For most Australian politicians, boasting in front of a packed gathering of voters that your government is billions of dollars in debt would be politically suicidal. In Marrickville it wins you a thumping round of applause.

Your name doesn’t have to begin with Antony and end with Green to work out that Marrickville is the most left-wing seat in NSW, the electorate where economic rationalism comes to die.

Liberal candidate Rosana Tyler certainly knows it. She declined an invitation to speak at last night’s meet-the-candidates forum at Marrickville Town Hall — a wise move, if not a particularly brave one.

The Liberal landslide set to sweep through NSW on March 26 won’t cause a tremor in this ethnically-diverse inner-west enclave, home to the highest proportion of students and atheists in the state. Marrickville, like nearby Balmain, is an arm wrestle between Labor and the Greens.

And like in Balmain, where education minister Verity Firth is expected to lose her seat, Labor is bracing for the loss of one of its most talented and scandal-free members: Health Minister Carmel Tebbutt (aka Mrs Anthony Albanese). She currently holds the seat with a margin of 7.5%.

Tebbutt’s opponent is the Greens’ Fiona Byrne, a local lord mayor, who shot to national prominence recently by successfully spearheading a push to make Marrickville the first council in Australia to boycott Israeli companies and institutions.

During two and a half hours of questioning last night, not a single person asked about the economy. Nor about law and order — unless you count one woman’s query as to why the NSW incarceration rate is four times Victoria’s. More surprisingly, public transport wasn’t raised; neither, until one question at the end of the night, was health.

Rather, education, which has been all but ignored so far in the wider campaign, dominated the event. Both candidates said they were appalled NSW private schools are allowed to expel children for being gay. But Byrne went further than Tebbutt on this point, arguing all exemptions to the Discrimination Act should be removed from state law.

Both also said they were big supporters of TAFE and public school education. Said Tebbutt: “Our public education system is unrecognisable from what we inherited in 1995.”  She’s particularly proud her government has reduced class sizes to an average 20 for kindergarten children, 22 for Year 1 and 24 for Year 2.

Byrne said class sizes in later years could be reduced by eliminating funding to wealthy private schools: “We actually have, I think, $65 million going to the top 70 elite private schools every year and that’s just state funding. And I despair when I hear stories of public schools saying they are not providing soap in the toilets for students because they can’t afford it.”

The politically-savvy audience came armed with tough questions for both candidates. When asked whether she would be willing to cross the floor to oppose the privatisation of state assets, Tebbutt responded that she had argued against the sale of NSW’s electricity assets in caucus — yet she would sooner quit the Labor Party than break with cabinet solidarity by crossing the floor.

As for Byrne, she refused to be drawn on whether she would pursue the boycott against Israel in state parliament. And when asked how the Greens would pay for expensive policies such as a four-day working week and a shift to renewable energy, she said there was nothing wrong with borrowing money.

Tebbutt interjected. “I have to knock this idea on the head that we don’t borrow money in NSW,” she fired back. “Total state debt for the current financial year is $36 billion dollars and it’s due to rise to $55 billion over the forward estimates period. So we borrow and we borrow substantially.” Cue applause from the crowd.

For most of the night, the candidates were in furious agreement: both oppose privatisation, want urgent action on climate change and support public education. Their plea for votes differed not so much on what they believe in but how they would go about achieving it from opposition.

Tebbutt said the only way to avoid a conservative government in NSW was to vote Labor: “A vote for a Green in Marrickville will help deliver a Coalition government. I can remember what the last coalition government did to NSW and I can tell you Fiona, it did punish NSW. And it particularly punished the poor, the marginalised and the vulnerable.

“The reason I am in the Labor party and not another party is because I believe that if you want to effect change you have to be in a party that can do that.”

Byrne replied: “I think it’s interesting to say that as a progressive voice you can argue in the caucus against things like privatisation. But those things have still happened. So how is that effective; how has that delivered? When you put a Greens voice in parliament you will actually hear that voice. After 16 years the Labor government has had enough time to figure out how to get things done.”

So what will it be? Pragmatism or purity? Working within the Machine, or railing against it? Labor or Greens? We’ll know the answer on March 26.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey