As expected for almost four years, the Liberals have regained power in NSW for the first time since 1995. It was a victory made almost a day after the last election four years ago when it was clear the state had enough of Labor but weren’t quite ready to trust the other lot.
Labor were always going to lose today, as long as the opposition leader didn’t have any sexual peccadilloes to be exposed. NSW’s incoming premier Barry O’Farrell has no such skeletons in his closet, and was quite content to stay in that closet while Labor quietly and quickly destroyed itself. Premier Maurice Iemma survived the 2007 election not because he was any good – he was useless – but because the well-liked John Brogden couldn’t control his tongue. His successor Peter Debnam was inept in the election campaign.
Barry O’Farrell was deputy leader under Brogden and favourite to replace him. Debnam outmanoeuvred him in 2005 but fell on his own sword after the 2007 election. O’Farrell is typical Irish stock, conservative, canny and pragmatic to a fault. He knew that to win the 2011 election he simply had to not put a foot wrong. This meant keeping dancing engagements to a minimum and letting Labor hang itself with the help of a favourable media.
Under O’Farrell the Liberals quickly established a lead in the polls. Iemma quit barely a year after winning and his replacement Nathan Rees was quickly seen as a dead man walking. Leading the state during the GFC didn’t help as revenues shrunk and three by-elections resulted in massive defeat for the party. But Rees had even less gravitas than Iemma and both were compared unfavourably to party hero Bob Carr. Some critics wanted to fast-forward to the next election and criticised the state’s mandatory four year terms. As Antony Green pointed out, this was nonsense. The Rees government would have been highly unlikely to call an election until the last possible date because opinion polls indicate it couldn't win.
But what the fixed term did do was to mark 26 March 2011 on the long term calendar as a day of retribution. Whoever was Labor leader on that day would pay for 16 years of apparent ineptitude. NSW ranks last in state economies. Given that it remains the state with the biggest population and Australia’s biggest and only international city, it rankled with status-conscious locals.
Despite the fact NSW unemployment is now falling the damage was done. Kristina Kenealy was drafted in to replace the increasingly exposed Rees. Her enthusiasm and American glamour made her personally popular but she was unable to stop the inevitable blood bath today. The result was as expected with O’Farrell’s coalition expected to win 68 seats to Labor’s 22. It is a defeat the scale of which is likely to keep it out of power for 12 to 16 years.
While Labor retreats to nurse its wounds, O’Farrell will now have to step out of the shadows. As David Marr said in 2009 O'Farrell was determined but cautious. "He commits no blunders." Marr also called him one of the most capable apparatchiks the party has produced in a generation. In 1992 he defeated Tony Abbott to become State Director of NSW Liberals. Long content to be a backroom boy he told people “when I lose weight and the beard, then you'll know I'm after the Liberal leadership.” In 2001 the beard went and he started weight loss programs two years later as Brogden’s deputy.
Marr notes how O’Farrell’s failure to step up to replace Brogden in 2005 “haunts his career”. As he celebrates being the first Liberal leader of NSW in over 17 years, perhaps now he can forget his old nightmares. The serious question remains however, can he help NSW forget its?