Some surprises in Baird’s unsurprising triumph

31 May 2015

The recent state election in New South Wales turned out pretty much as predicted.  Premier Mike Baird and the Coalition parties survived a large swing against them to win the election with a comfortable majority.  They were always going to suffer a large swing, since the previous election in 2011 had seen a massive swing to the Liberal-National Coalition as voters comprehensively tossed the Labor Party out of office amid a stench of incompetence and scandal, but the swing to Labor now wasn’t thought likely to defeat the Coalition.

It’s not uncommon for a large swing in one direction at one election to be followed by a large swing the opposite way at the next.  I saw such swings and reversals in the Federal elections of 1996 and 1998, and more recently in the Queensland elections of 2012 and this year, so I expected this to happen in NSW.  Mind you, the Queensland scenario was different because both elections saw the governing party lose office, both the Labor Party in 2012 and the Liberal National Party this year – it’s probably rare to see two consecutive elections resulting in big swings and changing of governments.

Nonetheless, the NSW election had the Coalition fighting for privatisation of electricity assets to fund upgrades to roads and schools and other things.  Voters weren’t keen on electricity privatisation, which they might’ve perceived as resulting in higher electricity charges under private operators who cared more about profits than providing a reliable electricity supply, but an anti-privatisation campaign by Labor didn’t really scare voters away from the Coalition.  There was talk about other issues possibly biting, like the unpopularity of some planned road tunnels in inner Sydney and concerns about alleged corruption by MPs, but they turned out to be local issues in just a few seats.

The unpopularity of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Federal Coalition was also tipped to hurt Baird.  Indeed both Baird and Abbott represent the same region in different parliaments – Baird holds the State seat of Manly and Abbott holds the overlapping Federal seat of Warringah.  And after Queensland’s election had earlier seen the defeat of the Newman LNP Government, whose leader was an attacker like Abbott, many tipped an “Abbott factor” to hurt Baird.  But this didn’t occur.

Helping the Coalition was a whopping parliamentary majority – it won the previous election 69-20 over Labor in terms of seats, and the loss of a few seats in by-elections, as well as several MPs over corruption allegations, didn’t reduce the Coalition’s majority by much.  The Coalition also had a popular leader in Baird, who seems more energetic and likeable than many other leaders.  Having a popular leader and a strong parliamentary majority shielded the Coalition from any major backlash, over electricity privatisation or corruption or whatever.

In the end, unsurprisingly, the Coalition won comfortably, albeit just in the Lower House of Parliament, namely the Legislative Assembly.  It didn’t win enough seats to control the Upper House of Parliament, the Legislative Council – here it won nine out of twenty-one available seats, and its legislation won’t get through here without enough minor parties’ support.

Out of ninety-three Assembly seats, the Coalition won fifty-four and Labor won thirty-four, while the Greens won three and Independents won two.  In terms of my predictions, the Coalition won three more seats than I’d tipped and Labor won three less, while my prediction of two seats for the Greens and three for Independents turned out to be the reverse.

I correctly tipped Labor to win Blue Mountains, Campbelltown, Granville, Londonderry, Macquarie Fields, Maitland, Prospect, Rockdale, Strathfield, Swansea, and Wyong from the Coalition.  My tips for the Coalition to win back Miranda from Labor after losing it in a by-election, and for the Greens to hold Balmain and win Newtown, were also correct.  And I got right three seats which had changed hands at by-elections in the previous two years – as per my tips, the Coalition by-election winner in Northern Tablelands was returned, as were the Labor by-election winners in Newcastle and Charlestown.

But I also made many incorrect tips, and some results were surprises.  I didn’t tip the Coalition to hold off Labor in Coogee, East Hills, Holsworthy, Kiama, Monaro, and Oatley – some of these seats should’ve gone to Labor quite easily.  Nor did I tip the Coalition to hold off a well-known Independent in Tamworth.  I also didn’t tip Labor wins in Gosford and Port Stephens and The Entrance, where Labor had swings above the predicted statewide swing of 9-10 per cent from the Coalition.  And I never expected the Greens to win the rural seat of Ballina, because the Greens seldom poll well outside inner suburbs of capital cities and I doubted that they’d win in the bush, notwithstanding their strong opposition to coal seam gas, a major issue in some regions.

