Parramatta Leagues Club is oversized and soulless, an eyesore reliant on profits from booze and poker machines to stay afloat (not, some would say, unlike NSW Labor in recent years). Many NSW Liberals, far from home, had their GPS machines in overdrive trying to find it.
Yet it was the perfect place for the Tories to celebrate the biggest defeat of a government in Australian history.
Parramatta lies inside what, only days ago, was Labor heartland. Now, for the lefties, it’s a wasteland of despair. The Liberals’ Geoff Lee stole the seat from Labor with a swing of 26% — just one of many extraordinary results on the night. By holding his soiree in Eels territory, not a ritzy hotel in the CBD, O’Farrell sent a strong message to former Labor voters: the Libs are here and they’re here to stay.
Everybody loves a winner — and free alcohol — so the stars came out to celebrate. All were on their best behaviour. Tony Abbott, against all odds, managed to stay tight-lipped with the media: “Tonight is Barry’s night.” Philip Ruddock was wheeled out. Joe Hockey left plenty of vol au vents to go around. Even Bronwyn Bishop’s hair — one of the planet’s great untapped sources of renewable energy — seemed to shine brighter than usual in the afterglow of victory.
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Barry O’Farrell’s adviser, Max “the axe” Moore-Wilton, looked particularly jolly — but not, he assured Crikey, because he plans to orchestrate a mass culling of the NSW public sector. The seat count on the big TV was frozen on 16 for Labor, the number he picked in his office sweepstakes. (Close but no cigar for Max: the latest count shows the ALP romping home with 18 seats, one more than the Nationals).
There was some M-rated language: “Rob Oakeshott is f-cking going down!” screamed one young Lib when Oakeshott’s protege, Port Macquarie independent Peter Besseling, was crushed by the Nats.
At the start of the night the television sets alternated between Sky News and Seven but before long the party faithful had settled on the ABC. They needn’t have worried: even Kerry & Co were getting swept up in the landslide. Nothing turns on Antony Green as much (psephologically speaking) as a big swing — and Saturday night delivered plenty of those. The result in Bathurst — where the Nationals ended 12 years of Labor dominance with a 37% swing — was an election analyst’s wet dream.
As for O’Brien, he demurred when Barry O’Farrell refused to speak to him, saying he would only chat to his shadow transport minister Gladys Berejiklian. Twitter lit up like the Sydney skyline after Earth Hour.
Most were enjoying the like-minded company so much they barely bothered to watch — until Kristina Keneally appeared just after 9pm to concede defeat. There were cries of shame when she said Labor was still the “hope of the world”; others laughed when she thanked supporters for helping keep the party “intact”. When Keneally announced she would not contest the Labor leadership, few were paying attention. She was still talking but had already become a creature of the past — irrelevant in the shiny new O’Farrell era NSW had entered.
The historic results continued to stream in. Bruce Notley-Smith massacred Paul Pearce in Coogee — unseating Labor for the first time since 1974. He will become the first openly gay Liberal in the NSW Legislative Assembly. Tim Owen, a former commander of Australian forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, picked up Newcastle — the first victory there for the Libs in more than 100 years. At the last state election the Liberal candidate for Newcastle polled fifth behind Labor, two independents and the Greens. Clover Moore hung on in inner-city Sydney but her cult of personality is weakening; Adrian Bartels increased the Liberal vote by 15%.
As the boozed-up crowd grew impatient, sporadic shouts of “Barry, Barry, Barry” began breaking out. But no one can rush O’Farrell — Labor has been demanding he reveal his position on electricity privatisation for four years and we’re still none the wiser.
When BOF, as the Twits have dubbed him, did appear to speak, he didn’t let his guard down. He knows, like John Howard did, that being ordinary — boring, even — can be an electoral asset. His speech was aimed not at the diehards in the room but the ordinary punters at home.
“The Liberal Party was formed to represent all people, not interests,” he said. “I’m determined that the government I lead will govern for all people. Whatever your religion or your lifestyle, we will deliver … the honest and accountable government you deserve.”
As midnight approached, and the party wound down, Crikey headed for the exit only to be corralled into conversation by a man we’ll call Pat, the personal trainer. A man of many talents –fitness guru, teacher, journalist, spin doctor — Pat was, not so long ago, working in Bob Carr’s media department. Indeed, he was so committed to the Labor cause, he volunteered two hours after work each day to get the notoriously bookish Carr into shape.
But as the years went on, he began to despair at NSW Labor’s culture. “Just because they have good ideals and believe in social justice, they think they can do what they want,” he told Crikey.
The arrogance of Iguana-gate was far from unusual in NSW Labor, he said — recalling one senior frontbencher, still in the Legislative Council, who entered a restaurant late at night and ordered staff to re-open the kitchen just so he and his team could have a meal. Senior Labor figures, he added, regularly spoke with utter disdain about the working-class people they were supposed to represent.
He had sailed too deep into NSW Labor’s heart of darkness. Now he campaigns for the Liberals.
Pat’s tale is a personal one — yet it is also the story of the election. Over the past four years, many Labor loyalists in NSW decided the party no longer represented their interests or their values. The ALP was seen not as a light on a hill but as a patronage machine interested above all in perpetuating its own power.
O’Farrell may let them down too. History may judge him harshly. But after uniting a party once riven with factional disputes, after running an almost flawless election campaign, for a brief moment on Saturday night he could relish one of life’s simplest, most profound pleasures: a job well done.