Last Monday the ABC’s news blog site, The Drum, featured a pieced by Bob Ellis provocatively titled “How Labor can win in New South Wales”. “I alone”, he claims, “in all of Australia think Labor will hold government, in a perhaps hung parliament, in New South Wales on March 24”
He then goes on to create some laughably flimsy straws at which to clutch, building reasons where none exist and making some very unflattering and personal comments about the Liberal opposition along the way. As I write this, the comments section of the blog has recorded 852 comments, many by Ellis himself responding to others, but most either complaining about the unnecessarily personal comments he made or explaining to him, in various tones, why he is wrong. Twitter also lit up on Monday with outright dismissals of his opinion and complaints about the nature of the piece itself.
Ellis has a long history of peripheral involvement in politics, particularly with the ALP. He numbers various ALP members and former members, staffers, advisors and hangers-on among his friends and as a diarist has recorded the ups and downs of politics and campaigns. His latest two books, One Hundred Days of Summer and Suddenly, Last Winter, are his diarised accounts of the last 12 months in Australian politics, including the toppling of his friend, Nathan Rees, as NSW Premier to be replaced by the fresh face of Kristina Keneally, the reelection of his friend, Mike Rann, as SA Premier, and the sudden excision of Kevin Rudd from the federal leadership and the ascension of Julia Gillard. Along the way he struck an unlikely alliance with Tony Abbott and recorded the twists and turns of the 2010 federal election.
Ellis writes in a grimly sardonic fashion. A sort of stream of consciousness punctuated by references to and passages from his scripts and other writings, and long verbatim quotes from conversations and interviews. Frequently funny, frequently cynical, often criticised but always readable and steeped in thought, his observations on politics are incisive, personal and often absolutely spot-on correct. His piece in The Drum follows his usual formula. The constructed reasons he presents in support of his opinion are partly founded in logic and partly just constructs based on observation.
His ‘lung cancer’ theory, that is, the fact that the Liberal Party is tarnished by still taking Big Tobacco donations while the Premier is seen as a symbol of modern wholesomeness, may hold some weight, but unlike Ellis I don’t think it’s enough to get Labor over the line. Certainly, until the middle of last year Keneally led O’Farrell in the ‘preferred premier’ polls and more poll respondents approved of her performance than disapproved. The last six months, however, have seen a reversal of this. The NSW Labor brand looks bad and not even the wholesome image of the ‘cycling mother of two’, as Ellis puts it, with the squeaky clean Carmel Tebbutt and Verity Firth behind her, can resurrect it at this stage. There have been too many scandals, too many snouts in too many troughs, too many questions of impropriety, too many shonky decisions made behind developers’ doors. The resignation of so many Labor members at this election – 21 at last count – rather than giving the impression of a new beginning looks like rats deserting the sinking ship.
Even if there were absolutely no substance to any of these suggestions of corruption (at worst), there is a perception of it, and as Ellis himself pointed out in, I think, One Hundred Days of Summer, in politics, perception is reality.
Sure, he’s right that Barry O’Farrell doesn’t look as cute as Kristina Keneally (a point I’m sure O’Farrell would readily concede) and the Liberal Party does not have a good record in government in NSW. But in the end these things will not matter. The perception – and, I would suggest reality – is that after 15 years of ALP government, it is worn out, threadbare, has nothing left to offer.
The point that Ellis does not make is the fact that the Liberal Party in NSW has an alarming talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. They should have won against the lamentably weak Morris Iemma in 2007, but failed at the last hurdle. Even Carr’s powerhouse leadership had worn thin enough in 2003 to make it a contest, but the Libs failed to capitalise. On the strength of the polls, it would seem that Barry O’Farrell just needs to remain conscious until March 24 in order to assume the government benches, but his predecessors’ failures must have shaken the confidence of the party in their ability to win.
Has Ellis lost the plot on this one? Like the rest of Australia, I think he’s wrong. I think Labor will go in a landslide that will put them in opposition for at least eight years. However, at the back of my mind is the little niggling knowledge that Ellis has an uncanny knack when it comes to election predictions.