The NSW democracy deficit


Barry O'FarrellOn Saturday 26 March New South Wales voters will elect the state's 55th Parliament. Liberal leader Barry O'Farrell (pictured) seems so certain to head a coalition government after 16 years of Labor rule that media speculation has concentrated on the size of the majority he will command.

During an election campaign, candidates mix with the people and face public scrutiny. They appeal for support on both broad and specific grounds, pledging themselves to behave with integrity and promising to legislate for particular policies. Elected candidates claim that the voters' endorsement gives them a popular 'mandate'.

Labor has governed NSW since 1995. Its mandate was renewed in 1999, 2003 and 2007. For various reasons — fatigue, ministerial resignations, mismanagement, allegations of corruption, policy failures — voters are unlikely to renew its mandate. Psephologists say no Labor seat with a majority under 15 per cent can be considered safe and that Labor could be reduced to a rump of about 16 seats.

If voters are disappointed with Labor now, they could be positively angry after the election. Labor's unpopularity is providing the Coalition with such an easy campaign that an O'Farrell Government will face very little pressure over specific mandates. As the election seems to be a non-event in terms of deciding government, the public is showing little interest in specific policy debates and the media have brought little pressure to bear on the Coalition over policy details and likely costs.

O'Farrell seems to be a decent and moderate sort who will behave honourably. He will be mindful however that few Opposition Leaders who win elections remain in government as long as their parties. Not since the 1930s has a premier who was a winning Opposition Leader lasted as long as his party in government. O'Farrell must consider his legacy from the first day.

The pressures on premiers are enormous, and not since Bob Askin (1965–75) has a Coalition premier lasted five years. Interestingly five post-war Labor premiers have had over five years to implement their programs, perhaps because the Labor machine has been so dominant.

O'Farrell will be subject to very diverse forces including the Liberal and National Parties and the Coalition's natural constituency in the 'big end of town'. His immediate winning Coalition predecessor in 1988 Nick Greiner was partially successful in managing these forces. Greiner's comfortable majority however, disappeared at the 1991 election.

By contrast, Bob Carr increased Labor's one-seat 1995 majority so greatly in 1999 that Labor has stayed in power for another 12 years under Carr and his successors, Iemma, Rees and Keneally.

Traditionally the Liberal Party claims to be the party of economic expertise. Often, however, the Coalition style of public sector management emphasises not so much management as disposal of public assets.

In the 1980s and 1990s both major parties embraced economic rationalism, but few governments pursued privatisation, decentralisation, downsizing and user-pays principles as vigorously as did 'NSW Inc'. Public sector employees took industrial action as services were subjected to market forces and forced to behave like business enterprises. Greiner's opponents questioned his mandate for reform.

O'Farrell is likely to learn from the fates of his predecessors. He will note Carr's success in ordering his new Cabinet ministers to avoid major decisions in the first 100 days.

O'Farrell does not face the same challenges which Greiner did in 1988. Indeed, Labor governments reversed few of Greiner's reforms. It would be reassuring however, if O'Farrell projected a more positive image of himself and of his vision for a Coalition Government. O'Farrell has the luxury of being able to run a largely negative campaign, constantly reminding voters of Labor's shortcomings.

No one, especially no politician, should regard elections as the alpha and omega of democracy. An elected dictatorship that thrives on the general apathy of citizens is hardly democratic. While many voters could never bring themselves to cast a ballot for the Coalition parties, they realise that no party has a monopoly on ethical government. All voters should accept a change in government as an opportunity for renewal.

Barring some dramatic development, O'Farrell will aoon become the state's 43rd premier. The greatest danger facing him is that his general mandate to restore government integrity could be squandered if he introduces policies that should have been presented to voters during the campaign.

A plea such as, 'we didn't rule it out' sounds just as hypocritical as talk of 'core promises'. There is no surer way to breed public cynicism and dissipate the good will available following an election victory. 

Tony SmithTony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities including the University of Sydney.

