Opinion

Tony Windsor
NSW election will go down to the poles and wires

New South Wales will go to the polls next Saturday in what is shaping up as another close contest, even though the Coalition government has a massive majority of 69 of the 93 seats in the lower house.

Normally the government would expect to maintain its position, with perhaps a slight reduction in seats, particularly given the premier of less than a year is generally popular with a natural, appealing style. But given the volatility of the electorate, as witnessed recently in Victoria and Queensland, and the capacity of constituents to turn on incumbent governments, no election can be taken for granted.

Premier Mike Baird has been able to negotiate the carnage of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) inquiries into the conduct of some of his colleagues on the basis that his Labor opponents have been equally tarnished over the notorious Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald and others in regard to donations, mining and development issues.

But therein lies the key problem for the political elite – the lack of trust and absolute cynicism that voters feel towards the major parties. This particularly applies in NSW, as both sides have experienced the impact of the cancer of corruption.

Even though Baird exudes innocence on a personal level, his party is seen as tainted by scandal, making it no better than Labor. Added to this is the elephant in the room, Tony Abbott, and his conduct as the leading Liberal in the nation. The slogan “If Baird goes on Saturday, Abbott will be gone on Monday” is resonating with some. Just how many will be seen next week.

The alternative premier, Luke Foley, has only been in the job for two months and is not well known to the public. While normally a disadvantage for a politician, in Foley’s case it may be to his advantage as he is not linked to the rancid past of NSW Labor and is coming across in debates with the premier as highly intelligent, on top of his brief and a real match for the equally clever Baird.

This election, however, will not be decided on whether people are attracted to the genial Baird or the cleanskin Foley. It seems to me it will come down to two issues, on which trust in both major political parties is shaky. 

The first is the issue of the ownership of the poles and wires of the state’s electricity network. If the Coalition is re-elected, it will issue a 99-year lease on 50.4 per cent of its interest in electricity distributors Ausgrid and Endeavour and 100 per cent of the high-voltage transmission business Transgrid. The government’s proposed reform could reap up to $20 billion to be spent on reducing congestion for Sydney commuters and other “once-in-a-lifetime” major infrastructure projects.

Foley is countering this argument by suggesting that a long-term revenue stream from public ownership of the poles and wires – estimated to be up to $1.7 billion annually – is preferable to a one-off sugar hit. Baird suggests that if not sold now the revenue stream for taxpayers will fall. Foley says if that were the case, investors will factor that into the purchase price, which would reduce the available spend. And so the argument goes.

To avoid a revolt in the country, Baird has exempted country locations from the lease arrangement, which is coming across as a shallow sop to the Nationals to be undone at a future date.

In my view, Foley is winning the debate. Not so much on the real substance of the issues – though the pricing arrangements if these utilities are in private hands are also of concern – but on the perception the community has about asset sales, privatisation and leasing of public utilities, and the lack of trust in the political process and those who promote reform. Foley is finding it relatively easy to exacerbate these community realities in what is a confused and complicated debate. When the voter is confused or unsure, they generally err on the side of the status quo – keeping the network in public hands.

Will concern about privatisation and leasing of assets on its own be enough to change government in NSW? Probably not. Some will see a short-term benefit and to hell with the future. Let’s have it now. Sell the house to go for a holiday. 

There is, however, another issue that concerns both city and country people in relation to future generations, one where voters are opposed to the short-term sugar hit and will change the traditional voting patterns in favour of a longer-term agenda. It is coal seam gas.

There are legitimate concerns about CSG and the potential impact on water resources, land use, health and the lack of objective science that the community will trust. This view has been aided and abetted by a number of rogue operators and get-rich-quick merchants and managed politics.

The overinvestment in gas plants on the east coast of Queensland, the panic to fulfil offshore gas contracts and the consequent propaganda about domestic gas supply and pricing arrangements have created a large group of strange political bedfellows.

Rallies have been held in many areas of NSW, including the north coast, Gloucester, Liverpool Plains, the Central Coast, the Southern Highlands and Sydney, to name a few. Farmers, environmentalists, Indigenous groups and everyday townspeople have crossed political boundaries and are united on this issue, city and country alike. The political ramifications are potentially enormous.

The state National Party in particular is panicked by this odd alliance and what it means at the ballot box. They argue that the previous Labor government caused the problem, but their communities counter by suggesting the Coalition was elected to fix Labor’s mess and that hasn’t been done. In fact, the development approval processes initiated by the Coalition have not induced trust in the community even though they had traded on the corrupt conduct of their predecessor.

The NSW community has watched the unfolding story of CSG in country Queensland and the aquifer issues that have arisen. Countless unexpected environmental and health-related events have frightened communities and individuals. Conditions imposed by regulators and government officials on these projects are ignored or mitigated, which appears to be a free ride for the projects, irrespective of community concerns.

As a consequence, this means the north coast National seats of Ballina, Lismore and Tweed are at risk to the ALP, and seats such as Tamworth and Barwon could be won by independents. The issue will also resonate in many other seats.

The seat of Tamworth is currently held by the Nationals but will most probably fall to independent Peter Draper. It encompasses the highly productive Liverpool Plains, where up to a billion tonnes of coal is set to be extracted from two proposed mega coalmines, along with CSG exploration licences across the plain. The Liverpool Plains is part of the largest groundwater system in the Murray-Darling Basin and has magnificent soils only surpassed by the self-mulching podzols of Ukraine.

Further west, Water Minister Kevin Humphries is under threat from another independent, Rohan Boehm. The gas company Santos has exploration activity in the recharge area of the Great Artesian Basin, which is the lifeblood of many parts of inland Australia. The response by the sitting member has been to become invisible during the campaign.

In the Gloucester area north of Newcastle, contamination of water resources and lack of local scientific knowledge have locals extremely agitated and let down about government’s reaction to their concerns about CSG developments.

These stories are dotted across the state and no doubt have significant implications for the election.

The implications of this disenchanted anti-CSG vote in the upper house could in turn eliminate Premier Baird’s chances of leasing the state’s poles and wires. Baird has no plan B in terms of his infrastructure spend and has tied election promises to the sale. That smacks of Campbell Newman’s strategy that one had to vote for his government or lose the commitment, something voters don’t like even when done with a smile. 

If Baird is no bully, the key determinant will be whether he can establish trust for his team, or whether the policy mix of leasing the poles and wires – perceived as outright “asset sales” – and CSG development will be enough to cause an erosion of the Liberals’ vote.

The election is a real opportunity for voters to send messages to the parties on these substantive issues – and in my view will go down to the wire.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 21, 2015 as "Poll will go down to the wires". Subscribe here.

Tony Windsor
is the former independent member for the federal seat of New England. He has held balance of power positions in both the NSW and federal parliaments.