The result of the NSW election shouldn’t have surprised anybody.  Baird now has a fifteen-seat majority in the Lower House, though he needs crossbench support in the Upper House to pass legislation there.  But in Baird’s unsurprising triumph there were definitely some surprises, so Baird may have to address issues that he might’ve preferred to avoid.  His popularity remains strong, though how he handles some issues will direct where that popularity goes.

NSW voters with a chance to break election rules

28 March 2015

Rarely would there have been an election like what confronts voters in New South Wales today.  Not many governments have gone into elections with popular leaders, massive parliamentary majorities, uninspiring rivals, and controversial policies.  Yet today this is what voters face in the most populous Australian state.

At the last state election in NSW, in 2011, the Liberal-National Coalition scored a monstrous victory.  The Labor Party had governed since 1995, and for years had stunk of such corruption and incompetence that voters were desperate to toss Labor out, although the state economy wasn’t exactly in bad shape.  Ultimately, voters gave the Coalition a whopping 69-20 victory over Labor in the 93-seat Legislative Assembly, with a Green and a trio of Independents winning the few seats that neither the Coalition nor Labor won.  The Coalition also won more seats up for grabs in the Legislative Council than anyone else, though not enough for a majority.

Liberal leader Barry O’Farrell became Premier when the Coalition won office in 2011.  He seemed lacklustre, but the Labor Party was so bad that O’Farrell looked better than he probably was.  But in 2014, O’Farrell resigned after misleading the Independent Commission Against Corruption, ironically at an inquiry which was set to investigate the controversial dealings of some Labor figures but ended up catching out some Liberals in the process.  The shock departure of O’Farrell saw Mike Baird become Liberal leader and Premier, and this ultimately energised the Coalition.

Baird has been almost too good to be true.  He comes across as energetic and likeable.  Compared to many other political leaders, he usually makes an effort to answer questions, without appearing to repeatedly recite lines from some script, and sounds less robotic.  Few political leaders these days come across like Baird in this respect.

As for the Labor Party, it was always going to look lacklustre.  After its 2011 drubbing it looked uninspiring, with little in terms of positive ideas that voters could get behind.  Although Luke Foley has looked good since becoming Labor leader, he’s still heading a dull bunch with little to say beyond opposing Coalition plans and policies.  Nobody really gives Foley a chance to win the election today, though he’ll win back much of Labor’s lost ground from 2011.

Yet despite being a popular leader with a massive majority and a less-than-inspiring rival, as well as a state economy in good shape, problems confront Baird and the Coalition.  There have been dramas over some public sector job cuts, corruption allegations that drove some MPs out of the Liberal Party, and plans for several motorway tunnels to cut congestion on Sydney’s roads – the tunnels in particular have aroused much local resistance because of concerns about pollution from them and losses of homes to tunnel interchanges, although critics have ignored how inadequate public transport in outer suburbs bred much of the congestion that led to the tunnel ideas.  The unpopularity of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Coalition at a national level also appears to be hurting Baird’s mob.

However, bothering voters is Baird’s plan for electricity privatisation.  His idea is to lease electricity assets, or “poles and wires” in other words, and use funds from it to upgrade infrastructure like roads and schools and hospitals.  Voters seem opposed to electricity privatisation, because they fear a costlier and less reliable electricity supply if control goes to private operators, especially big corporations, who’d perceivably cut jobs and put off maintenance in pursuit of profits.  But they’re not really warming to Labor’s anti-privatisation messages.  So there’s a chance that they’ll vote for someone advocating a plan that they oppose, which would turn conventional election rules upside-down.

Putting aside popularity and majorities and policies, what’s likely to happen in NSW today?  Opinion polls seem to tip a swing of 9-10 per cent against the Coalition, which in itself looks huge.  But it’d take a larger swing to cost the Coalition its parliamentary majority, and Labor needs a swing twice as big to win outright.

