By-election bloodbath may be death of Labor

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 October, 2008, 12:00am


If the devastating losses in three Sydney by-elections are anything to go by, it's now a distinct possibility the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party is headed for the political wilderness.

The by-elections on October 18 delivered the largest swings in the state's history, losing the government the electorate of Ryde and slashing the margins in Labor's two safest seats in the country, Lakemba and Cabramatta.

While the new premier, Nathan Rees, is trying to stay positive, Labor strategists consider winning re-election in 2011 almost impossible, and internal polling shows that if these trends continue, Labor will be lucky to get up a cricket team in the 93-seat lower house, in which it now holds 53 seats.

A 22 per cent swing cut Labor's margin in Cabramatta to just 7 per cent and one of 23 per cent delivered Ryde to the Liberals, making it the first seat won from Labor since 1988. A 13 per cent swing in Lakemba, previously held by former premier Morris Iemma, saw Labor's margin there shrink to 20 per cent.

Only a couple of months ago, polling indicated a 4 per cent swing in Ryde. But that was before former treasurer Michael Costa's single-minded determination to sell off the state's electricity system brought down three government ministers and Mr Iemma.

The privatisation battle pitted Mr Iemma and Mr Costa against rank and file Labor, the unions and the public - not to mention several government MPs in both Houses who threatened to cross the floor to vote against the proposal.

The sale was defeated with the help of Barry O'Farrell's Liberal opposition, but in the process it took several scalps, starting with the resignation of deputy premier John Watkins, the member for Ryde.

In the cabinet reshuffle that followed, Mr Costa was sacked, and Mr Iemma lost the backing of his centre unity caucus faction and consequently the leadership. He resigned from Parliament.

Mr Rees demoted health minister Reba Meagher, the Cabramatta MP, who then also resigned.

He called the by-election results a 'shellacking' and admits he faces a massive task. 'The people have spoken ... and the message is, 'Lift your game, or else',' he said.

The Cabramatta by-election has made ABC journalist Dai Le a rising star of the Liberal opposition. The Vietnamese refugee, who went to Australia aged seven, blames Labor's complacency for the voter backlash.

'It has come to this because of their arrogance,' she said. 'NSW Labor is out of touch. They've become so focused on internal party bickering and power struggles that they've ignored the needs of the community.'

Ms Le says that in its 13 years in government, Labor neglected essential services despite population increases. 'The last straw was the power sale. The health system is collapsing. People have just had enough.'

Indeed, few people give Labor a winning chance, although political commentator Peter van Onselen said the opposition's capacity to stuff up a campaign should never be underestimated.

'The most likely scenario is Labor will lose the next election, badly. But I wouldn't discount the Liberal opposition's ability to botch it, or the ability of the Labor machine to organise itself between now and the next election,' he said. 'The opposition needs to roll itself up into a tiny ball and hide in a corner of the room.'

Professor van Onselen says Mr Rees is already damaged and that Labor would stand a better chance if in six months Deputy Premier Carmel Tebbutt, a popular and successful minister, challenged for the leadership.