Tomorrow’s New South Wales state election offers an interesting test of how well the narratives favoured by the news media align with the reality out in voterland.
Based on recent form, there is good reason to be sceptical.
Prior to the Super Saturday byelections last July, the prevailing consensus was of mortal danger for the leadership of Bill Shorten, who faced the historically unprecedented prospect of losing two seats from opposition in one go.
Fast forward six weeks, and it was the leader of the other party who was gone, leaving Labor under Bill Shorten with a 10% lead in the polls.
In November, the Victorian state election was promoted as a tight tussle in which a first term Labor government was imperilled by an African gangs crisis, which pitted a fearful public against a blasé government, and controversies surrounding its infrastructure programs — which, strange as it may seem in hindsight, the Liberals believed might deliver it decisive marginal seats in Melbourne’s south-east.
What followed instead was a Coalition wipeout that took everybody by surprise — including pollsters, all of whom underestimated Labor’s two-party vote by at least 3% in the final stages of the campaign.
In New South Wales, the past week has been marked by an equally clear consensus that Labor’s hitherto promising campaign has been torpedoed by two damaging developments for party leader Michael Daley: the revelation that he expressed concerns about Asian immigration at a party forum last year, and his stumbling over education policy during a leaders’ debate on Wednesday.
This view has been equally evident in punditry and betting markets, although there has been no public opinion polling in that time to test the proposition one way or the other.
Certainly it’s clear that Daley’s comments of last September present Labor with a real problem among Sydney’s Chinese community, which is geographically concentrated and well serviced by its own media.
This could change the game in the Labor-held seats of Kogarah and Strathfield, respectively home to the state’s first and fourth highest Chinese populations, where the Liberals claim internal polling shows a dramatic surge in their favour.
With those potentially very significant exceptions, it seems unlikely the dial has shifted quite as far as the more excitable media chatter would have you believe, owing to the limited space available for election news in the wake of the Christchurch atrocity, and the ongoing ascent in the rate of pre-poll voting, which inevitably blunts the impact of even the most dramatic late campaign developments.
As such, there seems no more reason than before to doubt the existing impression that the election looms as a game of two halves, with the government endangered by a backlash in the regions while holding up reasonably well in Sydney.
The biggest danger spot for Gladys Berejiklian’s government is the state’s northern coast, where demographic change combined with the perception of a government unduly focused on the capital poses a threat in four Nationals-held seats, and raises the possibility that the Greens-held seat of Ballina, which the Nationals had earlier pencilled in, might fall to Labor instead.
The Nationals are also under pressure from independents and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers in three seats in the state’s interior, while Labor is hopeful of nabbing the seats of Goulburn and Bega in the state’s south-east from the Liberals.
This leaves plenty of pathways for the government to lose a majority that currently rests at six seats, down from eight at the 2015 election after mid-term byelection defeats at the hands of Shooters and an independent.
Conversely, it would take a surprise at least on the scale of the Victorian election for Labor to secure the 13 seats it needs to win a majority in its own right.
That being so, there are two scenarios that seem worth seriously entertaining: a hung parliament in which a bewildering configuration of independents, Greens and Shooters share the role of kingmaker; or a clear Coalition win, and with it a rare vindication for the news media conventional wisdom.