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NSW politics is terribly dull. It’s just debacle after debacle; scandal after scandal with very little ground with which to defend the NSW Labor Government. And, equally, the NSW election would have been dreadfully boring too. The NSW Labor Party will lose this election, and that would have been that.

Until December of last year when Eric Roozendaal decided to sneakily privatise some electricity assets as though no one would ever notice. It’s a decision I find distressingly confusing because I can’t see why any politician – even (or perhaps especially) a conniving poll-driven vote-grabbing politician. I understand Roozendaal’s ideological commitment to privatisation (and I understand that selling it off was even the correct policy choice, even if the State didn’t get the best price)- but why do it just before an election? Was it to add a tiny amount to the Budget for pork-barreling projects? Whatever the reason, it backfired badly.

And that’s when State politics became interesting. It’s almost like watching a car crash – you’re entranced and horrified at the same time. What’s worse is that words cannot describe the devastation without inappropriate comments post-Japan’s tsunami. The words tsunami and nuclear are off the table. The only apt expression is zombie apocalypse (which would only have been more apt if Peter Debnam remained Opposition Leader).

Labor began with a workable strategy to sandbag 30 of its safest seats. This was not an optimistic strategy. The record uniform swing of 7.4% in any election was recorded in 1975, the election right after the Whitlam Dismissal. The 30 safest seats all have margins above 10%. In other words, the Labor Party’s greatest hope was to only lose 1.5 times as badly as the worst drubbing the ALP had ever faced.

After the privatisation debacle, things became a lot worse. Opinion polls show uniform swings of between 15-20% against the Labor Party. That’s more than double the drubbing that Whitlam faced in 1975. What’s worse is that some opinion polls show 20-25% swings in some seats. The Premier’s own seat of Heffron couldn’t withstand a 25% swing. Labor risks having less lower House seats than Shadow Cabinet seats.

In the face of such devastating certitude, what surprise can there be in this election result? I think several interesting questions can be posed:

  1. How will the Greens fare in this environment? Can they replicate their success in the Federal election?
  2. Will there be a sweep of independents to balance the power of Barry O’Farrell?
  3. Who will control the upper house?
  4. What are the consequences in a democracy where the Opposition hasn’t even enough members to form a Shadow Cabinet?

1. The Greens

I commented in a previous blog (mainly here but also here) on the likelihood of the Greens sweeping NSW given their performance in Victoria. I stand by much of that analysis (particular my description of Victoria as “a small to middling State to our south“).

To reiterate my point, the poor performance of the Victorian Greens overall suggested that there was not a permanent structural shift to a genuine three-party system in Australia. Whilst the Greens gained a tiny shift in first preferences (of 1.17%), they failed to gain any lower house seats (despite 4 promising seats). This was attributed by the media to the Victorian Liberal’s strong principled decision not to direct first preferences to the Greens in those seats. I concluded, however, with a warning. The election of the Federal Greens demonstrated that the right confluence of events in the factual matrix could provide the impetus for a Green revolt.

How does that play out in NSW? Whilst the opinion polls leading up to the election increased to a peak of 17% in October 2010 and February 2011, the most recent poll in March has them back down to 11%. As the election comes nearer, voters are beginning to really think through the consequences of voting Green and the inadequate, impractical solutions they offer. And they inevitably turn back to the major parties who have practical, if imperfect, solutions to offer.

What factors favour the Greens?

In an issueless election, the Greens don’t have those hot button issues they could latch onto in the 2009 Federal Campaign. Global warming, foreign affairs, immigration are all Commonwealth jurisdiction. The Greens have been reduced to campaigning on a platform of motherhood statements about creating more national parks, funding public education and public transport. The Greens’ upper House candidate, David Shoebridge has been reduced to making negative comments about the major parties’ announcements with few policy announcements of his own. The Green-dominated Marrickville Council has even decided to make foreign affairs a local government issue (of all things!) by announcing a trade embargo with Israel.

The lack of discipline within Green ranks is also showing. The Marrickville-Israel issue being the perfect example. Unlike the Federal Greens, with the strong leadership of Bob Brown and his loyal deputy Christine Milne, the NSW Greens are as rotten as the NSW Labor Party. Disagree with his policies and his practicality all you like, you can’t say that Bob Brown hasn’t embraced the new language and ideals of the Left in the 2000s. He speaks the language of human rights, accountability, environmental sustainability without treading the old paths of socialism. The NSW Greens (as I’ve been told by those in the know) are the remnants of the communists and various malcontents from the 1980s. In the NSW Upper House, they’ve been obstructionist using arguments of accountability to demand documents and obstruct progress without actually enhancing democratic accountability and transparency. Under their watch, national parks have been weakened and they have allowed the Shooters Party and Fred Nile to dominate the Upper House which could easily have been prevented by aligning themselves with the Labor Party (on some issues at least).

These discipline issues are showing up in the Greens’ statewide campaign. With bland, unenthusiastic campaigning, the Greens aren’t pressing home their advantage to gain more upper house seats. They’re recycling tired old arguments and the same pitch they’ve given year after year. Where are the vivacious arguments we might have seen? Why not use their bright, shiny image to push through a package of accountability reforms? That would present themselves as a genuine third party alternative to the battered Labor Government and the non-existent Liberal Party. Why not push for euthanasia laws, which apparently have 85% support? That’s a strong, moral issue that people can connect with. More importantly, raising the issue will put the Greens in the spotlight where they surely want to be. Or why not even push the case that we need the Greens to hold the balance of power in the Legislative Council, or else One Nation, the Shooters and Fred Nile will hold it?

The Federal Greens are also hampering the NSW Greens by their tough negotiations with the ALP. The Greens are openly fighting with the government, and the Government seems to have made it clear to the public that it is the Greens who have forced a carbon tax on the Australian public. The greatest danger, though, is that the Federal Greens by their mere presence have shown that the Greens are now a real force and not merely a protest vote. As a result, people are less likely to vote for them.

Realistically, the only thing buoying the Greens is the same thing that’s buoying everyone else. And that’s the methane emanating from the rotting carcass of the NSW Labor Party. I don’t doubt the Greens will win 2 lower House seats and roughly the same number of upper House seats. But I can’t see them performing much stronger than they have in past elections.

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