Editorial: After the NSW elections
The May 25 NSW election confirms the unpopularity of all the main parties. Around the country, there are now five minority governments relying on the support of independents: NSW, South Australia, Tasmania, the ACT and Western Australia.
The result disproves claims that the electorate has moved rightward in recent years. Labor's Bob Carr almost won the election with a populist campaign appealing vaguely to a widespread sense of grievance against economic hardship and government spending cuts. As well, a big swag of votes for independent, Green and Democrat candidates reflects a growing desire for an alternative to the Liberal-Labor treadmill. Any rightward movement has taken place mainly in corporate boardrooms, party offices and media empires.
Carr's populist campaign was enough to secure a swing to Labor against Greiner's harsh austerity, even though the ALP's own record is almost as bad. Labor has a disastrous economic record nationally and in Victoria, and is up to its neck in a corruption scandal in WA, but the Liberals don't have a lot going for them either. With Victorian leader Jeff Kennett working overtime to make an ass of himself, many NSW voters decided that three years of Greinerism were more than enough, and the Libs have their own little bribery scandal in Tasmania.
Even the Democrats may have suffered just from their association with parliament, though their poor performance on May 25 probably owes something to their ludicrous choice of bicentenary celebration organiser Jonathon King as an upper house candidate and the fact that their NSW politicians are among the least enthusiastic about the party's move towards more liberal, greener politics.
Carr's resort to populism was probably due mainly to the fact that Labor is now broke, like its former big business mates. The NSW machine was unable to run the big-budget campaign it relied on through the '80s. There are other signs that Labor is becoming more cautious as the erosion of its traditional base reaches critical levels. Right-wing heavies such as Hawke and Richardson have suggested that the right steamroller will be in low gear on the uranium issue, and perhaps other potentially divisive questions, at the coming national conference.
With no WA Inc funds in the coffers, union funding became more important to the Carr campaign. The unions, galvanised by the threat of Greiner's anti-union laws, played a more central role than they have in recent campaigns. Even so, their strategists blundered monumentally with their each-way bet on the no-hope Marie Bignold Team edging out Festival of Lighter Fred Nile and preventing Greiner getting control of the upper house. Green Alliance candidate Ian Cohen will go very close to dumping Nile by the time preferences are counted, and would certainly have done so had the Labor Council given him even a fraction of the backing it gave to the wowser Bignold. Cohen would certainly have voted against Greiner's anti-union laws.
The hopeful note is that resistance can be effective. Under pressure from the electorate, reflected in votes for Greens, independents and Democrats, Labor was forced to take a less arrogant stance. But that doesn't mean anything has changed in the Labor Party. With the party's ranks decimated, the machine's grip is tighter than ever. Labor might respond to pressure, but it won't initiate even urgently necessary change. The need for a genuine political alternative is still the most pressing question facing the left and green movements.