Voters deal Greiner a surprise setback


By Steve Painter

SYDNEY, May 26 — The Liberal Party failed to win a mandate for its promised assault on the trade union movement in the May 25 NSW elections. A surprise swing of about 5% against the Liberal-National coalition might still produce a hung parliament in which independents would hold the balance of power.

To avoid this possibility, the coalition must win the three remaining doubtful seats of The Entrance, Maitland and Murwillumbah, which will be decided on preferences later this week. The Greiner government will probably be forced to rely on the support of National Party renegade Tony Windsor, who won Tamworth as an independent after being denied preselection for the Nats.

Windsor says he will support conservative policies, though he won't rejoin the National Party in his first parliamentary term. Labor would probably need the support of at least three independents to form a government.

The result reflects growing disillusionment with government and politicians in general as neither of the two main parties offers any real alternative to economic hardship and continued slashing of public services and facilities.

With the Nationals beset by the rural crisis and waist-deep in development scandals, particularly on the north coast, there were swings of up to 20% against the government in rural areas, though this was mainly in blue ribbon National seats, and only Tamworth and possibly Murwillumbah changed hands as a result. The smaller anti-Liberal swing of around 3% in the cities hurt the government most.

Another feature of the elections was the dumping of independents elected to traditionally Labor seats in the 1988 revolt against the Unsworth government. Right-wing local mayor Frank Arkell lost the seat of Wollongong, politically erratic Dawn Fraser was ousted in inner-Sydney Port Jackson, and the Hunter Valley seats of Newcastle and Swansea both returned to Labor after their unprecedented rebellion.

Traditionally Labor western Sydney seats taken by the Liberals in 1988 also returned to Labor.

Of seven independents in the old parliament, only two were returned, but two more were elected to make a total of four. Robyn Read, endorsed by Ted Mack, narrowly lost Mack's former seat of North Shore to the Liberals after the seat's boundaries were changed.

Besides Tony Windsor in Tamworth, the other new independent is Manly councillor Dr Peter MacDonald, who tossed out Greiner's planning and local government minister David Hay after campaigning largely on public transport and local environmental issues.

Veteran independent John Hatton retained the Nowra-based seat of South Coast, and Clover Moore easily won the eastern-Sydney seat of Bligh after narrowly taking it from high-profile Liberal Michael Yabsley in rt from traditionally Labor parts of the seat to her already existing base in the area's large gay community.

The result came as a shock to the Liberals, who had assumed they would win easily on the basis of Labor's national unpopularity due to the recession and embroilment in corruption and economic incompetence scandals in WA and Victoria. The Liberals appeared to hold all the advantages, having chosen the timing and set a short, three-week campaign.

There was an early slip-up when Nats leader Wal Murray, worried by opposition to plans to site a toxic incinerator in rural NSW, suggested it might be okay in Sydney since rural people were being assured it wasn't dangerous. Murray was promptly sent on a bush holiday for the rest of the campaign.

But the Liberals underestimated the extent of their unpopularity due to harsh social and economic policies. Finding that Greiner merely took up where Unsworth left off in the area of economic austerity and service slashing, and that the Libs had their own bag of nasties in addition, such as their anti-union laws and their brutal prisons policy, many traditional Labor voters returned to the devil they knew.

Overall, the result reflects not so much a Labor revival as a return to the traditional pattern of NSW politics after the extraordinary drubbing inflicted by angry workers on Unsworth in 1988. Perhaps the persistent new feature from the mid-'80s is a continuing level of support for independents in some Liberal-National areas.

It seems the coalition, in conjunction with Fred and Elaine Nile, will control the upper house, and that Democrat Elizabeth Kirkby will be re-elected. It appears the coalition will succeed in its plan to win control of the house through a referendum to cut its size by three.