Topic tags: Tony Smith, NSW election, Barry O'Farrell, Coalition Government, Labor, Kristina Keneally



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Existing comments

Tony, what you don't see is the grass roots support for policy development by the next government. I was recently at a meeting of 1000 residents opposing an attempt by the current government "to do as much damage as they can before they are chucked out" in the words of one respondent. No media coverage of this meeting appeared, probably because the meeting was peaceful and the vote was unanimous. So to say there is no public interest in policy formation is simply not true. The media has been so dominated by the Labor spin machine that such events don't get the oxygen. The evidence of ineptitude, incompetence, corruption and an inability to control the bureaucracy and unions is there for all to see. When Michael Egan got out from the treasure's role a couple of years back he stated privately that he could stand it no longer and that a major scandal was about to break. The evidence is there that many others feel the same. The only reason we still have a Labor state government is the masterful execution job performed by the machine on the previous opposition leader.
Ian | 11 March 2011

I will attend my polling booth and enter an informal vote. Neither side should be elected in my opinion. It would be great if NSW could go into administration for a period of 5 years to see what exactly is, has, been going on.
Tim Collier | 11 March 2011

How can Barry O'Farrell possibly be seen as a "a decent and moderate sort who will behave honourably" when his solution to problems in a certain sector of society is to let them all shoot each other?
Whatever your view is of the "bikies", is this the sort of comment you would expect from a leader (or potential leader) of this state? It is reckless, irresponsible and no better than the people he is wanting to eliminate.
If O'Farrell is going to be any better than the other politicians his team will replace he will need more depth, compassion and insight than this.
Neil | 12 March 2011

To Tim who says 'neither side should be elected in my opinion'.

That's what many people thought at the recent Federal election. But rather than informal, they voted for independents and/or minor parties, especially in the Senate, and they got their way. Neither major party was empowered to govern in its own right. Whoever eventually formed government was to be continuously held to account by the Senate and the independents.

Those who voted that way were acting responsibly and in a positive rational way. Voting informal is wimping it, and the height of irresponsibility.

Ginger Meggs | 13 March 2011

Tony, as usual, gives a clear description of the situation he undertakes. Thank you. Having followed Barry O' F's career in local government, albeit with boredom, for many years it would be refreshing to hear that he has and intends to implement some policies. So so far there is little evidence of them. Question is, who's is the power push behind his role? Regretably we will no doubt discover soon. Kristina K shows great promise but is still fighting to gain control of the men's club that has neglected NSW. She has much ground to recover such as infrastructure to build but likely not enough time to show her vision.
Michelle Sydney | 16 March 2011

Will you believe Barry's O'Farrell is able to put NSW back to number one state?
Barry's O'Farrell Five Point Action Plan in lower taxes, create new jobs, cut red tape, and boost tourism funding……, believe it or not, every voter can simply put them up in mouth show if they liked?

Barry's O'Farrell Five Point Action Plan will not fundamentally change the course in rebuilding the NSW economy as number one state without innovative ideas, innovative resources support, innovative products, and innovative projects in total actions in today’s world knowledge economy?

When we look at what today’s shrinking industries, such of agriculture (34% of fruit and 19% of vegetables imported); manufacture (10.5% by 2005–6).
If we think over from the previous terms under John Howard’s coalition government chasing mainly on mining and education revenues that burst the world highest housing price bubble, what the greatest hiding economic residual impacts extent on all states today, and foreseeable future?
“This country now is right down to only two industries. All we've got left in this country is iron ore and coal," as Federal independent MP Bob Katter said on 7 News February 15, 2011, 4:32 pm.
Will you believe Barry's O'Farrell Five Point Action Plan going to put NSW back to number 1 state?
(Member of Inventor Association QLD since 1993)
Full details are linked to the following web site:

masealake | 21 March 2011

Why believe coalition Supporting Local Communities? It’s all about power and money most Politicians and parties wanted above all and after all election? Just listen how Barry O'Farrell convincing voters: “Over the last four years I announced positive and practical policies which will help support local communities……..” . Take a look below the link subject: “Time for Action” in “Healthy Active Life” program that convert Broken hill into a Healthy Las Vergas Broken Hill economy? Link with ... , will you then still believe Barry O'Farrell’s announced positive and practical policies which will help support local communities……..” ? Will you also believe there were only 1-2 Politicians responding to this greatest “Healthy Las Vergas Broken Hill economy model”? Why the most Politicians do fail their own test in support community health/economic development who with$1.65 million Tax payer’s money each annual spending for? Masealake (Member of Inventor Association QLD)
masealake | 25 March 2011

Just remember - democracy is mob rule that's what we got and so get used to it.
Peter D Harrigan | 01 April 2011


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