By Dick Nichols
SYDNEY — The first opinion poll released after New South Wales Liberal Premier Nick Greiner called a May 25 election here shows the Liberal-National coalition only three points ahead of Bob Carr's Labor (30% to 27%), with fully 35% of those polled still undecided.
The Australian Democrats and others register a lowly 6%; 20% have not yet decided what main issue, if any, will decide how they vote.
None of this is very surprising. The "main contest" has the Greiner government running on its record of "good management" while Carr will be centring his attack on Greiner's "mismanagement".
In a week when University of New South Wales accountancy professor Bob Walker published an article claiming that the NSW deficit was the same as Victoria's and the Australian's economics editor Alan Wood began a spellbinding four-part series on comparative state public sector efficiency, it's clear that this campaign will be marked by a welter of claims over which party can deliver most public sector efficiency (get rid of most workers).
There's only one issue which clearly demarcates Labor from Liberal — Greiner's industrial relations bill, the rejection of which in the NSW upper house provided the trigger for the poll. Greiner is promising, if he wins, to pass this legislation (which enshrines voluntary membership of unions) at a special sitting of parliament in June.
If he succeeds, Greiner will have nearly completed the process of taming the unions that began with Labor's Accord. The package will ban picket lines, make most strikes illegal and impose massive penalties to enforce the decisions of the 'umpire", the Industrial Commission.
Greiner's decision to make the bill the key issue in the campaign is shrewd. It leaves Carr in the position of either campaigning strongly against it (and hence alienating big business support) or of running dead (and so seeming to legitimise the bill for what Greiner claims it to be — the next big step along the road of "micro-economic reform").
As for public services, Carr is already pointing out how much these have deteriorated under the Liberals and how much rates and charges have increased. But how will Labor be different? It's impossible to find anyone — and certainly not Labor shadow ministers — who can explain how Labor will both improve services and reduce the deficit at the bottom of a recession.
There is clearly opportunity for Greens — standing an upper house ticket and eight candidates for the lower house — to make gains if they can overcome their image as people exclusively concerned with the environment.