It takes a special sort of leader and a special sort of campaign to make the NSW state Labor Government re-electable but Peter Debnam and the NSW Liberals managed it! Despite Labor’s awful record on health, transport, education, and water the Liberals made them look like the pick of the bunch.
Peter Debnam made it clear that he and the Liberals would remove state protection from the recent IR laws for all NSW state employees and would hand them over to Canberra to be covered by Work Choices. This combined with his pledge to sack 20,000 public servants proved disastrous for NSW Labor. It also makes it hard for Howard to claim that IR played no part in the resultant re-election of Labor.
It was hardly a ringing endorsement for Labor with 3.4% swing against them. In fact the voters in NSW when offered the unsavoury choice between Labor and Liberals chose Labor. There was a swing against Labor, and they lost primary votes to many independents standing in key electorates. A deal with the Greens for preferences saved key marginal seats.
The whole campaign for the major parties was based on negative campaigning. Labor adverts featured Peter Debnam’s promise on job cuts and IR changes for state employees. The NSW Nurses Federation ran TV campaigns stating that nurses were trained to save lives, not negotiate individual workplace agreements. The Liberals also ran a negative campaign, focused on three of Labor ministers least liked by the public -Coster, Tripoldi and Sartor. In an election where both the government and main opposition party were almost as unpopular as each other, and focusing on negative and personal campaigning the Green Party failed to make significant headway, failing to win any seats in the NSW lower house.
In “safe” Labor seats voters tended to protest against Labor by giving their primary votes to independent’s. The one notable exception to this was in Wollongong where Labor ran a campaign more focused on Work Choices. Despite the very limited nature of Labor’s campaign on this issue Labor was able to tap into the anger of some workers and record an increase in its vote.
Howard is trying to downplay the impact of the IR laws on the NSW result stating that “to me the IR issues are largely irrelevant to what happens in NSW”. This flies in the face of reality. If the Federal Liberals really believe this it is a clear sign of how out of touch they are with reality of workers lives. A poll on the eve of the election suggested that it was the top issue for most people! The strength on the opposition to the IR laws appears to have stiffened Federal Labor’s opposition to the IR laws, with Kevin Rudd now calling for them to be scrapped. He will no doubt be hoping that token opposition to the IR laws will work as well for him as it did for Morris Iemma.