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Issue #1679      April 1, 2015

NSW Elections

Two-party system takes a hit

The highlight of the NSW state elections on Saturday March 28 was the increase of Greens votes. At the time of writing, they could win as many as four seats, up from one, in the Lower House, a significant breakthrough. However, postal votes could change that situation.

The Liberal/National Coalition have a clear victory, but with a reduced majority. Labor made some gains, but not as many as hoped for. It was not helped in the dying days of the campaign with a vicious attack by former Labor Resources Minister and ACTU president Martin Ferguson. Ferguson went as far as appearing on a Liberal Party TV/YouTube advertisement attacking the Labor Party. He even refers to Labor as his own Party.

In Ballina, a seat the National Party has held for 27 years, coal seam gas was one of the biggest issues. At the time of writing Greens and Labor were running neck to neck, with the Greens just in front.

Lismore is another seat where coal seam gas was a key issue in the northern region of NSW: the Greens candidate has won.

In Newtown, an inner suburb of Sydney, Jenny Leong won the seat for the Greens, with just under 50 percent of the vote. She campaigned strongly against WestConnex, in favour of same sex marriage, for Aboriginal housing to be maintained on the Block.

In another inner west suburb, Balmain, Greens incumbent Jamie Parker has been re-elected. One of the local issues was the demand for environmental regulations for cruise ships entering the Balmain shipping terminal, including a ban on high sulphur fuel. Jamie has fought hard for light rail, an upgrade of ferry services, to restore funding to local women’s and youth refuges as well as around public housing.

Labor falls short

Labor had been reduced to 23 Lower House seats in 2011, compared with the Coalition’s 42. The other eight seats were Independents. The stench of corruption and exposures in ICAC hearings left Labor on the nose with the electorate.

It looks as though Labor may gain around 10-12 seats, still far short of a majority.

A number of Labor’s gains can be attributed to the exchange of preferences with the Greens and likewise the Greens benefited from the exchange.

While electorates had their own local issues, TAFE cuts and fees, the Americanisation of the health system, housing affordability, eviction of low income tenants and sale of public housing, schools, WestConnex and the environment were all often raised as issues.

The stench from ICAC does not seem to hit the Liberals so hard, even though nine of their ministers, including the Police Minister and Premier were forced out of their positions.

Labor campaigned heavily on “NSW NOT FOR SALE”, a reference to Premier Michael Baird’s privatisation plans, in particular, the state’s electricity poles and wires, an extremely unpopular policy with the public. The ALP focused its resources on key electorates, those it had to win, and completely ignored Coalition strongholds.

Unions NSW (Trade and Labor Council) and individual trade unions campaigned hard, calling for the defeat of the Liberals. “NSW is Not For Sale ... Not now, not ever,” they declared. No mention of electing Labor. “Put the Liberals Last.”

At the time of writing not enough Legislative Assembly votes had been counted to indicate whether the Coalition would have control with Fred Nile and the Christian Democrat support or the Greens might win the last spot.

The Communist Party of Australia did not stand candidates but in Sydney campaigned for Greens candidates, in particular, Jamie Parker and Jenny Leong.

A parliamentary battle

The Baird coalition government’s victory last Saturday does not necessarily mean it will be able to reconstruct the state’s economy and public assets in the interests of big business.

The government claims it now has a mandate for privatisation of 50 percent of the state’s electrical infrastructure, the “poles and wires”. However, a closer look at the voting figures shows this claim is phoney.

There was a highly significant rise in the number of votes cast for the Greens, who oppose the “poles and wires” sale. However, the figures reveal the built-in advantage the electorate-based voting system gives the conservative coalition in the lower house, the Legislative Assembly.

At the time of writing one seat remains in doubt. Labor is likely to win 34 seats but 16 of the coalition’s predicted 54 seats have been won by the National Party.

In terms of primary votes (the ones that tell you which party the voters actually wanted to have in government) the Nationals took four times as many seats as the Greens, even though they won a smaller proportion of the primary votes.

The discrepancy arises because rural and regional electorates tend to have far fewer voters than city electorates. As a result, and as demonstrated by last Saturday’s election, country voters may have four times as much voting power as city voters.

A similar discrepancy exists, but on a far larger scale, with voting for the federal Senate. Each state is given the same number of parliamentary representatives, even though the largest state may have 20 times as many voters as the smallest.

Both these arrangements suit the conservative parties very well. Country voters tend to be more conservative than their city cousins, but during last Saturday’s elections the Greens took two country seats, Lismore and Ballina, from the Nationals.

That’s highly significant, but it was still not enough to wrest control from the coalition. If the number of seats won by the various parties had been in proportion to the number of votes cast for each of them, the Greens and the Nationals would each have won the same number of seats, and with the support of minor parties and/or independents the power sale policy could have been blocked in the lower house.

The key is now in the upper house.

Last Saturday 21 members of the upper house were elected, as well as all the members of the lower house. The results are as yet unclear. However, because the Legislative Council is elected by proportional representation, the government is unlikely to gain control of it, and will not be able to claim any sort of public mandate for its policies.

At the moment it is likely that the coalition will have 21 upper house seats, while Labor, the Greens and the minor parties, all of whom have expressed opposition to the power sale, will have the same number in total.

There are huge issues at stake for the people of NSW. Baird is using his clean-skin reputation to lay the ground for a tremendous raft of initiatives aimed at privatising state assets, not just the poles and wires.

He has now indicated that the rail line running south-west from the city to Bankstown is to be detached from the main network, and that the new privately-operated metro-style underground line from Rouse Hill to Chatswood, north of the city, is to be extended to the city and then to Bankstown.

That’s a sure indication that the government intends to install new privately operated underground rail lines throughout the city and then dismantle the existing publicly-owned and government-operated surface rail system, in a long-term piecemeal privatisation strategy.

The people of Sydney and NSW will have to watch members of the upper house like hawks, to ensure that MPs who have opposed privatisation stick to their guns and don’t let themselves be browbeaten, conned or bought off.

Next article – Kimberley calls and the nation answers

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