The cause of electoral reform is, it seems, best served by either new governments obtaining power for the first time in many years, or dodgy old governments prepared to try anything in their final, desperate hours.

Last year, in response to growing scandals about the influence of ex-Labor lobbyists, Anna Bligh instituted a series of reforms to lobbying regulation and promised a suite of electoral reforms. Now Kristina Keneally has done the same with a broader range of measures that will constitute the most significant reforms to how politics is funded and conducted in Australia. And NSW unions are unlikely to be happy about it.

I’ve been bitten before when praising the NSW Government’s policies — no sooner did I laud its new cap on developer charges back in June than it retreated from them and caved into pressure from local councils. But while the campaign spending and donations limits have long been mooted, the measures get to grips with the most vexing issue of all, third party electioneering.

Any restrictions in preventing third parties like unions or business from running political advertising run the risk of falling foul of the High Court and its propensity to discover hitherto-unrevealed “implied” constitutional rights. However, the NSW Government has proposed to cap rather than ban third-party campaigning, although the period in which the cap will apply is still unclear.

Labor has also dealt with the basic problem of union affiliation fees — an impediment to any bipartisan agreement on electoral reform — by proposing to restrict them from use in campaigning. It will be surprising if the Coalition finds that particular measure satisfactory, because affiliation fees directed to internal party costs simply frees up other money for campaigning. Even so, it’s a bold step from a parliamentary party and evidence that utter political desperation can be a powerful driver of reform.

The most important issue to be resolved in NSW between now and March is whether the NSW Liberals can get their act together sufficiently to ensure that Barry O’Farrell doesn’t just win, but wins by a margin massive enough to deliver two terms and the political room to pursue serious reform.

The example of Nick Greiner — and O’Farrell is no Nick Greiner, senator — is instructive. Greiner won a comprehensive victory in 1988 and a mandate for major reforms. But Bob Carr managed to cripple him in 1991. Carr was an earlier version of Tony Abbott — unheralded and considered unelectable, but an accomplished negative campaigner who relentlessly hammered his opponent. He ran a deeply silly but effective scare campaign about a state GST in the lead-up to the 1991 election that Greiner seemed powerless to rebut. Greiner was finished once he went into minority government and, seemingly, lost his political judgment.

The NSW Liberals, who ran an awful federal election campaign, have to ensure their victory next March is so massive that a one-term recovery for Labor is out of the question, otherwise the already over-cautious O’Farrell won’t deliver the reform goods needed in areas like housing supply and infrastructure. The departure of former president Nick Campbell, who held up federal preselections in critical seats like Greenway and Lindsay while playing factional games with state preselections, is likely to help.

But Liberal sources say Tony Abbott wants some more changes before March — in particular Arthur Sinodinos installed as State President. There’s also talk of James McGrath, who oversaw the spectacular first Federal outing of the LNP in Queensland, being sounded out as a long term replacement for state director Mark Neeham.

A monster Liberal victory might also be enough to overcome the delusions of the NSW Labor Party that fundamental internal reform isn’t necessary. Mark Arbib’s insistence on the weekend that 21 August was, rather than a debacle, some sort of remarkable triumph suggests that that message has yet to sink in. Arbib is already explaining away a March loss as due only to the length of time Labor has been in office.

And particularly delusional is the suggestion that former Unions NSW boss John Robertson is a credible candidate for the leadership of whatever is left of Labor after the election.

Paul Keating summed up Robertson best in his famous 2008 excoriation. “If the Labor Party’s stocks ever get so low as to require your services in its Parliamentary leadership,” Keating concluded, “it will itself have no future.”

He was dead right. Instead, the party needs to be rebuilt in that state from the ground up. And in moving to decouple funding of the parliamentary party’s campaigning from Unions NSW, this desperate government might have facilitated that process.