The NSW Liberals achieved the perfect result on Saturday night.

With expectations for Labor to hold as few as 13 seats — that was the conclusion of “internal polling” leaked by Labor on Friday night — the 20-0dd seats it will hang onto now becomes a “not as bad as feared” result. And with John Robertson managing to secure a narrow in Blacktown, the stage is set for business as usual from the Labor Right.

In short, the fundamental overhaul Labor needs to repair the damage of the last four years won’t happen, guaranteeing it won’t be competitive with the Liberals any time soon. One should always be wary of branding an election a two-term victory (notable two-term victors, according to media commentators, include Paul Keating in 1993 and John Howard in 2004). Nevertheless, you can rely on a Robertson-led Labor to guarantee that the NSW Liberals have the 2010s in their keeping.

Remember the Liberals did more than just sit back and wait for victory to fall into their laps. The lessons of John Brogden — who should have gone to the polls on Saturday as premier seeking a second term — and of Peter Debnam in 2007 were learnt. Deals were done. Bitter enemies held their noses and agreed to work together for the sake of unity. Moderates worked with the hard Right for the shared goal of ensuring the electorate did not once again consider the Coalition unelectable in its disunity. Those who wanted to put their egos ahead of the party — like Alex Hawke and his allies — were given short shrift.

Under Robertson, the chances of Labor similarly learning the lessons of what went wrong in the previous term are zero. Robertson is what went wrong with Labor. From his derailing of electricity privatisation, which cost the state billions, to his destruction of Morris Iemma and his determination to inflict himself on the parliamentary party, Robertson is the problem, not the solution.

If you want an indication of just how deeply in denial the NSW Labor hierarchy is, consider today’s effort from party general secretary (and another Mark Arbib protégé) Sam Dastyari, whose recipe for recovery is threefold. The parliamentary factions shouldn’t meet (given they’ll be able to meet in a phone booth, that advice will probably spare some blushes anyway), an “amnesty” for people who have left the party in recent years (“with no financial penalty”, Dastyari generously adds) and unspecified “new processes to continue to get broader and more representative candidates”. Dastyari entirely ignores the “new processes” proposed in the recent Carr-Bracks-Faulkner review of the 2010 election debacle.

Business as usual from the NSW Labor Right.

Nonetheless, even with eight years ahead, O’Farrell has to put aside the risk-averse political persona he has adopted until now and move fast. He needs to think like a Jeff Kennett or a Paul Keating and understand there’s only a limited period in which he can undertake major reform. He has to overhaul a deeply-politicised public service, retrieve the disaster that is electricity privatisation, either sign up to Julia Gillard’s health reforms or otherwise impose his own activity-based funding and performance information framework, and give some regulatory certainty to developers, including by restoring Labor’s abandoned caps on local government infrastructure fees.

Now is the time to roll out unpopular reforms in NSW. Not in a year’s time, when politics will be back to normal, and not in a second term. O’Farrell must go hard, now, while Labor is in disarray and voters are expecting change and in the mood for tough-medicine politics. Remember that this will be an extraordinarily inexperienced government — the treasurer is the son of a minister from the last NSW Coalition government, for heaven’s sake — facing up to some enormous problems inherited from Labor. Some early headline reforms will help set the tone of the entire government.

As for the Greens, there’s no avoiding the impression they’ve underperformed for the second state election in a row, despite improving their overall vote by more than in Victoria and picking up an extra Legislative Council seat. Balmain, where Greens candidate Jamie Parker has been the object of regular Labor smears, is still in play for all three parties, but Carmel Tebbutt hung on in Marrickville. Unlike in Victoria, this should have been an ideal election for the Greens to harvest disillusioned Labor voters. Instead, they picked up less than 10% of the overall swing away from Labor. The rest went to the Liberals.

It may be the Greens simply don’t figure in mainland voters’ heads when it comes to state elections, which are primarily about service delivery. Or it may be the lack of a well-known leader like Bob Brown diffuses the impact of Greens’ campaigning. But there’ll need to be a post-mortem into why the Greens’ federal momentum has ground to a halt at the state level.

In the meantime, O’Farrell and his team need to hit the ground running.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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