NSW: Work Choices and job cuts sink Debnam

March 24, 2007

When former naval officer and NSW opposition leader Peter Debnam began his campaign to overthrow the NSW Labor government there were hopes in the Liberal camp that the scene was set for a repeat on March 24 of the party's last win — Nick Greiner's 1988 walloping of the Barrie Unsworth administration.

Like Greiner, Debnam faced a clapped-out three-term ALP government that had angered its supporters with anti-worker policies, was sunk in scandals and had been dominated by one recently departed leader.

In November 2006, the polling indicated a 42%-36% win to the Coalition on the primary vote. Yet on March 24 NSW voted for a fourth term of Labor, even though there was a 3% swing against it.

As Green Left Weekly goes to press, the ALP has lost 2 seats. The Liberals picked up two seats with a swing of 2.1%. The Nationals also picked up an extra seat.

What sunk Debnam's ship? Most of the mainstream commentary has put the blame on his own ineptitude. According to these theories, the Coalition foundered because of such touches of genius as a Liberal TV ad featuring a family of "battlers" complaining about Labor's land tax who turned out to own five houses as investment properties.

After a train broke down on the Sydney Harbour Bridge (and in the face of polls that showed that public transport was one of the hot issues of the campaign) the Coalition decided that it wouldn't be releasing a public transport policy.

Then Debnam conceded 10 days before the poll that he couldn't win, encouraging undecided voters to support independents.

Yet Debnam could well have survived such blunders except for two powerful factors — NSW workers' hatred of the Howard government's Work Choices and the Coalition's promise to cut 20,000 public sector "backroom jobs", allegedly in order to improve front-line services.

The ALP's TV ads endlessly repeated Debnam's statement that he would transfer NSW industrial relations powers to Canberra. Premier Morris Iemma, despite being a minister in the Bob Carr government that slashed workers' compensation entitlements, was portrayed as the workers' friend — unlike Debnam who was always referred to as the "member for Vaucluse" (Sydney's swankiest harbourside suburb).

The other striking aspect of the ALP's campaign was the near-disappearance of the term "ALP" itself. Voters were asked to support not a party but the "people's premier" Morris — projected as if he were a good-natured tradesperson come around to fix up the mess in the community's services.

There was not a single mention of Carr.

As these messages were lodged into everyone's brains via a relentless $16 million anti-Debnam advertising campaign, it became increasingly difficult for the Coalition leader to get people to listen to him.

In vain he pointed out that treasurer Michael Costa had said that 20% of NSW public servants were "surplus to requirement" and asked why, if Work Choices is so bad, Victorian ALP premier Steve Bracks was doing nothing to bring Victorian workers back under state industrial law.

Labor defeated the Coalition in this poll in the only way that was available to it — from the left. Helped by the rightward shift within the NSW Liberal Party (increasingly commanded by a right-wing Catholic faction), a party with 12 years in government was able to pose as the battlers' friend against the silvertails — in the same vein as Paul Keating's win over John Hewson in the 1993 GST election.

While the Greens failed to win the inner-Sydney seats of Marrickville and Balmain, their vote now stands at close to 9%, and they will be in a stronger position to oppose the new government.

Prior to the election, the corporate media had run a hysterical anti-Greens campaign based on a misrepresentation of the party's drug policy. A March 24 Sydney Morning Herald article reported that Greens upper-house MP Lee Rhiannon alleged that on polling day in Balmain, "young Liberals were approaching voters and saying 'Vote Greens' and misrepresenting the Greens policy on drugs". "At the Sydney Town Hall booth [Liberal] Senator [Bill] Heffernan stole Greens how-to-vote cards" and gave them out "while misrepresenting the Greens policy on drugs and harm minimisation to the public".

The Socialist Alliance's upper-house ticket had won 12,423 votes (0.4%) as GLW went to press, more than double its vote in the 2003 state election. The alliance's two lower-house candidates Pip Hinman (Marrickville) and Jess Moore (Wollongong) received 1.6% and 1.4% respectively, reflecting the serious work done by these activists in anti-war and students' rights campaigns. In Marrickville, Hinman came fourth out of nine candidates, just edging out the Australian Democrats' Martine Eve-Macleod.

In Auburn, former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mamdouh Habib received 3.6%, reflecting a strong campaign that dramatised NSW's "terror" laws, police harassment of young people and the running-down of basic health and education services in Sydney's west.

[Dick Nichols is the national coordinator of the Socialist Alliance.]

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