The Coalition will lose many seats today, but should still hold office.  In alphabetical order, I tip the Coalition to lose these seats to Labor – Blue Mountains, Campbelltown, Coogee, East Hills, Granville, Holsworthy, Kiama, Londonderry, Macquarie Fields, Maitland, Monaro, Oatley, Prospect, Rockdale, Strathfield, Swansea, and Wyong.  I also tip the Coalition to lose Tamworth to an Independent.

But I tip the Coalition to win Miranda from Labor.  The Coalition won this seat from Labor with a massive swing in 2011, after popular Labor MP Barry Collier retired.  But when the new sitting member resigned in 2013, Collier came out of retirement to contest a subsequent by-election, and won.  Now he’s retiring again, and Miranda effectively reverts back to the Coalition margin from the 2011 election, which is above the swing expected today, so the Coalition will win it.  Northern Tablelands and Newcastle and Charlestown also changed hands at by-elections during the past two years, and I tip their sitting members to win.  I also tip the Greens to hold Balmain and win Newtown.

The likely NSW election outcome might be 51-37-2-3 in the Legislative Assembly, in a Coalition-Labor-Greens-Independent sequence, while the Coalition will gain some seats but still lack a majority in the Legislative Council.  Given concerns about electricity privatisation, some rules could be broken in this election today.

Hot air from anti-CSG candidates

20 March 2015

The notion of coal seam gas as an election issue seems like nothing more than hot air.  Nobody should tell you otherwise.  Recent history, albeit brief, doesn’t show any elections changing course because of coal seam gas, often referred to simply as CSG.

I’m not downplaying CSG as a public issue.  I don’t like the idea of this gas being extracted from underground, chemically or otherwise, in a manner which potentially releases hazardous chemicals onto surrounding land or into underground soils.  It poses major hazards to rivers and underground water catchments.  And it should be a firm no-no on lands considered perfect for farming, especially for growing crops and fresh produce.

My point is that, as an issue, CSG is yet to swing an election.  For several years, I’ve heard stories about the hazards of CSG extraction on prime farmland in particular, with parts of New South Wales and Queensland being mentioned a lot.  But in that time, there have been elections in those states, along with a Federal election in 2013, and while all have resulted in changes of government, little looks different in relation to whether or not CSG extraction in these areas has begun.  It hasn’t mattered whether the Labor Party or the Coalition parties were in power.  And it isn’t like there haven’t been chances for CSG opponents to make their concerns swing elections.

Realistically, CSG opponents shouldn’t believe a single bit of rhetoric from either Labor or the Coalition parties.  It’s true that when I first heard about CSG becoming an issue of public concern, Labor was in government in most states and nationally.  Certainly it would’ve been Labor giving extraction projects the go-ahead.  But even after governments have changed from Labor to the Coalition parties, the noises still prevalent to this day suggest no change on the issue.  Therefore CSG opponents should seem more inclined to vote for minor political players.

However, this is where problems regarding elections begin.  The Greens have naturally been critics of CSG extraction everywhere.  But they have little traction among voters outside the inner suburbs of state capitals like Sydney and Melbourne and Brisbane – if anything, they’ve often seen rural voters as environmental vandals killing trees and rivers, and rural voters largely hate them.  On the other hand, Federal MP Bob Katter has also been a CSG critic, but even though he set up his own political party a few years and has fielded candidates at several elections, they’ve seldom made any difference in areas where CSG has been an issue.

The recent state election in Queensland showed Katter’s party as almost meaningless.  With much anger surrounding CSG extraction on prime farmland in the Darling Downs region around Toowoomba, to the west of Brisbane, Katter’s party really should’ve won several seats there if voters were so angry about the issue.  But Katter’s party got nowhere in that area.

If unhappy with the major parties’ positions on CSG, voters in the regions would be more likely to vote for Independent candidates, should there be any of substance running around.  And some Independents either against or concerned about CSG are contesting the coming state election in NSW.  But they face the usual challenges faced by Independents at election time – needing to get themselves well known among many thousands of voters across relatively small areas, having personal beliefs that those voters will tolerate, or being able to cherry-pick what voters like and dislike about the major parties’ other policies.  Voters don’t always support candidates simply with the letters I-N-D in brackets after their names, unless they know them well beforehand, and generally they’re unlikely to support single-issue candidates.

