There were no surprises in the NSW state election on March 26. Voters by-passed the Greens and Independents to lodge their anti-Labor votes with Barry O'Farrell's Liberal Party. The ALP was reduced to about 20 seats in a parliament of 93, more than Queensland Labor's ignominious cricket team of 11 parliamentarians who survived the rout by Bjelke-Petersen in 1974.
It would be premature to write off the NSW Labor machine. After all, Queensland Labor's remnant of 11 in 1974 bounced back to produce the Goss and Beattie Governments within a surprisingly short period of time.
Nevertheless, it is likely that NSW Labor will remain an electoral rump for the forseeable future, leaving a big vacuum in the state's politics. This landscape will most likely be replicated at the federal level after the next poll scheduled for 2013.
Two features of this landscape are significant for assessing the future shape of Australian politics.
First, the Greens in NSW, like their counterparts in Victoria four months earlier, failed to make inroads into the lower house. Their vote increased marginally to just over 10%, the same as the Green vote in the Victorian state poll. The Liberal Party's decision to withdraw preferences from the Greens ahead of Labor will ensure Adam Bandt's defeat in the federal seat of Melbourne next time around.
The Greens' failure to break into the lower house in both states suggests that the party has reached the peak of its electoral influence. Outside the inner city, the Green option was not taken up by suburban or regional voters in NSW as a vehicle for sending Labor a message.
Secondly, the rural Independents in NSW fared badly, and independent candidates in urban areas rarely threatened Labor or Liberal incumbents. Faced with a discredited Labor machine and a Liberal Party with weak community roots or infrastructure outside its North Shore heartland, independents had reason for hope that voters might have taken up the opportunity to elect local representatives who were strong on personal character and local accountability. The voters said no, and voted-in Liberal MPs.
On the NSW returns, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor would lose their seats in the next federal election to the National Party.
If the landscape in NSW is replicated federally, the big question in Australian politics in the next period is how might this emerging vacuum in the centre of politics be filled?
The vacuum is not new. It has been in formation since the mid 1970s when the two party share of the primary vote reached its peak. Since then, it has been in steady decline, despite the transient, short-lived nature of the available electoral alternatives (Australian Democrats, Ted Mack-style independents, One Nation, Family First, and now the Greens). In other words, the two party share of the primary vote has consistently fallen despite the fact that there have been no stable, centrist, socially conventional, electoral alternatives on offer.
The Democrats retained a healthy vote for so long as the party appeared to hold to a centrist positioning; once a leftist identity became apparent, the party withered. One Nation burst into the Queensland parliament with 11 seats, and lost them promptly once the fringe character of its policies and personnel was revealed. Family First could never shake its Pentacostalist Christian origins and has been dispatched from the federal scene. The inability of Independents, once elected, to say no to pork-barrelling and stand for the public interest, has undermined their standing and potential appeal. The Greens' appearance as a party of benign environmentalism for the affluent middle class has given way to a recognition of its leftist base and its antipathy to mainstream social attitudes.
The NSW election outcome has served the nation well in clarifying the transient nature of these alternatives. In doing so, it points to three features of what may be required to fill the political vacuum:
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