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Out of the wilderness & in with a shout - the remarkable resurgence of NSW Labor

In 2011 Labor was down and out. Could 2019 see them back in control? Wells Haslem Mayhew Special Counsel & Labor Upper House candidate Julie Sibraa discusses the way forward for Labor over the next five months.

On Saturday 26 March 2011 the voters of New South Wales dispatched a 16-year-old State Labor Government with brutal efficiency.

As I stood alone at what would be my all-day vigil at the St Kieran’s Public School polling both in Manly Vale that election day morning, I felt, even more than usual, the full force of what the expression “they’re waiting with baseball bats” meant, such was the hostility towards me and my cardinal-red Labor t-shirt.

One woman, having observed a queue of people refuse to take my how-to-vote, asked me whether I needed a hug. As kind as she was, she also refused to take my leaflet. I truly understood at that point how bad things were.

Later that night, the seats tumbled, and the margin of the Liberal-National Coalition victory progressively went from healthy to jaw dropping. As the pendulum swung by a record 16.5 per cent on a two-party-preferred basis, it knocked over 28 Labor seats. We were reduced to just 20 seats in a 93 seat Legislative Assembly – at that time the largest swing against a sitting government at any level in Australia since World War II.

The swing in the former Labor seat of Bathurst - Ben Chifley’s birthplace - was 37 per cent. Not even the talent and popularity of New South Wales’ first woman premier, Kristina Keneally, could in any way turn the tide that washed Labor out.

On election night, former premier Bob Carr memorably said: “It has taken a lot of effort to produce a result this bad. A lot of effort – spread over four years.” Harsh but fair.

Conventional political thinking was that the scale of such a loss would have Labor out of government in New South Wales for at least three terms – 12 years – or more. Heads greyer than mine said sadly, “I’ll never see another NSW Labor government in my lifetime”.

A sad state of affairs given Labor’s proud history in this state.

Fast forward seven-and-a-half years to November 2018 and Newspoll has the Liberal-Nationals Coalition and Labor at 50-50 – albeit in a poll taken before the resignation of Opposition Leader, Luke Foley. This puts the 2019 State Election well and truly in play and a win for Labor a distinct possibility. How has this happened?

A majority the size of that won by Barry O’Farrell and the political mandate that went with it meant his new government pretty much had carte blanche to do whatever they liked – and they were well-prepared. The big consultancy firms, anticipating an unprecedented bonanza of work coming their way, helped O’Farrell write policies and work out how to finance the big infrastructure projects Labor couldn’t and wouldn’t even try.

Much of the work involved privatisations and asset sales. Consultants also advised on ideas to restructure government departments to shed public sector jobs which would in turn reduce recurrent expenditure and the proportion of the budget spent on employee costs.

This approach has been the ongoing hallmark of the O’Farrell/Baird/Berejiklian Governments – asset sales or “asset recycling” and privatisations – with cashed up superannuation funds only too willing to do the buying. For example, the sale of Port Botany and Port Kembla to three superannuation funds and an investment firm in Abu Dhabi netted the Government $5.07 billion. These and other critical asset sales barely raised an eyebrow in the media or broader public, such was the supremacy of the government’s political position.

Even the fall of Barry O’Farrell over an undisclosed bottle of Grange and Independents Commission Against Corruption revelations against several Liberal MPs from Newcastle and the Central Coast, didn’t seem to slow the momentum to sell, privatise and outsource. Now led by nice-guy former Treasurer Mike Baird and his sidekick, the replacement Treasurer Gladys Berejiklian, the program continued.

In 2015 New South Wales again went to the polls. Labor had a new leader in Foley and although the Baird Liberal-National government was re-elected comfortably, Labor ran a faultless campaign for an opposition still bedevilled by the sins of its past, clawing back 11 of the heartland seats lost in the 2011 purge and setting itself up for a fighting chance in 2019.

Since then, the Coalition has lost two safe seats through by-elections in Orange (previously National) and Wagga Wagga (previously Liberal) to Shooters, Fishers and Farmers and an Independent respectively. Labor will need to win another 11 seats back to be in a position to govern the State in a probable hung Parliament. Sure, it’s a big ask, but in the volatile political environment that currently exists, it’s possible.

Eight years is a long time in government today. Problems can no longer be blamed on the former government and political capital is in short supply. Nice guy Mike Baird is long gone back to the world of banking and finance, and the Premier is showing increasing signs she has little control over her cabinet and MPs. Treasurer Perrottet’s recent demand that he be given a seat closer to where he lives (what!) at the expense of another cabinet colleague because he didn’t like the travel time to work, was simply astounding and an indication of how demonstrably out of touch members of the government have become.

We saw further evidence of growing dysfunction within the Liberal-Coalition ranks in the course of events around the Wagga Wagga by-election and its eventual outcome – a 28 per cent swing and the loss of a seat the Liberals had held since 1957.  Revelations in ICAC relating to sitting Liberal MP Darryl Maguire, his refusal to resign from Parliament, his forced resignation, the stoush between the Liberals and Nationals as to who should run for the seat and the suggestion of disgruntled Nationals handing out for the Independent and eventual winner Joe McGirr, all add up to some serious issues within the government’s ranks. The fallout from that historic loss is still being felt as reports surface that Liberal and National MPs have continued to sledge one another via text message.

