issues than the Coalition, while electors also tend to trust governments rather than oppositions on the issue of water. There’s nothing here for the Coalition to gain traction on. In part this must represent a failure by them to assert an alternative agenda giving voters a reason to change.

Some of that failure comes back to a failure of leadership. Our respondents disapproved of Iemma (-14 per cent), but they even more disapprove of Debnam (-54 per cent). Some of this is attributable to the left-lean of our sample. Some of it is also attributable to lukewarm support for Debnam from Coalition supporters. While 71 per cent of Labor supporters approve of Morris Iemma, only 41 per cent (that’s less than half) of Liberals approve of Debnam. Which doesn’t mean that most Liberals disapprove of Debnam, but that 47 per cent (that’s almost half) “neither approve nor disapprove”!

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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