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The Mountain NSW Labor has to Climb

By the time 2023 comes around, the New South Wales Coalition Government will be the longest serving centre-right government in the state since the Second World War.

The class divides laid bare by COVID-19 have demonstrated the need to elect a NSW Labor Government after a decade of increasing inequality, but there is a real risk the NSW Coalition Government could scrape through and govern for another term in minority.

Despite the Coalition Government’s botched handling of the current COVID-19 outbreak, anger over the treatment of Western and Southwest Sydney and integrity questions that have resulted in the resignation of a Premier, we haven’t seen a clear mood for a change in government yet. The space for state oppositions to cut through has been squeezed for the past 20 months with the public’s mental bandwidth and attention span pushed to its limits.

NSW Labor is also hamstrung by a range of factors, though not all of its own creation. Blame cannot be laid solely on a single individual or grouping.

After a lost decade, the legacy of the last NSW Labor Government still hangs over of the party in the public’s mind. The NSW Coalition Government’s investment in infrastructure (albeit privatised) is a stark contrast to the last Labor state government and are visible reminders of its history. It is compounded by internal party problems.

Our party has atrophied over decades, but a long period of incumbency at a state level covered it up. NSW Labor has lagged compared to other state branches in small donation fundraising and digital campaigning capacity, and has failed to cultivate a party culture where organising principles are rewarded. Members and supporters are treated as irritants rather than a base that will grow and contribute to campaigns if respected.

The differential treatment of much of multicultural Western and Southwest Sydney through the current COVID outbreak has been blatant, yet NSW Labor is increasingly disconnected from those very same communities we seek to represent.

Much has been made about the professionalisation of politics, but our candidates at all levels do not reflect the cultural diversity of our increasingly multicultural state.

Part of the solution is genuine party reform that ends the machine culture and encourages real internal contestability through direct elections. It is needed to reforge the party’s culture, and to bookend a period that should have ended in 2011. A de-factionalised Sussex Street where staff are hired based on their suitability for a role rather than their factional allegiance is necessary, but it alone will not be enough.

The NSW Liberals and Nationals have used their incumbency to hobble Labor’s ability to campaign. Premier Barry O’Farrell cut resources to opposition MPs, while Parliamentary Budget Office processes in New South Wales are frequently used to score political points.

The lack of resources is worsened by a media environment that pays far more attention to federal politics than the daily ongoings of state politics.

We must also confront the reality that the NSW Liberals have positioned themselves as a big-tent brokerage party that seeks to squeeze out Labor and dominate what they see as “the centre”.

They have sought to neutralise electorally salient issues. From their cross-partisan action on renewable energy, to allowing movements on social reforms like decriminalising abortion and dismantling aspects of the lockout. We need to confront the reality that this NSW Coalition Government may be addicted to privatisation but they are not controlled by a right-wing cabal of social conservatives and climate deniers, even if Dom Perrottet is the new Premier.

All this has combined with COVID-19 to create an uncertain electoral environment in New South Wales. Within the Sydney metropolitan region, the public mood is turning because of the Coalition’s handling of COVID-19 Delta outbreak and its treatment of Western and Southwest Sydney compared to the rest of the city.

Labor leader Chris Minns’ positive approach of constructive criticism, mirroring Anthony Albanese’s approach, has slowly begun to shift perceptions of NSW Labor. That alone, however, may not deliver a majority unless more regional gains are also made.

There is an attraction to being small-target, safe pair of hands, waiting for the NSW Coalition Government to implode and for public resentment to boil but unfortunately, as we learnt federally in 2019 - division, questions of integrity, or constant leadership changes are not always enough.

The question that NSW Labor needs to ask itself is: why should a marginal seat voter switch to Labor? What positive vision can we offer that the Coalition credibly cannot match and will cut through in the current environment?

There are no easy answers but it must be one of hope, that we can build back better after the devastation of this pandemic and that our collective sacrifices were not for a worse future. The resignation of Gladys Berejiklian as Premier and the shift to a gradual re-opening gives NSW Labor an opportunity to be heard.

By understanding and prosecuting the answers to these two questions, we will have a pathway to victory that does not rely on the NSW Coalition Government collapsing and Labor crossing the finish line like Steven Bradbury, but instead having a mandate to build back a better and fairer New South Wales for all.

Osmond Chiu is the Editor of Challenge Magazine and a Research Fellow at Per Capita thinktank.


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