As the New South Wales election campaign enters the home stretch, opinion polls are offering no indication that Labor is gaining the late-campaign momentum it needs to elevate its prospects from recovery to outright victory.
Clearly this says something about Labor’s ongoing saleability in the state, because the dominant issue of the campaign is playing heavily in its favour.
At the centre of the Baird government’s program for a second term is a plan to raise $13 billion by leasing electricity network assets to private operators, which polling has consistently found to be opposed by voters by a factor of two to one.
Privatisation proved to be the Newman government’s secret recipe for defeat in Queensland, but NSW Premier Mike Baird offers a few different ingredients. Proceeds from the sale will form the basis of an infrastructure program with an emphasis on reducing traffic congestion in Sydney, in contrast to the more abstract comfort of lower public debt offered by Campbell Newman.
Like Newman, Baird seeks to soften the blow with a plan to lease rather than sell the targeted assets, but he has gone further in placating anti-privatisation sentiment by proposing to keep the electricity distribution companies half under government control.
There is also an important distinction between the two states so far as electoral impact is concerned. Whereas Queensland voters who had their hearts set against privatisation had nothing for it but to vote out the Newman government, their counterparts in New South Wales can get both halves of their favoured bargain by giving a re-elected Coalition government an anti-privatisation upper house to contend with, should they prove sufficiently tactically minded.
However, the Coalition goes into the election in a strong position in the Legislative Council, since members elected at the time of the 2011 landslide will continue their terms into the next Parliament.
During 2011 the Coalition secured a bare majority of the 21 seats up for election, more than doubling Labor’s pitiful haul of five and leaving another five for the minor parties. That left the incoming government needing three votes on top of its own 19 to get legislation through — which, in the absence of support from Labor and the Greens, meant enlisting the support of the Christian Democratic Party and Shooters & Fishers, which had two seats each.
The Greens will carry over three seats from 2011 into the next Parliament and are naturally opposed to privatisation. So too are Shooters & Fishers, who have cleared the chamber’s low quota for election to win a seat at four out of the five elections held since 1995.
With the coming election sure to produce a major correction after the anomaly of 2011, the realistic objective for the Coalition is to achieve enough of an improvement on its 2007 result to win votes with the support of one right-of-centre party rather than two.
As far as electricity privatisation is concerned, that would put the ball in the court of Fred Nile and the Christian Democratic Party, which is being uniquely accommodating in allowing that it might let the legislation pass if it contained a five-year guarantee on the jobs of existing power workers.
To reach that position, the Coalition and the Christian Democratic Party will need to win 10 seats between them to add to their 12 from 2011.
It seems more likely than not that Fred Nile will fill his part of the bargain by retaining his existing seat, which leaves the Coalition needing nine seats of its own. Past experience suggests the hurdle will be cleared if it can secure at least 38% of the vote.
Polling currently has it tracking well clear of that at about 45%, but that’s for the lower house. As the popularity of micro-party options has risen, a 1% gap between the Coalition’s lower and upper house performance at the 2003 election widened to 3.4% in 2011. At federal level, the gap between the Coalition’s House and Senate vote in New South Wales went from 1.2% to 5.6% in 2010, before rocketing to 13.1% in 2013.
In reviewing upper house elections, it’s normally at around this time that we raise the prospect of tiny micro-parties snowballing to victory on the back of preference-harvesting arrangements.
But New South Wales has long been ahead of the curve in this matter, with the election of a slate of obscure candidates in 1999 having been followed by the abolition of the group voting ticket system that made preference harvesting possible.
However, it’s equally important to recall that preference harvesting wasn’t the only peculiarity thrown up by the 2013 Senate election result, particularly in New South Wales.
David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democratic Party won his Senate seat not through preference harvesting, but from a 9.5% share of the vote that was owed to a fortuitous top placement in the ballot paper draw — which appeared to result in hundreds of thousands of voters confusing his Senate ticket with that of the Liberal Party.
There has been a similarly auspicious result in the ballot paper draw for the New South Wales Legislative Council, with pole position going to the No Land Tax Party.
This outfit might not have confusion with a major party playing in its favour, but it does stand to benefit from an ideal placement on the biggest and most perplexing ballot paper voters will have faced at a state election since 1999, encompassing 394 candidates spread across 25 columns.
Furthermore, the party is better placed than any other minor contender would have been to take advantage of its good fortune. Whereas the 10 other fringe parties are fielding candidates in no more than six seats in the lower house, the No Land Tax Party will greatly elevate its profile by taking the field in all 93, having somehow put together the requisite $23,250 in nomination deposits.
The party is unlikely to have much luck in achieving its titular objective, but it could certainly have an important bearing on electricity privatisation, with lead candidate Peter Jones saying he will respect the government’s mandate if it succeeds in winning re-election.
Failing that, the fate of Sydney’s poles and wires looks likely to come down to how many pounds of flesh Fred Nile and his party can extract from the government in negotiations after the election.