Voters go to the polls on Saturday March 26 to elect their local representatives in the NSW Legislative Assembly, and the half of the Legislative Council due for election. Opinion polls and pundits lave long predicted a landslide win to the opposition coalition. If they are correct, a large number of seats will change hands, and parties, and we will see many fresh faces in parliament.
Why is this election important?
Policy issues aside, there are a number of reasons why this election is notable. The current Premier, Kristina Keneally, was not elected to the role by the people of NSW but by the state ALP caucus. On the remote chance that the Labor Party wins government on Saturday, Ms Keneally would be the first popularly elected woman Premier of NSW. The poisoned chalice handed her by Nathan Rees, Morris Iemma and Bob Carr virtually guarantee that this will not happen, and it will be some years before such a dream becomes reality in this state.
This election also pits Catholic against Catholic. Ms Keneally is well known for her occasional nod to Catholic social teaching, and her stock response to moral issues is to assure us that Jesus loves everyone and love will win the day. She resists the temptation to define love, or indeed its limits in relation to justice and duty. Ms Keneally was the government spokesperson for the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day in 2008 and met her husband at another World Youth Day. She wears her faith on her sleeve, ever so lightly.
Mr O’Farrell is also Catholic, although this apparently influences neither his heart or his mind when it comes to the discharge of public duties. In fact, many voters will be unaware that he barracks for a particular faith tradition. I recall my surprise when, sitting directly behind him at a Catholic mass at St Mary’s Cathedral to open the recent meetings of the Federation of Catholic Bishops’ Conferencesof Oceania, Mr O’Farrell stood and approached Cardinal Pell to receive communion. It will be interesting to observe the degree to which Mr O’Farrell accommodates his faith as Premier, and the manner in which he placates the extreme right wing of his party and its ultra-Catholic interests.
This is also the first true Twitter election for NSW. Both party leaders have long been active on Twitter, and social media can no longer be dismissed by party machines and politicians. Social media (such as Facebook and Twitter) offer an unprecedented opportunity for direct connection with voters. It’s about cultivating a genuine relationship, appearing responsive, presenting oneself as an ordinary person.
Many will have forgotten the first online political Twitter debatebetween Mr O’Farrell @barryofarrell) and Ms Keneally (@kkeneally) in June 2010. The debate was poorly moderated, it was the wrong time of day for many, and it’s not easy to get one’s message across in bursts of 140 characters. Yet it sent a signal to the twitterverse that political parties – and the media – were willing to take social media seriously. That was merely the tip of the iceberg in the social media lives of the two leaders. In my opinion, Barry O’Farrell is one of the three best and most responsive of all Australian politicians active on Twitter, and Kristina Keneally manages to engage to a remarkable extent given the demands placed on her as premier.
Will Twitter or Facebook decide elections? Probably not, but savvy use of social media enhances political communication, enriches political discourse, and enables politicians to reach past the barriers imposed by old media and party machinery to connect in meaningful ways with individual voters and online communities.
The question of the “Christian vote”
The other noteworthy factor in the lead up to the March 26 election is the relative strength of the minor parties, especially the much-vaunted NSW Greens, and the extraordinary fact that we now have two conservative Christian political parties vying for votes and political influence.
The Greens are well known enemies of large sections of the church, but the degree to which NSW Catholic bishops have been prepared to go to sabotage the chances of the Greens gaining a balance of power in the NSW Upper House was nevertheless a surprise to some. Last week Cardinal Pell and nine Catholic bishops released a two-page letter titled, “The Greens Agenda,” which observed that:
The Greens’ position on a number of fundamental points of human and social policy areas conflicts directly with the beliefs and values of virtually all religious people, and the beliefs of many other people as well.
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