Premier Mike Baird casts his vote at the Queenscliff Surf Lifesaving Club on Saturday.
Premier Mike Baird casts his vote at the Queenscliff Surf Lifesaving Club on Saturday. Chris Calcino

Opinion: Baird win good news for Abbott, but for how long?

MIKE Baird has held power with a strong result for the NSW Coalition, in what has been overwhelmingly a victory for good and bold leadership. Despite their reluctance to support electricity privatisation, voters were much more convinced by Baird's pitch than dissuaded by a Labor scare campaign that drastically overreached.

The outcome is a disappointment for Labor. On Saturday night's figures, Labor had got a two-party preferred swing of more than 9%, much of which can be seen as a correction for the extraordinary 2011 rout of the ALP.

According to ABC analyst Antony Green, Labor is on track to have 34 lower house seats in the new parliament, fewer that it had hoped. On Green's figures this compares with the Coalition's likely 53, with the Greens headed for four and two independents.


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For Tony Abbott the result is, most immediately, a big relief. When Campbell Newman lost in Queensland earlier this year, the "Abbott factor" was seen as contributing. A bad result in NSW would have been a disaster for Abbott, but in his home state the prime minister has not held back Baird.

Abbott's rebuilding effort - which has involved ditching unpopular measures, holding out carrots and making some changes of style - may have helped minimise the Abbott factor in NSW.

But equally or more likely, the positive "Baird factor" has overwhelmed any Abbott negatives.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott
Prime Minister Tony Abbott

While the result is good for Abbott, there are also sharp lessons and longer-term implications for him. Baird has been all the things as a premier that Abbott has failed to be as a prime minister.

Gladys Berejiklian, deputy leader of the NSW Liberals, said on Saturday night that "Mike Baird laid everything on the line". Baird in his victory speech said that "we decided to be open with the people of New South Wales".

Baird was rewarded by being considered trustworthy. Abbott was not open before the 2013 election and has paid a huge price.

Obviously Baird is also a top communicator, better than any other current Australian political leader, while Abbott has been a poor one, ever since he ceased being opposition leader.

So now that Baird has shown you can sell a hard agenda and win well, over the next few months the federal Liberals will be asking themselves if and how they can do the same.

Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop, who was at the Baird celebration (which saw no sign of Abbott), said that the take-out from the result was that "people are ready for reform as long as it's explained to them, and that's what Mike Baird did". It was a pointed comment.

Deputy Liberal Leader Julie Bishop
Deputy Liberal Leader Julie Bishop Brenda Strong

As time goes on, this result will actually put more of a spotlight on Abbott, who has only taken early baby steps in his bid to revive. Liberals will want to see that the prime minister can improve a great deal more.

Abbott's problem is that once a leader has forfeited trust, it is difficult if not near impossible to get back.

The budget will be a major test of whether Abbott can make any progress on this. But it will be a long road beyond that if he is to make the federal Coalition competitive. His colleagues will reserve their judgements about his leadership future until they get more evidence from his performance.

Meanwhile, they will also be looking at whether Abbott improves his personal office, which is still criticised.

Baird paid tribute in his victory speech to NSW Liberal director Tony Nutt, who served Abbott in government's early days and was a senior staffer to John Howard when he was prime minister. There is speculation Nutt will return to Abbott. He is certainly desperately needed in the Prime Minister's Office.

The NSW result will put some pressure on Bill Shorten to be more positive, after the failure of Luke Foley's highly negative campaign.

Shorten does need to build a more constructive profile, projecting some vision, especially since he talked of this as the year of ideas.

But it also has to be remembered that unlike Foley, Shorten has an opponent doing badly in the polls.

The federal opposition must start to emphasise its own credentials but, in practical terms, it's a difficult balance. It doesn't want to take too much attention off the government by making itself the issue this far out from the election.

- Michelle Grattan is a Professorial Fellow at the University of Canberra

The Conversation


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