Ten days to go now to the New South Wales election, and Labor, not surprisingly, just wants it to be over. Any thought of victory or even a close result evaporated long ago; it’s now just a matter of keeping the wagons in a tight circle and trying to hold onto the party’s strongholds.

But there aren’t many strongholds that the party can feel confident about. On paper, it has 18 seats with margins bigger than the 15.3% that Newspoll is currently showing as the expected swing. But there are several reasons for thinking that Labor’s predicament is even worse than that.

One is that, as Antony Green regularly points out, optional preferential voting makes the calculation of a two-party-preferred vote rather tricky. If, as most people expect, substantially more Greens votes this time exhaust rather than preferencing Labor, that would translate to a drop in Labor’s two-party-preferred vote that probably isn’t showing in the polls.

The second reason is that a seat can be safe against the Coalition but still be vulnerable to the Greens or independents; that’s how Lake Macquarie was lost in 2007 despite a margin of 11.6%, and Newcastle went from 15.4% to 1.2%. Wollongong is likely to be in that category this time, with Gordon Bradbery as a strong independent candidate, and there may well be others.

The third reason is that when swings get as large as this, the assumptions on which the pendulum is based no longer hold. We can’t assume that swing will be independent of the party’s previous level of support, because it’s simply not credible to think, for example, that Labor will drop 15% in Pittwater when it only has 20.2% to start with (and only 7.4% of that in primaries).

If the swing can’t possibly be that large in the safe Coalition seats, then it’s probably going to be larger in the safe — or rather “safe” — Labor seats.

Hence the Daily Telegraph’s report last week that Blacktown, with a 22.4% margin in Labor’s western suburban heartland, was now considered at risk. If Blacktown goes, there’s not much left.

What particularly piqued the Tele’s interest in Blacktown was the fact that the Labor candidate is John Robertson, former NSW union chief now attempting to transfer from the legislative council, who has been nominated as Labor’s most likely post-election leadership contender. If Robertson is struggling, it invites reflection on the paucity of available talent that the party is likely to be choosing from in opposition.

On the other hand, grooming of leaders in the past has not been a great success. A list of previous “heirs apparent” in the NSW ALP from just the past 10 years might include Michael Knight, Craig Knowles, John Watkins, Frank Sartor, John Della Bosca and Carmel Tebbutt. None of them ever reached the top; only Tebbutt is still a candidate for election, and is almost certain to lose her seat to the Greens.

Truth is, parties that suffer heavy defeat are often forced to dig deep into the reserve list for leadership material, and there’s no particular evidence that they do any worse than the more favoured candidates.

Perhaps the most noteworthy case was the Victorian Liberal Party in the early 1950s: after a leadership coup in 1951, the defeated leader ran as an independent against the new leader at the next election and beat him.

Having blown two leaders at once, the party was reduced to a second-string choice with a virtual unknown as his deputy; the following year the new leader was killed in a plane crash and the unknown took over the top job.

His name was Henry Bolte, and he went on to be Victoria’s longest-serving premier.

There may not be a new Bolte among Labor’s depleted remnant after March 26, but someone will eventually rise to the occasion. Right now the party needs to concentrate on holding the maximum number of seats, without being distracted by what future leadership ballots might bring.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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