Something of a scoop for Imre Salusinszky in The Australian this morning, with advance billing of a speech to be given tonight by Mark Arbib, “a true NSW Right operative” (as the SMH calls him) and general secretary of the state ALP.

According to the article, Arbib will tell the Fabian Society that Labor should “expect double-digit swings against its MPs” in the 24 March NSW election. “Mr Arbib will argue that the electorate is ‘highly volatile, so the possibility of a hung parliament or a loss is very real’.”

It’s no surprise to find someone in Arbib’s position trying to dampen overconfidence and jolly his troops along with the warning that it’s going to be close. But, despite the Iemma government’s strong position in the polls, many commentators seem to agree with Arbib’s message.

So is it possible that this election could be close after all?

Labor goes into the election with 55 seats, as against the Coalition’s 31 (19 Liberal, 12 Nationals) and seven — yes, seven — independents.

Only one of the independents (Clover Moore, Sydney) is clearly on the left, so counting all the others in the opposition column gives them a target of ten seats to win a majority (47 out of 93). (Getting the independents on side would be made easier by the fact that if the Coalition is doing that well it would probably win back some independent-held seats.)

Check that against the pendulum: Antony Green’s at the ABC (also available from the Poll Bludger), or Malcolm Mackerras’s in Monday’s Oz. Their figures are slightly different (due to different calculations of redistribution effect), but they both agree that Menai is the tenth seat, with a swing required of 8.4% (Mackerras) or 8.9% (Green).

That’s a huge target, but it’s not unprecedented. Nick Greiner got a swing of about 8.5% in 1988; Wayne Goss got a similar amount in Queensland in 1989, and Mike Rann got close to 10% in South Australia in 1997.

The opposition’s problem is that there’s no evidence such a swing is on this time. According to Arbib, “You’re going to see double-digit swings occurring naturally across a whole range of seats, as they correct to pre-2003 figures.”

But even in 1999 Labor won a landslide majority, so those MPs have had plenty of time to entrench themselves. Most likely there will be some movement back, but not enough to really threaten an upset result.

Peter Fray

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