State elections the biggest opinion poll of all


NSW Premier Mike Baird & Deputy Premier Gladys BerejiklianState politics doesn’t get much national attention these days except as an indication of the standing of the Prime Minister. State elections have become the biggest opinion poll of all. The fact that these state elections have been in the three biggest states sends an even bigger message.

The Victorian state election that ushered out the Napthine Coalition government last November may have been an overdue wake-up call for the Federal government, but the amazing Queensland state defeat for Campbell Newman in late January made two defeats in a row for first-term conservative governments. Its impact was undoubtedly to bring on the Spill against Tony Abbott.

This was despite the fact that Newman himself was personally most unpopular and contributed at least two-thirds of the reasons for his defeat. His policies, including public service cuts and the proposed sale of state assets played their part. But it was his super-aggressive personality and adversarial style of politics which Queenslanders disliked most.

There were federal lessons. The Queensland electorate didn’t accept that targeting of public services could be excused by references to debt reduction in tough economic times. Nor did they warm to Newman’s shout-down-any-opposition style of doing business.

So the federal implications of the devastating Queensland result were amplified by the recognition among voters and Liberal MPs alike that Newman and his state government looked remarkably like Abbott and his federal government. This had been the campaign message from federal Labor for some time.

That similarity is why whatever the result of the forthcoming NSW election,  whether a big or small swing against the Baird Coalition government, there may be little joy for the Prime Minister.

On the face of it the NSW election result is one of the markers along the way to Abbott’s eclipse or survival; together with the reception of the federal Budget in May. The next three months will be the time when uncertain federal Liberal MPs give the Prime Minister a “Fair Go”. By mid-year the time will be up for Abbott to show that he really can remake himself into a popular prime minister.

But the NSW election at the end of the month on March 28th is an ambiguous marker.  Mike Baird and Abbott are said to be friends within the faction-ridden cauldron of NSW Liberal party politics. It is the Liberal branch that is home to the four blokes that are in contention for Liberal leadership and hence the prime ministership: Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey and Scott Morrison (only Julie Bishop among the contenders comes from another state).

A partial case can be made that Baird and Abbott share not just friendship but policy interests. They are both religious and both were seminarians with a view to a life in the ministry.  They are also both often tagged as social conservatives.

But in reality Baird is quite different to Abbott. He is much more flexible in reaching out to the middle ground in social initiatives. He doesn’t flaunt his social conservatism, perhaps mindful of the example of his more liberal politician-father, Bruce Baird.

He is also emotionally steady and quietly spoken, unlike the belligerence of both Newman and Abbott (but not Dennis Napthine). It looks as though he will retain office at the end of the month, but federal Labor leader Bill Shorten will be happy enough with a solid swing to Labor even if NSW Labor leader Luke Foley is disappointed.

If Baird does win as expected, Abbott’s comments, after taking a deep breath, will need to be careful. He will want to take some indirect share of a favourable result. But if Baird does well Abbott’s federal colleagues will certainly notice how different in style he is to the prime minister. Baird might even be seen as an alternative, more successful, model for a federal Liberal leader.

But can Tony Abbott ever be a Mike Baird? Time will tell but the answer is probably not. Turnbull is no Baird either though his style bears a closer resemblance.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.


Topic tags: John Warhurst, Tony Abbott, state elections, opinion polls, Napthine, Campbell Newman, Mike Baird



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Existing comments

The old principle, 'think globally, act locally' is undergoing a major shift in the Australian electorate. People are becoming increasingly more savvy to social engineering and the mass manipulation of sentiment and opinion visited upon them by powerful self-interests bodies in politics, business and advocacy groups etc. People are waking up to and becoming much more cynical about the sheer scope of the presumption, contempt and patronising arrogance they are subjected to. The hermeneutics of suspicion have never been so intensively and critically engaged in the tasks of citizenship. Less and less will the electorate tolerate or accept dissemblance, spin, secrecy and bully boy tactics from whatever side of politics. Politicians need to wake up to fact that Australian voters are fast learning the power of the swinging vote and the marginal electorate.
David Timbs | 04 March 2015

State elections are more than 'opinion polls'. Elections are real life choices with real life consequences. When the Fairfax-Ipsos poll was conducted by phone over three days (26-28 Feb) at most 1400 people were consulted. How commentators can extrapolate from that beats me.
Uncle Pat | 04 March 2015

John , you overlooked the SA election back in March. A 12- year old State Labor Government was returned albeit with a reduced majority. This is before the Federal Budget was brought down. Warning bells for the Federal Government should have been ringing loud and clear even then.
John Morgan | 04 March 2015

I suspect many Australian voters see Abbott and Baird at opposite ends of the integrity and team leadership scales. That is what counts at the ballot box. Do you trust a leader to keep his/her promises and work in favour of everyone for a just and equitable society on a consultative and collaborative basis or not? I suspect Baird will get through on that one in NSW. If Abbott heads the Liberals at the next federal election I would be very surprised. He appears to have scored a decisive own goal here. Time will tell.
Edward Fido | 04 March 2015

By how many commentators can Tony Abbott be politically diminished? 'Their name is legion'.
Claude Rigney | 04 March 2015

Unfortunately for ALP their best campaign manager in a hundred years is not taking part in the NSW election. CAmpbll NEwman ius writiubg a book on how he delivered the ALP its victory in Queensland almost singlehandedly. Andrew Jackson apjackson@hotkey,
Andrew Jackson | 04 March 2015


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