Michael Daley
NSW Labor Leader Michael Daley. (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

In a little over three weeks, NSW will head to the polls in a vote so tight and unpredictable it’s broken Antony Green’s election calculator. Since he was thrust into the Labor leadership after Luke Foley’s unceremonious departure three months ago, Michael Daley has quietly moved to being neck and neck with Premier Gladys Berejiklian in the polls. While Daley may just be enjoying a post-Foley honeymoon, the tight polling has the Coalition scared. Can the cash splashes, attack ads, and hit pieces trawling through the leader’s past disrupt Daley’s momentum?

What Daley wants

Daley, who is keen to paint himself as a kind of inoffensive suburban dad, isn’t one for grandiosity. In an interview with The Guardian last year, the member for Maroubra promised that one of his first priorities was to “calm Sydney down”. The issue of stadiums has become an easy signature battleground for Daley. Berejiklian’s promise to spend billions upgrading the Sydney Football Stadium in Moore Park and the ANZ Stadium has consistently proven unpopular with the electorate. Daley jumped on the issue within days of taking the leadership, telling the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust, which controls the SFS they wouldn’t “get a single cent” of public money, and staring down a challenge from the National Rugby League, who threatened to move the Grand Final interstate if the update didn’t go ahead.

Much of Daley’s pre-election pitches are generic promises to spend more and ease cost of living. The money from the stadiums, he says, will be re-routed into health and education. Responding to ever-present fears about population growth, Daley has lashed out at inequitable development, which he says has been “rampant” in western Sydney, while leaving more affluent postcodes untouched. He wants to boost jobs by putting local workforce targets into government contracts. A more ambitious promise is to create a state-owned renewable energy company has drawn praise from environmental groups. To fight the state’s steady cultural decline, Labor has promised a $35 million music package, with a $1.2 million for live venues. Daley has also tentatively considered pill testing.

Transport remains a perennial concern, particularly after the Liberals’ laborious light-rail project has turned much of the Sydney CBD into a ghost town pockmarked with unsightly construction sites. It’s an issue where Daley’s approach seems to be slightly unsettled. Labor have promised $8 billion to fast track a metro link to western Sydney (where a slew of marginal seats lie), while also pledging to scrap other rail projects. He briefly won the approval of motorists by pledging a cash-back scheme for road users on Sydney’s M4 motorway, a policy The Sydney Morning Herald described as “shockingly bad”. Days later, he angered the wealthier of these motorists, by proposing a tax on luxury cars and yachts to pay for more nurses.

Ghosts of Labor past

The biggest threat to Daley’s image as a competent alternative could be his past actions. This week, The Australian reported that Daley failed to disclose donations made by developers to his campaigns while serving as a Randwick City Councillor, breaching the council’s rules on transparency. One of the development applications Daley approved was for an extension of a beachside house of Michael Williamson, a former union boss and ALP national president currently in prison for fraud. Yesterday, The Daily Telegraph reported that Daley chaired the committee which approved a development application for Eddie Obeid’s family business partners. Tenuous as it is, the Obeid link stings — Daley will never be allowed to forget how, in his maiden speech to parliament in 2005, he thanked the corrupt Labor Right powerbroker for his campaign support. Daley, The Daily Telegraph editorialised, represents the “same old Labor”.

According to Daley, the forensic focus on his past is just part of the Liberals’ “dirt unit”, rummaging through his closet for skeletons that could help tie him to the staggering corruption that plagued the last NSW Labor government. A new Liberal ad argues that the money troubles Randwick Rugby Club faced while Daley was a director mean he cannot be trusted with the state’s finances. Daley is currently threatening legal action over a Sydney Morning Herald story which suggested he used a secret hotline to transfer a speeding fine to his wife’s name. 

It’s not yet clear how much these stories will hurt Daley. Polls are pointing to the prospect of a hung parliament, and the election’s outcome hinges heavily on how three-way races in rural seats play out. But in an election this tight, a few specks of dirt could make all the difference.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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