With control of the legislative assembly having been set in stone for many months now, the only doubtful aspect in tomorrow’s New South Wales election is the fate of the legislative council, where for the last four years the ALP has had a working majority with the aid of the Greens: 19 Labor and four Greens against 19 others.
The council has eight-year terms, so although it’s the members elected in 2003 who are up for re-election, the starting point for analysis is what happened in 2007. Antony Green has a very good historical summary. If that result were repeated, Labor would have 18 and the Greens four, against 16 Coalition, two Christian Democrats and two Shooters & Fishers — still a majority for the left. (And yes, I’m aware of the oddness of describing the NSW ALP as “left”, so don’t bother writing in.)
But that won’t happen. At a minimum, Labor will drop two seats from the 2007 benchmark. The best it can hope for is that one of those seats will go to the Greens, leaving the left and right combinations each on 21 seats and forcing the O’Farrell government to deal with either Labor or the Greens to get its legislation through.
The Greens say they are confident of achieving that, and in today’s Sydney Morning Herald the Coalition is back-pedalling on the claim that they can achieve a working majority. Clearly neither the prospect of untrammeled power for the new government nor that of the small far right parties with the balance of power is thought to be an electoral winner.
But let’s look at the figures. In 2007 the combined parties of the left won about 52.6% of the upper house vote for their 11 seats, while those of the right had about 45.2% for their ten. That’s a highly proportional result, and suggests that if there’s a swing of more than 10% from left to right, that will shift the two seats that the right needs for a majority.
The polls are showing a swing of around 16% away from Labor, so unless an unusually large amount of that is going to the Greens, the left’s prospects don’t look good. The Greens may pick up their extra seat, but if Labor drops three (16% is about 3.5 quotas) then the Greens can’t win the balance of power unless they pick up an extra two — a task that looks beyond them.
With Pauline Hanson and Family First both in the field, the right’s vote will be more fragmented this time, which may hurt their chances. But luck could run the other way; if the far-right vote is split fairly evenly among three candidates, they might all get up, in addition to nine (or quite probably ten) from the Coalition.
The fundamentalists are frankly salivating at the prospect, and while Labor and the Greens are both trying to warn voters about the implications, the right are counter-claiming by pointing to the extremism of the Greens.
That’s not completely unfounded; those who are used to the Victorian or even Queensland Greens will find the New South Wales branch rather a contrast. Its roots in the far left run much deeper and its embrace of pragmatism is correspondingly weaker, so moral equivalence is a tempting position.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
Nonetheless I think it would be mistaken. After all, the Greens have had the balance of power for four years — and in conjunction with the Democrats (remember them?) for another four before that — without succeeding in turning New South Wales into a Stalinist dystopia, or indeed even into anything moderately progressive. It’s unlikely that another term, this time with a Coalition government, would be much different.
The critical point is that the Greens’ crazy policies are largely peripheral to their overall agenda; they provide embarrassing soundbites, but don’t really drive where the party is going. With the fundamentalists, on the other hand, the policies most out of step with public opinion or common decency are precisely the ones that they care most about. Fred Nile’s bigotry and extremism are not an optional extra, they’re an integral part of who he is.
I don’t usually have a good word for Family First, but credit on this score to Gordon Moyes, who broke with Nile in 2009 and is now heading the Family First ticket. Although he shares many of Nile’s views, he has denounced his anti-Muslim campaign and is trying to present fundamentalism with a more reasonable face.
Unfortunately I don’t much like his chances. Voters who want to be reasonable are already voting for the major parties; “fringe moderate” is almost a contradiction in terms. Most of the right-wing vote that doesn’t go to the Coalition will go to the crazies (although of course the Coalition has its internal crazies as well), and unless the Greens can pull something out of the hat, a right-wing majority in the upper house is the most likely result tomorrow.