Sunday, February 20, 2011

The First Battle

As we all know, the Liberal Party goes into the 2011 NSW election overwhelming favourites. All the talk appears to be not whether, but rather how much.

The SMH published a poll earlier this week that predicted a truly extraordinary swing of 18% to the Coalition. That's not as much as the 25% swing at the Penrith by-election in June of last year, but it is still enormous, and far, far in excess of the swing the coalition will need to secure victory.

Such has been the size of the swing suggested by these polls that the media has, almost across the board, done what it usually does, which is the extrapolate the swing out to be uniform across the state, assumed that these polls are an accurate reflection of the way the votes will fall, and then published breathless stories about how Labor is going to be "wiped out" (ABC) and faces a defeat of "historic proportions" (SMH).

The Sydney Morning Herald even reported that Labor "could be reduced to as few as 13 seats".

The Coalition's polling has been stratospheric for a long time. It has been above 50% since the middle of 2008, just 1 year after the last election, and has been above 60% since the middle of last year. This Nielson poll had the two party preferred at an incredible 66:34, which is a staggering number by any measure. Labor's primary vote is down to 22%.

Some people on Twitter this week have been wondering out loud who these 34% of people are, and on what basis they can still think that Labor are the people to lead NSW, which is fair enough. The government has been on the nose for so long it is almost difficult to remember a time when they were popular.

But the thing is, anyone who has watched a few elections in their time knows that from here it's all downhill for the Coalition. There is no way whatsoever, barring something catastrophic, that Labor will go down 66-34 on 26 March, and there is certainly no way that they will only achieve a 22% primary.

At the moment, most likely the only people voting for Labor are people who have some sort of vested interest, people who will vote Labor until they're wheeled out in a box, and people who would sell their soul before they vote Coalition (which for them probably amounts to the same thing).

Labor have been shouting , screaming and rending their garments for months and months about how O'Farrell looks set to cruise into government with barely a policy announced. He has run the small target strategy to great effect, which is no surprise since a vast proportion seems prepared to vote for anyone who isn't Labor.

What Labor have clearly decided to do is that if O'Farrell won't tell the public what he stands for, they will. Which brings me to the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Council's Debate.

At present, the NSW government's policy is that approximately 70% of new homes are to be built in established areas and 30% on the city's fringe. At this debate, O'Farrell revealed that he favoured a ratio of about 50:50.

It's more than possible that this position is influenced by O'Farrell's electorate. Many communities have been horrified by what they see as over-development in their suburbs, and many have been vocal about, but the residents of the "leafy" North Shore have been perhaps the most vocal and best organised of the lot.

O'Farrell's electorate covers, more or less, the route followed by the North Short Train Line between Roseville and Hornsby. These suburbs have seen a large number of new developments in line with the policy of putting as many developments as possible near existing transport infrastructure.

O'Farrell will have won some friends, certainly in his own electorate and in others with similar issues (not that he needs the help, given he won with a 79/21 2PP last time round). He even has an opponent on issue - William Bourke, running for the Save our State party, a party whose prime purpose is to prevent overdevelopment.

Labor, on the other hand, have gone into overdrive selling the Coalition as the party for Western Sydney Sprawl. Every Labor politician near a microphone has been talking about this since almost the moment the ration 50:50 fell from O'Farrell's lips. Keneally and David Borger (Minister for Western Sydney) have bandied around the figure of 550 000 extra people being moved into Western Sydney, with the obvious implications for public transport, roads and other facilities.

A website has even been launched: It's worth a look, just to see the way that Labor are beginning to brand O'Farrell in the face of his refusal to do it himself. It's also worth a look to see the outstanding photo of O'Farrell they've chosen to emblazon the website with.

The really interesting thing though, is the way that the Coalition has been comprehensively hosed this week, almost exclusively on this issue. O'Farrell has had little to say about this, and anything else he has said has been drowned out by this issue. Combined with a debate win for Keneally (although given that the debate was held at 12 noon on a weekday, surely no one saw it or cared) it's been a pretty bloody good week for Labor.

I said earlier that the polls were always going improve for Labor before the election - this is how. Inevitably, O'Farrell and his team are going to piss some people off. Some people will decide that in fact they could tolerate Labor for 4 more years, and shift their allegiances back across.

It may be that the Coalition's strategy is that no one is listening to what Labor says anyway, so it's better to let them blow off some steam, build a few websites, get their base (who was always going to vote for them anyway) excited, and focus on the Coalition campaign launch (as we speak occurring out at Penrith, unsurprisingly enough).

That may well be a smart strategy, and time will tell whether it works. In the meantime, what remains to be seen is how far the Coalition deviates from the "Look, we're not Labor" approach. If the answer, is "Not much" we can look forward to a great deal of shouting , screaming and rending of garments from Labour between now and 26 March.


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