Most people, including many Liberals, think that Barry O’Farrell’s NSW Opposition should be at least twenty points ahead in the polls.

The NSW ALP has never been in a worse position. Tuesday’s mini-budget got a terrible public reaction. Rightly so. It is a mish-mash of abandoned promises, directionless initiatives, clumsy revenue measures, and all in the pursuit of a misconceived economic and budgetary strategy. Most NSW voters are either extremely angry, or beyond anger and just want the ALP to go away.

The sole ALP defence is that O’Farrell wouldn’t be any better. O’Farrell is adding weight to this argument. The rationale behind O’Farrell’s strategy seems to be that all he has to do is keep his head down and the premiership will default to him in March 2011.

This strategic passivity leaves him exposed to the vicissitudes of events. Victory may look inevitable but who knows what might happen. If the ALP can get a bit of a lift off the back of a better economy, or something else, then they could just get close enough to exploit the perceptions that O’Farrell is a weak leader with nothing to offer.

There are also national political considerations. The Liberals could benefit big-time federally in 2010 (even, conceivably, win) off the back of a full collapse in the ALP vote in NSW. But that requires a NSW Opposition that is humiliating the Rees Government on a daily basis while also offering a credible alternative.

Even if Rudd doesn’t end up getting defeated, a resounding conservative victory in NSW in 2011 would be a great boost for other state conservative oppositions.

What’s more, the opportunity to get a decisive, demoralising victory over your opponents in politics only comes along every few decades and the conservatives would be mad not to go for a huge victory in 2011. This is particularly true in NSW which has been historically a Labor state. A smashing win for the conservatives in 2011 could be a real watershed.

What the NSW Opposition needs now is the sort of aggressive approach adopted by the Australian cricket team in recent decades. That is, when you have the advantage you maximise the pressure on your opponents, you don’t sit back and wait.

Who could replace O’Farrell? Michael Baird is probably the only option from within the Parliament, he is considered to have the intellectual grunt and drive to get the job done. John Brogden has moved on and why would he bother after what the Liberals did to him last time. There has always been chatter about recruiting Joe Hockey, but he never gives the impression of being an effective ‘apply the pressure’ kind of guy. And, there is Jeff Kennett; former Victorian premier, national figure with a proven reform record, media favourite and a real go for it kind of guy. But the Kennett option still seems fanciful.

While the options are limited, the pressure will build on O’Farrell unless he can convince people that he can take full advantage of the ALP’s darkest days.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey