There’s still almost five weeks to polling day, but the NSW election campaign is under way, with the leaders’ debate last Friday and Morris Iemma’s campaign launch for Labor yesterday.

In this morning’s Australian, Malcolm Mackerras tips Labor to lose eight seats, which would bring it close to defeat.

That’s very much at the high end of expectations for the opposition; last month’s Newspoll, for example, showed a swing their way of only 3%. Despite its manifold problems, no-one seems to think the government is likely to lose.

In an interesting preview of the election in Saturday’s Age, Russell Skelton raised in the last paragraph the question of federal implications:

If the conventional wisdom is wrong and Iemma loses the election, the
results will change the political landscape for John Howard as he faces
his own election. As a senior ALP figure archly put it: ‘Part of John
Howard’s appeal to voters is that you need him in the Lodge to curb the
excesses of the State labor governments. It’s a tactic that has worked
well in NSW…

Commentators often say that voters like to keep a balance between state and federal governments. In the abstract, there’s not much evidence for this; state and federal results move in tandem more often than not. But when a state government is on the nose, as this one is, things can be different.

If you want to give Labor a kick, but just can’t bring yourself to put Peter Debnam’s opposition in, you’ll probably do the next best thing and vote for John Howard later in the year. Conversely, if Debnam does somehow get up, the impulse to kick Labor will dissipate, possibly to Kevin Rudd’s advantage.

Back on 8 January, Peter Brent at Mumble suggested “If you are among the one in three Australian voters who lives in NSW, and you would like to see the Coalition win the next federal election, you should vote Labor in March.” So does that mean John Howard will be hoping for a Iemma victory?

There are at least two reasons he might not: first, an instinctive loyalty to his own party and his own faction, and second a fear that state and federal election losses could set of an existential crisis in the Liberal Party, as Michelle Grattan and others have warned.

But Howard’s own short-term interest would probably better served if NSW voters don’t get that anti-Labor feeling off their chests just yet.

Peter Fray

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