This morning’s opinion polls are not tipping any surprises in New South Wales. ACNielsen in the SMH puts Labor ahead 56% to 44% two-party-preferred – virtually no change since 2003. Galaxy in the Daily Telegraph says 53% to 47%, a swing of 3.2%.

On a uniform swing, both those results (and I’ll hazard a guess that Newspoll in tomorrow’s Australian will be somewhere in between) would leave Labor unchanged on 55 seats. Unless the pattern is very unusual, the opposition looks like making up little or no ground.

Many observers still find that surprising, but I think it shows that on the sort of issues state elections are fought on these days, incumbents have a big advantage.

Voters come with low expectations: on being told that the government is corrupt and incompetent, they say “So what? Tell us something we don’t know.”

Let’s face it, government in NSW has been dysfunctional for a long time. To put all the blame on Bob Carr and his successors – as, for example, today’s Australian editorial does – is disingenuous at best.

When elections are fought on grand ideological issues, disapproval of one side translates more or less automatically to approval of the other. But when they’re fought on the bread-and-butter stuff of service delivery, dissatisfaction with the incumbents isn’t enough: voters need some evidence that the opposition would do better.

That’s what Peter Debnam and the Coalition have evidently failed to provide.

Debnam himself has copped a lot of flak, and there’s been talk that John Brogden or Barry O’Farrell would have won comfortably. I’m sure they would have done better, but I doubt very much they would have won. It’s too easy to forget how well Bob Carr did in 2003.

The overall swing to Labor was only small, but it was disproportionately concentrated in the party’s own marginal seats. As a result, the Liberals’ target seats this time are mostly in the region above 6.5%. Although one or two of this group might fall, realistically the goal is to get big enough swings to bring them close for 2011.

If they can get within 2 or 3% in a range of marginals then they will have some cause for satisfaction. If they can’t, then the target for winning government could blow out to 2015.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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