Last time I was in the birthplace of the ALP, Balmain’s Unity Hall Hotel, it was a farewell for Paddy McGuinness. Although Paddy started his life as a true believer, by the time he died in 2008 he had changed philosophies, and I spent the evening in the company of John Howard and Tony Abbott.

So it was no shock to climb the Unity’s stairs on Saturday night to see the Balmain branch of the Liberal Party, there to launch the campaign of candidate James Falk. Not too long ago, being a Balmain Liberal would have led to a public stoning, but the conservative vote is rising, and they are now girding their loins for a real battle.

It’s not hard to see why — as Greens candidate Jamie Parker is fond of saying, according to the last census, Birchgrove is richer than Vaucluse, while Balmain is whiter than Cronulla and has more professionals than Mosman. Interestingly, Balmain also has the state’s largest number of high-earning divorced and separated residents, which may explain the number of sweaty middle-aged men in my gym.

In the last federal election, Liberal candidate Gordon Weiss ran a strong campaign for the seat of Sydney, which includes Balmain, and the Liberal vote increased by 2.3% on a two-party preferred basis.

In the 2007 state election the Liberal vote went up to to 24%, with Labor and the Greens on 39% and 30%. The Libs can’t pull it off, but their preferences could count, and it’s now not a matter of who you like the most, but on whom you can inflict the most damage.

The real battle is between the sitting Labor member, Verity Firth, who has suffered a recent personal agony, and Parker, who is also the high-profile mayor of Leichhardt. Verity has a 3.7% margin over the Greens, but according to election guru Antony Green, the Greens are likely to gain the seat, “unless there is a significant rise in the Liberal vote”.

Throw in NSW’s system of optional preferential voting, and even experienced observers admit that the result is anyone’s guess.

Uppermost in everyone’s mind is the last Victorian election, where the Liberal Party’s decision to preference Labor ahead of the Greens prevented the Greens from winning a single lower-house seat. NSW ALP president Michael Lee has called on the NSW Liberals to do the same, but the Liberals and the Greens are yet to make a formal announcement.

However, Parker has ruled out preferencing the Liberals and said that it was highly unlikely he would be preferencing Labor. Firth, who has the unenviable task of proving her own Green credentials while simultaneously rubbishing Parker’s policies, has indicated her preferences will flow to the Greens.

Although the Balmain branch of the Liberals only has 40 members, there were about 80 people at the Unity on Saturday night, including the Shadow Minister for Transport Gladys Berejiklian, NSW Liberal Senator Marise Payne and her partner, the Member for Penrith Stuart Ayres, and the newish member for Bradfield, Paul Fletcher.

Also there was former upper house member John Jobling, who is running a combined office for four state Liberal campaigns; Drummoyne, Strathfield, Balmain and Marrickville. Labor holds Drummoyne by 7.6% and is in real trouble there, with sitting member Angela D’Amore — Joe Tripodi’s sister in law — sidelined by an adverse ICAC determination.

Labor has preselected another candidate, the high-profile mayor of Canada Bay, Angelo Tsirekas, better known in my household as the brother of Perama chef David Tsirekas. Labor holds Strathfield by 15% and Marrickville by 10%, but it is only Balmain and Marrickville where the Greens have a chance. It’s a sign of the times that the Liberals have stepped up and started to take these seats seriously, allocating some real resources.

I asked Falk about his policies for the electorate, but he stayed relentlessly on-message, quoting the NSW Libs five-point plan — a strong economy, more funds for hospitals and the police, better public transport, accountability of government and the reform of planning.

All good motherhood stuff, but what does it actually mean? Getting rid of Part 3A, by which the NSW state government can override local council approval for projects of “state significance”, is a good idea, but they haven’t outlined its  replacement. Six weeks out from a state election, we need to see Barry O’Farrell actually doing something.

In the words of H.L. Mencken, “There comes a time when every man feels the urge to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and start slitting throats.”

Barry, please, we are waiting.

Peter Fray

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