Ironically, perhaps also hindering anti-CSG candidates is a vocal CSG industry critic, namely broadcaster Alan Jones.

Thought strongly supportive of the Coalition parties generally and of Prime Minister Tony Abbott in particular, Jones has been part of a long-running war against Independents.  This dates back to late 2010, when Abbott narrowly lost a Federal election to Labor leader Julia Gillard, who managed to govern in a hung parliament with the support of two Independents from Coalition-leaning electorates in the bush, despite the unpopularity of Labor at that time.  Filthy at this result, Abbott and the Coalition have repeatedly used the Independent-Gillard deal to scare voters into voting against Independents, painting votes for Independents as votes for Labor.  These tactics have been dishonest, but they’ve worked, costing many respected Independent MPs their seats.  And Jones has been among the Coalition’s media cheerleaders in that respect.

Coalition bias aside, Jones has been savagely critical of both mining and CSG extraction on prime farmland.  Indeed he’s from rural Queensland himself, and he’s spoken of how mining has desecrated the area where he comes from.  He was very vocal during the Queensland election.  But his words seemingly had no impact in areas where people had concerns about CSG.  In any case, given his leaning to the Coalition, how could he also support anti-CSG Independents?

There might be a first time for everything, of course.  As such, will anti-CSG candidates actually have enough support to win seats in the coming NSW election, or will they be merely letting off hot air?  The day draws closer when CSG will get hot or stay cold.

Hatred of Moore set to worsen CBD gridlock

15 February 2015

The Liberal-National Coalition under Nick Greiner took power in New South Wales about three decades ago.  It was March 1988, and Greiner led the Coalition to victory for the first time since the 1970s.  Perhaps this time out of office made the Coalition’s win seem greater than it was – the Coalition won fifty-nine seats in the Lower House of Parliament but failed to win a majority in the Upper House, while the Labor Party won forty-three seats and Independents won seven, giving the Coalition a nine-seat majority in the Lower House.  Seven ministers were among the Labor casualties as twelve years of Labor government came to an end.

But on a sour note, Greiner lost one of his frontbenchers, Liberal MP Michael Yabsley, to Independent candidate Clover Moore in the inner Sydney seat of Bligh.  This wasn’t to be Moore’s only moment of peeving the Liberals.  In fact, Moore would go on to annoy both the Liberals and Labor, to the point where hatred of her is, probably by chance, set to worsen traffic gridlock in the central business district of Sydney.

Years after Moore’s defeat of Yabsley, Greiner also fell victim to Moore.  He’d governed well and seemed popular since winning the 1988 election.  But a surprise swing against him at the next election, in 1991, produced a hung parliament, and the Coalition Government could only govern with the support of Independent MPs, with Moore among them.  After this near-defeat, Greiner was accused of corruption, in trying to lure an Independent MP out of politics with a public service job.  A subsequent investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption found against Greiner, the man who’d actually established the Commission, and he had to resign as Premier.  Moore and other Independents could’ve tipped the Coalition out of office altogether if Greiner hadn’t gone.  The Coalition took many years to recover from his departure, lost office in 1995, and didn’t win another election until 2011.

After regaining office in 1995, Labor sacked two local councils covering the CBD of Sydney and merged them into a single council.  Locals saw this as an attempt by Labor to stack the council with people likely to approve major building projects proposed by money-hungry developers and the top end of town.  Sensing local hostility, Moore ran for the job of Lord Mayor of this new council, and she won.  She was therefore both a State MP and a local mayor, prompting accusations of conflicts of interest.  But locals didn’t mind her.  They saw the major parties as captive to the top end of town, and willing to develop the CBD to suit big business interests without consideration of local wishes, and they saw Moore as their “woman”, willing to stand up against the big guys.

As Lord Mayor, Moore was able to pursue an agenda of putting dedicated lanes for bicycles on streets both in the CBD and leading to it.  She’s also sought to run light rail down the CBD streets, and to turn streets into car-free zones.  Businesses hate the bike lanes in particular, as they take away parking spaces and kill off some of their daily trade, and they’ve been pushing to get rid of them where possible.  The Liberals share this hostility, although there’s been less hostility from Labor regarding both Moore and the bike lanes, because Labor policies on environmental issues are thought more likely to accommodate bike lanes and light rail.

