By Lisa Macdonald
SYDNEY — The people of NSW gave a decisive thumbs down to "politics as usual" in the state election on March 25. The 1.5% swing away from the Liberal-National Coalition, the fact that the ALP just managed to limp over the line to form a one seat majority government and the increased vote for most small or single issue parties, all attest to a high level of disillusionment.
Possibly the most telling result was the massive 10% drop in the number of people who even bothered to vote, compared to the last state election in 1991. In addition to the nearly 16% of people who did not vote on March 25, around 7% of the votes cast were informal, an increase of around 2% from 1991.
The new government was elected by only 77% of eligible voters, over a quarter of whom decided how they would vote only on the day itself, indicating a widespread perception that these elections offered neither real choice nor prospects for positive change.
The ALP managed to scrape in with 50 seats (Coalition 47, plus independents Clover Moore and Peter Macdonald). After seven years of attacks on the living conditions and rights of ordinary people, the Coalition was finally defeated.
The Australian Democrats are still being touted as the alternative to the major parties but, under the right-wing federal leadership of Cheryl Kernot, are looking increasingly at home among the wheelers and dealers in Parliament House. Their average statewide vote dropped from 5.4% in 1991 to 4.7%.
And the ALP, while it has formed government, has done so with fewer primary votes and fewer two-party preferred votes than the Coalition (ALP 48.8%, Coalition 51.2%). The new government was neither the majority of voters' first choice, nor their overall preference.
Contrary to the rhetoric of Labor Party members, the election in no way reflects a renewal of popular support for the ALP in this state. Only twice — in 1922 and 1938 — has the ALP's vote fallen below what it has been in the last three NSW elections.
The large number of voters who rejected all of the major parties reflects a continuation of the polarisation in Australia. While the vote to the left of Labor and the Democrats increased, so too did the centre and extreme right-wing vote.
Fred Nile's Call to Australia, for example, polled an average of 3.6% across 42 seats, increasing their vote from 1991 by 0.5%. Australians Against Further Immigration averaged 5.5% across 20 seats, and John Tingle's Shooters Party still looks possible for a seat in the upper house.
Traditionally many of the right-wing candidates in upper house elections have played the role of front groups for the Coalition. But the large number of non-aligned small parties which contested these elections on single issues does indicate an increasing disintegration of the two party system. Add to these single-issue parties, those to the left of the ALP such as the Greens and the Democratic Socialists, and it is clear that significant numbers of people do not believe that any of the existing parliamentary parties are able to represent their interests and concerns.
The ALP owes much to the environment lobby for its election. The Wilderness Society had 300 volunteers in the three marginal Sydney seats of Drummoyne, Gladesville and Coogee distributing 90,000 how-to-vote cards which urged a "Vote for the forests" by putting Greens and Democrats first and Labor before the Coalition. It said this was "instrumental ... in boosting the ALP's vote in those seats by an average of more than 2%".
The lengths to which the peak environment bodies were prepared to go to get Labor elected was further revealed in a Total Environment Centre circular to their polling booth staff in the Marrickville electorate.
Andrew Refshauge, leader of the NSW Labor Left, has held this seat comfortably for many years. He was challenged by both a well-known Greens candidate and the No Aircraft Noise party (NAN). Because both the Greens and Liberals were directing preferences to NAN, there was some possibility that NAN could win this seat.
Choosing to disregard both the ALP's record on environment issues and the attack on people's rights and the environment that the ALP's third runway constitutes, the Environment Centre circular states, "While it must be acknowledged that aircraft noise is a big problem, election of NAN would prevent Labor from having enough seats to form government, and thus cause another four years environment destruction ... under a Coalition government".
Despite standing in many more seats than in 1991, and even with significantly more mass media coverage during this campaign, the Greens vote in the lower house increased only by 0.3%. With an average of 6.8% of the primary vote across 35 seats, the Greens have, however, displaced the Democrats as the third party in NSW politics.
Where they stood against the Greens, the Democrats did not seem to have much impact on the Green vote. In only two seats, Gordon and Lane Cove, both with wealthy, conservative constituencies, did the Democrats outpoll the Greens. Further, Democrats' votes were just as high in seats contested by the Greens as in those where there was no Green candidate, indicating a quite different, probably more right-wing base of support.
In contrast, the NAN campaign, which won an average of almost 17% of the primary vote across six inner Sydney seats, did cut into the Green vote considerably. In Marrickville, for example, where NAN received over 24% of the vote, the Green vote was halved from its 1991 result.
It is still probable, but not definite, that the Greens number one Legislative Council candidate, Ian Cohen, will be elected. This will depend on the distribution of preferences between the many small parties which contested the upper house.
There is little doubt that electoral support for the Greens was increased by the high profile anti-woodchipping campaign over the past few months, which both raised the environmental consciousness of many people and provided a context within which the Greens were able to publicise their policies, join new members and involve activists in their campaign.
The most striking example, however, of how a broad, high profile, ongoing campaign of public activity serves as the best possible basis for electoral success is the strong result achieved by NAN. The significant NAN vote in the lower house was a direct result of numerous public meetings, blockades, protest rallies and similar activities over the past five months. These guaranteed constant mass media coverage, a consistent broadening of community support for campaign demands and a high level of organisation among activists.
While not all of the thousands of anti-third runway campaigners are also supporters of NAN as an electoral formation, NAN was able to obtain the active support of a significant proportion of these activists, and it reaped the electoral rewards.