Barring a late implosion, or an eleventh-hour bounceback from the Coalition, NSW Labor looks set to scrape over the line in Saturday’s state election. But before a win or even a loss has even been declared, the finger pointing has begun.
In the firing line is not Labor leader Chris Minns but the party machine. Long-term Labor operatives and party elders are shaking their heads at the way in which Sussex Street, as it is universally known, has operated during the campaign.
NSW Labor leader Chris Minns and the party’s billboard truck.Credit:James Brickwood
If published polling is accurate, Labor will limp into minority government. But senior party figures are incredulous that after a 12-year Coalition reign that has been peppered with scandals, Labor will likely only form government with the help of crossbenchers. The Coalition has, after all, had more premiers than it has had terms.
The path to victory is hard for Labor. Their landslide loss in 2011 saw the party reduced to a rump of just 20 seats in parliament, and it has had to regain ground at each subsequent election. This time, to rule in its own right, Labor must pick up nine seats. Strategists think minority government can be achieved with as few as five, with the support of the Greens and another independent.
Remarkably, until now, Labor has managed to keep its dirty laundry out of sight. Its opponents have not. The problems within the NSW division of the Liberal Party have been on display for all to see. Even after the disastrous federal result and the chronically delayed selection of candidates, little was learnt.
As late as the day before nominations closed with the NSW Electoral Commission, the party was scrambling to find a candidate to run in Kiama, currently held by Liberal-turned-independent Gareth Ward. Infighting is rife, bitterness is widespread and scores are still to be settled.
But preselection debacles are not confined to the Liberals. Labor had candidates in all its seats ahead of its rivals, but not without a struggle. Three of its target seats – Riverstone, Oatley and Tweed – were empty, ensuring candidates lost crucial campaigning time on the ground. Minns was left to try to find candidates himself because the party was paralysed with indecision.
Some within the machine wonder how Dominic Perrottet has been allowed to get off so lightly in terms of negative advertising. Former party bosses, including ex-health minister John Della Bosca and one-time treasurer Eric Roozendaal offered to help with the campaign. Their services were not required.
Of course, views on the effectiveness of Labor’s efforts differ wildly. Some within the party are convinced it has been a textbook campaign. Under the enigmatic general secretary Bob Nanva, who will leave Sussex Street to take up a spot in the upper house after a concerted push to enter politics, the party has battened down the hatches and kept any internal rumblings hidden.
Nanva, his supporters say, sandbagged federal seats in NSW which helped Anthony Albanese secure a win. Nonetheless, for concerns to be raised before the obligatory campaign post-mortem takes place suggests all is not well in Sussex Street.
All the blame cannot be laid at party HQ. There is acknowledgment within Labor ranks that Perrottet has run a good campaign. The premier has been across his brief, has not resorted to personal attacks and has prosecuted the government’s arguments soundly.
This has helped grow his personal profile and people have come to like him. The Herald’s most recent Resolve Political Monitor has Perrottet as preferred premier with 40 per cent of voters, his highest result since replacing the very popular Gladys Berejiklian.
But, as Labor insiders point out, Perrottet has significant baggage. He was at the centre of the disastrous icare scandal, which exposed the government for establishing a scheme that underpaid injured workers. He was too slow to identify the problem with former deputy premier John Barilaro scoring a plum New York posting. He faced accusations of jobs for the boys, a saga that completely overshadowed an important trade trip to Japan and India.
Perrottet also allowed Transport Minister David Elliott to stay in cabinet, despite clear examples of unhelpful behaviour, the worst being that Elliott insisted his job description did not require him to stay up late, even in the event of an emerging train crisis.
Perrottet did, however, prove himself to be a good leader through his pursuit of stamp duty reform and, most notably, his unrelenting commitment to overhaul poker machines in NSW. Labor vacated the field completely on that debate, which left Minns looking weak. Long-time Labor types can despair at how close this election is, but the parliamentary party’s position on gambling reform should give some inkling as to why.
One senior Labor figure cites a John F. Kennedy quote: “Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.” If Labor forms government after Saturday’s poll, there will be widespread backslapping. Perhaps, for a while, all will be forgotten. But given the disquiet this close to polling day, any unexpected outcomes – or worse still, a loss – will see many Labor faithful wondering how the party managed to grab defeat from the jaws of victory.
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