LABOR appears to be on the brink of a stunning electoral triumph tonight, with counting in the by-election for the Sydney seat of Miranda showing a swing against the Liberals of more than 25%; the resignation of Liberal MP Graham Annesley is undoubtedly a factor, but there’s more to this.
With primary vote counts in from 18 of the 21 polling booths and provisional two-party figures from nine of them, the 71-29 result recorded in this seat by Liberal Graham Annesley — itself representing a 22% swing against the ALP — at the election landslide that swept Barry O’Farrell to power in 2011 seems set to be easily overturned.
Annesley, who has served as Sports minister, is leaving politics to take up a role as the CEO of the Gold Coast Titans; he has at least been honest enough to admit that his heart isn’t in politics and that he feels unable to continue to serve, but to be honest that isn’t good enough and it is obvious that the voters in Miranda don’t think it is either.
Barry Collier — the Labor MP Annesley defeated — is set to be returned to Parliament, by a margin in the order of 58-42: a two-party preferred swing of almost 30%.
And rather ominously, all of the decline in the Liberal vote — and then some — appears to be flowing directly to the ALP, rather than through the assorted minor parties and independents who have contested the seat, as might normally be expected.
I think Annesley has committed a fundamental breach of trust with the voters who elected him to serve for four years, and — rightly or wrongly — I think the time to go hunting for private sector sinecures would be at or near the end of his term. Not now.
Even so, there is more to this.
The stream of so-called revelations emanating from ICAC inquiries into alleged corrupt conduct by a range of Labor Party identities has been unrelenting.
Indeed, the parade of such characters through the Courts is beginning to yield results, with former Health Services Union chief Michael Williamson pleading guilty to fraud charges just this week involving the corrupt misappropriation of almost $1 million in union funds.
And (until today, of course) NSW Labor leader John Robertson has seemed a dead man walking, so to speak, with revelations he was corruptly offered a bribe of about $3 million some years ago, and chose to keep quiet about it rather than make an official report on it.
The episode — rightly — appeared to be the death knell for Robertson’s leadership.
A big win in Miranda today may yet oxygenate the cinders of his scorched leadership; whether it does or doesn’t, the voters in Sydney’s south have sent O’Farrell a number of things to mull over.
Generally, his government has been regarded as competent, despite taking unpopular decisions that have disproportionately outraged sections of the community, notably on Labor’s Left and beyond.
The NSW Coalition has consistently continued to record whopping opinion poll leads in the 60-40 range, which suggest on the surface an easy passage to re-election in a little under 18 months’ time.
And it has been generally believed, on all sides, that the stench of corruption and dodgy deals that seem to be a watchword for NSW Labor these days would cruel that party’s prospects for many, many years to come — provided the Liberals kept their noses clean, their house in order, and their deeds beyond reproach.
Yet despite the gain of nine additional seats in NSW at the recent federal election, the Coalition (and the Liberals in particular) in that state have broadly been perceived as having underperformed, and not least on account of the same issues of corruption and disarray in the NSW ALP.
Mutterings about O’Farrell and his performance have found their way into the media from time to time, but nothing that could be construed as anything more than typical internal chatter that has been divulged to a journalist by someone less than loyal or trustworthy.
But it does raise a question, and a precedent.
Is O’Farrell on the same path as Nick Greiner in 1990-1991?
Greiner — like O’Farrell — slaughtered a Labor government that had spent several terms in power, and probably longer than it should have.
Greiner — like O’Farrell — was widely seen as a competent Premier presiding over a competent government, whose tough decisions (Terry Metherell in Education springs to mind) also enraged sections of the community.
And as his first shot at re-election began to near in late 1990, Greiner’s poll numbers — like O’Farrell’s — headed skyward.
We all know what happened to Greiner at an early election in May 1991 that nobody thought he could lose: stripped of his majority and forced to rely on crossbenchers, far from burying Labor in NSW as intended, the result set Bob Carr up to lead his party back to government four years later — far earlier than anyone imagined possible.
Obviously, there is a fair bit of water to flow under the bridge before an election that is due in March 2015.
Even so, and remembering also that by-elections are an excellent opportunity to kick hell out of a government without changing it, this seems to run a little deeper than that.
The state of NSW Labor (and again, the hard evidence of corruption that oozes out of it whenever anyone pokes the beast) should have been antidote enough to disaffection over a first-term MP quitting 18 months early.
That said, whatever ALP corruption couldn’t salvage for the Liberals in Miranda should have still been covered by the huge margin Annesley achieved when he won in the first place.
Instead, NSW Labor will take heart, and likely think it smells blood.
The problem for Barry O’Farrell is that maybe — maybe — that assessment may be nearer the truth than anyone has dared to imagine to date.
And if Labor can find itself a credible leader in the interim, then all bets — in light of this result — would seem to be off.