Today’s polls are so ominous for Peter Debnam and the NSW Coalition that you can just about file away the post mortems in readiness for 25 March.

Since 1995, the NSW ALP’s electoral prospects have been prematurely consigned to the dustbin of history too many times to recount. I remember the Government looking so ratty six months out from the 1999 election, with staffers leaving in such droves, that the word went out: “If you want to leave do it now, otherwise you’re here for the long haul.” That was around the time when you had to boil your water in the Sydney CBD because the bats, dogs and foxes had crapped in the water supply.

Eight years later, two elections later, another hoo-ha over water, and the Government seems no more threatened than it was in the aftermath of the 1999 election. So what’s gone wrong for Debnam? Wrong question. You should be asking “What’s gone right?”

Nick Greiner’s presence at the Liberal launch (sorry, “community event”) on Sunday was just one indication that the Liberals think that this election is 1988 Redux. If only it were. Yes, a tired tainted government, led by the Mr Cellophane of the Caucus, has outstayed its welcome, and voters are practically gasping for change.

But Greiner won handsomely in 1988 because of the massive arsenal he brought to that campaign. In his personal office, he had Gary Sturgess, Ian Kortlang and Ken Hooper. In the Government-in-Waiting he had the likes of John Dowd, Wal Murray, Tim Moore, Peter Collins, Virginia Chadwick, Terry Metherell, Ted Pickering. Greiner won because the machine had been humming for years before the election, not weeks and months.

And as Sturgess put it later, Greiner had two policy drawers during the 1988 campaign: one for electioneering and one for governing. And the voters were in no doubt that both drawers were full.

Unless Debnam can achieve a massive reversal of fortune in the next four weeks, he can look back at the strident campaigns run by the SMH and the Telegraph as factors in his failure. Both papers have painted such a dismal (albeit accurate) picture of NSW and ratcheted up the stakes that it should have been a romp home for Debnam. But ask yourself, what will he and his shadow cabinet actually do to fix things? More to the point, ask yourself who is in his shadow cabinet? When the SMH’s political editor, Anne Davies, is reduced to nominating the avuncular National Duncan Gay as a leading light in the Coalition because of his work as Chairman of Committees in the Upper House, you know you’re struggling. And that’s why Debnam’s struggling today.

Peter Fray

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