With Newspoll showing another incremental increase for the NSW Labor Government, the chief topic of discourse in Macquarie Street is whether Premier Nathan Rees can repeat what Premier Anna Bligh did in Queensland in March.

There are some similarities between the two: both are from the left-wing of the ALP, both are relatively young — she is 48, he is 40 — and both hold arts degrees.

But Bligh’s premiership was the product of a carefully choreographed succession organized by her predecessor Peter Beattie. On the other hand, Rees fell into the job when former Premier Morris Iemma dramatically lost the support of the dominant right-wing caucus and resigned.

When Bligh called an early state election in March she was behind in the polls and facing veteran Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg who had successfully merged the Nationals and Liberals into a single conservative force.

She became the face of the campaign and her focus was unmistakable: She behaved like a Labor premier, she talked like a Labor Premier and she argued for a Labor agenda.

It was enough to send former NSW ALP general secretaries Stephen Loosley, John Della Bosca, Eric Roozendaal and Mark Arbib running to the medicine cabinet in search of smelling salts.

Their campaign philosophy, if you can call it that, is to borrow the clothing of the conservatives and then occupy the safe, do-nothing, steady-as-she-goes middle ground.

Bligh came back from the dead to win 51 seats to the LNP’s 34 and Independents four. Labor’s primary vote was 42.25 per cent to the LNP’s 41.60, but Labor benefited from Green preferences across the state. (The Greens stood in all 89 constituencies and polled 8.37 per cent of the vote).

In the latest Newspoll, Labor’s primary vote in NSW is a dismal 33 per cent. But it has to be measured against the 26 per cent it scored at the end of last year and the 30 per cent in January-February. That’s a seven per cent rise in six months.

Suddenly, the Press Gallery, who howled for Rees’s blood in January — some even said he would be gone by March! — is now admitting that the premier has become a contender.

Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell, on the other hand, isn’t cutting through. It can’t be said that O’Farrell is idle, because he is doing press conferences and giving interviews from dawn to dusk.

The problem is that he hasn’t been able to grab the public’s ear to convince them that he is the next Premier and that the Coalition is the alternative government.

At present, no one in the Coalition is desperately troubled by O’Farrell’s electoral immobility, because the state election is not until March 2011 and a federal election will fall in the intervening period.

However, there will come a point when his performance, or lack of it, will come under the closest scrutiny from his colleagues in the party room and in the board rooms and counting houses where there are fevered discussions about the need for a Coalition-led Government to redeem NSW.

Labor is currently working on a pre-election strategy to bust up the relative harmony created by O’Farrell and his predecessor Peter Debnam in the faction-ridden NSW Liberal Party. The ALP’s backroom boys are working on three contentious issues — abortion, adoption and gay rights — which they will explode in the face of the Liberals and Nationals in the lead-up to the election to cause maximum discord and division.

The aim is to force the right-wing Christian faction led by David Clarke to declare war on the moderates and for the National red necks to form a lynch mob against its social reformers.

(Overnight actor Hugh Jackman, a graduate of Knox Grammar, took a swipe at Australia’s adoption laws being “too restrictive” so he could be a handy recruit).

You can virtually write one of Labor’s 2011 election slogans now: “Don’t let the Coalition’s anti-women, anti-gay rabble govern NSW.”

If Labor doesn’t use it, the Greens will.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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