Despite eight years with a far more favourable economic climate, the return of the “rivers of gold” in stamp duty and the eye-watering proceeds of public asset sales – $26 billion alone for the sale of Transgrid and half of Ausgrid - the fact is NSW’s key public services, like schools and hospitals, the principal responsibility of a state government, remain chronically over capacity and underfunded. The stories of teachers buying their own materials to use in class and patients waiting hours for emergency treatment continue and more and more of the costs previously borne by government have been offloaded to the NSW taxpayer by way of tolls, higher public transport costs and fees and charges. Traffic congestion is no better and trains and stations are still overcrowded. And the cuts to services continue. Recent attempts to cut funding for out of home care services for children with severe disabilities and funding for Disability Advocacy services were only stopped after a community outcry.

The Liberals’ obsession with using the sale of critical public assets to build monuments (asset recycling) reached peak arrogance and absurdity with their decision to tear down and rebuild both the Sydney Football Stadium and the 18-year old Sydney Olympic Stadium at a cost of over $2 billion. All this while school students continue to study in demountables and classrooms without air-conditioning and nurses in rural hospitals are looking after up to 11 patients at any given time.

The 2019 Labor campaign will be values-based, harking back to the great Labor governments of McKell and Wran. It will focus on our core strength when in government – delivering services to the people of New South Wales. Labor’s policies to do this include commitments to nurse-to-patient ratios, a school-building program, air-conditioning schools, funding local libraries, restoring TAFE, a massive fund to upgrade Sydney train stations, using the funds from the sale of the Snowy Hydro Scheme on transformational projects in rural and regional New South Wales and outlawing wage theft, with many more policies to come.

Despite the recent fall of its leader Luke Foley, replaced by an experienced and highly competent new leader in Michael Daley, Labor is a serious contender for the 2019 election. Labor has held its nerve, got its act together once more and the electorate is waking up to the fact the Liberals have sold the farm. The public sector workforce has been either substantially eroded or outsourced. The costs of vanity projects like the two stadiums are being worn by taxpayers at the expense of core services in hospitals and schools and other valuable community programs.

Adding to the Premier’s problem is the federal Liberal National Government (Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison), which has become so hapless and divided it is almost incapable of governing. Even if the State Government was performing well, the implications of the Wentworth by-election result must surely be keeping the Premier awake at night. With the federal election most likely to take place after the New South Wales election, it’s possible the voters with their baseball bats might decide to strike early and vent their anger on the Berejiklian Government.

After eight years of Liberal-National Government in New South Wales, we’ve seen three Premiers and four Treasurers. That’s not the stable government the people of New South Wales were promised or expected when they turfed Labor out nearly eight years go for much the same offence. As the polls have shifted towards Labor, panic has set in amongst the troops and the Premier has been forced into a series of embarrassing backflips including modifying the stadiums folly from a $2 billion plus plan to a $1.5 billion plan, the backflip on the Sydney Marine Park which would have upset the commercial and recreational fishing industry, and most infamously her decision, under pressure from radio broadcaster Alan Jones, to overrule Sydney Opera House CEO Louise Herron and allow the building’s famous sails to be used as a ‘giant billboard’ for the Everest horse race. More unpopular policy jettisoning and backflipping in the coming months is a sure thing.

Michael Daley leads a fresh team of shadow ministers and MPs who were mostly not even in the Parliament when the old Labor regime was thrown out in 2011. In the seats we don’t hold, all but a handful of candidates were preselected months ago, in some cases well over a year ago, and have been out campaigning for some time. Labor is ready to govern once more.

Saturday 23 March 2019 - bring it on.

Michael Daley and his team

Michael Daley, 53, is the member for the eastern suburbs seat of Maroubra – a seat continually held by Labor members, including two Premiers - Heffron and Carr, since its creation in 1950. Daley is born and bred in Maroubra and an avid Souths Sydney Rabbitohs supporter in the National Rugby League. A former in-house lawyer for the NRMA, he entered Parliament in 2005 in a by-election following the retirement of the long serving successful Premier Bob Carr.

Daley became the Minister for Roads in the Rees cabinet of 2008. In the Keneally government, he served as Police Minister and Minister for Finance.

Hailing from the centre, or right faction of the Labor Party, Daley has long been considered leadership material. In the washup from Labor’s disastrous showing at the 2011 state election, Daley sensibly declined to contest the leadership, which saw former trade union boss John Robertson elected, only to himself fall shortly before the 2015 election, replaced by Luke Foley.

Michael Daley is considered a highly competent, safe pair of hands to lead the Labor Party’s 2019 campaign. His experience in government and pragmatic approach to public policy will stand the party in good stead with voters on a range of issues, from the economy through to bread and butter state service issues of transport, health and education. His key team of Ryan Park in the shadow Treasury role, Jodi McKay in roads and transport, Jihad Dib in education and Walt Secord in health are all close allies of Daley. The leadership transition has been seamless.

Julie Sibraa is Wells Haslem Mayhew Special Counsel and an Australian Labor Party candidate for the Legislative Council at the State Election.