The Liberals have sought to get Moore out of politics ever since the Coalition’s 2011 election win.  It legislated to stop MPs from serving on local councils at the same time, which meant that Moore had to leave Parliament after winning another term as Lord Mayor of Sydney City Council in 2012.  But local support for her and her ideas remained strong, and another Independent won her old parliamentary seat.

While wanting Moore out of politics, the Liberals realise that locals in inner Sydney like her and they can’t afford to upset them.  So the Coalition Government looks like leaving CBD bike lanes untouched, and seeking to run light rail through the CBD, just as Moore wants to do.  This is a case of playing “me too” – the game played before the 2007 Federal election, when Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd defeated Prime Minister John Howard only after saying that he’d continue most of Howard’s popular policies.

The Sydney CBD has too little space on its streets to accommodate light rail and bike lanes.  But it’s getting them.  Ideally, until there’s heavy rail running from the CBD to parts of Sydney where it doesn’t exist, people will keep driving to the CBD, and fewer vehicular traffic lanes will worsen the gridlock.  The CBD gridlock looks set to worsen because of a political agenda, which makes no sense.

Different NSW Parliament during Nile’s time

26 January 2015

Controversial though Fred Nile might well have been for decades, how much the State Parliament of New South Wales has changed since his election to it long ago might only be known to political junkies.  But this isn’t to say that Parliament has changed strictly because of the Christian Democrat Nile.  He just happened to be there during its gradual period of change, and he’s been there ever since, bar a brief period in 2004 when he resigned to run for the Senate in a Federal election and then returned after his Senate run failed.

In NSW, Parliament has two representative chambers, the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council.  The religious Nile was elected to the latter in 1981.  But it wasn’t until 1978 that the Council, the Upper House of Parliament, was open to general elections – in those days, state election in NSW were only for the Assembly, the Lower House of Parliament, where governments are formed.

Members of the Legislative Council, or MLCs for short, were instead elected internally and separately from general elections.  Every three years or so, there’d be a joint meeting of Assembly and Council members to elect people to new Council terms, lasting twelve years.  These joint meetings were sometimes held months in advance, which occasionally meant during the year before terms were due to commence, and they were also held to elect replacements to complete the terms of MLCs who died or resigned before their terms ended.  By 1978 there were sixty MLCs, divided into four groups by virtue of the years in which their terms were deemed to have commenced – the years in question were 1967, 1970, 1973, and 1976.

After Neville Wran became Premier in 1976, he strove to “democratise” the Council, and he was ultimately able to do so despite initially lacking support for it within Parliament.  As a result, when the next election came in 1978, NSW MLCs were popularly elected for the first time.  The size of the Council was also reduced.  At this point, to keep things simple, I should point out the years in which subsequent elections took place – they were in 1981, 1984, 1988, 1991, 1995, and 1999.

The terms of MLCs dating back to 1967 and 1970 ended at that 1978 election.  The terms of MLCs dating back to 1973 would end in 1981, and the terms of MLCs dating back to 1976 would end in 1984.  After the 1984 election, there were forty-five MLCs, a third of whom would face the voters at each state election afterwards.  The subsequent years in which terms would end were scheduled to be 1988 for those MLCs elected in 1978 and 1991 for those in 1981 and 1995 for those in 1984.

New reforms affecting MLCs came after the 1991 election.  The number of them was reduced from forty-five to forty-two, and half of them would face the voters at each election.  As a result, the terms of the last three MLCs elected in 1984 ended immediately.  The remaining twelve MLCs from 1984 would face the voters in 1995, as would the last nine MLCs elected in 1988.  Meanwhile, the first six MLCs elected in 1988 and all fifteen MLCs elected in 1991 would face the voters in 1999.  As such, the NSW Parliament now has the whole Assembly and twenty-one MLCs facing the voters at each election.

Also, in the 1990s Parliament moved to fixed terms.  Whereas previously the Premier of the day could call an election at will, terms are now set for late March every fourth year.

This shows how much the NSW Parliament has changed during Nile’s time there.  Perhaps Nile was unlucky that he hadn’t been there when it all began just a few years before he entered it.