Foley in the running as Labor hits its electoral sweet spot

There is a real chance that NSW Governor could be swearing in Labor leader Luke Foley as the state’s 46th Premier after the March 2019 election.

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For many that will be an astonishing realisation, given how far the NSW ALP had fallen by the time it was thrown out of office in 2011 after 16 years.

But as this week marks the half way point in the Coalition government’s second term, there’s every indication 2019 will be an actual contest.

In fact, it is shaping up as the first real electoral contest in NSW since Bob Carr quit politics in 2005.

Carr’s successor, Morris Iemma, took on Peter Debnam two years later in an uninspiring election epitomised by Labor’s campaign slogan: “More to do but heading in the right direction”.

Labor had well and truly worn out its welcome, but the then Liberal leader in charge of a party riven by vicious factional battles, proved a disaster and the ALP was returned for a fourth term.

When Barry O’Farrell took power in a landslide in 2011, so emphatic was his victory over Labor’s Kristina Keneally that the Coalition was being tipped to be in power for three terms, at least.

Yet there are strong signs we are in for a tight contest in 2019 as Labor seeks to build on gains in made in 2015, when Foley was set the Herculean task of wrestling power from a popular Mike Baird after just a few months as opposition leader.

The Coalition needs to forfeit just seven seats to lose majority government in NSW.

With the rise of minor parties in regional NSW, the possibility of a hung parliament is not out of the question, putting Labor or the Coalition into minority government.

There’s no doubt Baird’s decision to quit politics in January has further changed the equation, but the question is, in whose favour?

Baird cast his move as an opportunity for the government to “refresh”. But despite a new leader and a new cabinet, the policies being prosecuted are thus far the same.

It has only been two months, so this is likely to change as Berejiklian flagged during a NSW Business Chamber mid-term function last week.

“We are absolutely committed to our ongoing reform agenda – I want to make that very clear,” she told the audience.

But Berejiklian and her leadership team are also very aware that while they are spending billions of dollars on infrastructure projects, large and small, across NSW there is a danger that the electorate is becoming complacent.

In recent weeks the Premier and senior ministers have voiced their concern that for voters, after what will be eight years under the Coalition, this might have become “the new normal”.

In other words, the government will get little or no credit for what it has achieved; the sole test for voters is what it is promising next.

If true, this – combined with Baird’s exit – presents Labor with an opportunity as it is approaches what could be an electoral sweet spot.

After eight years, it may be far enough for electors to forgive and/or forget Labor’s indiscretions and just the right amount of time for a reformist government to have got significant sections of the electorate off side with the pace of change.

Two other factors will be playing on the minds of Berejiklian and the NSW Liberals.

First, despite O’Farrell’s promise to end the turmoil of the Labor years, the Coalition has managed three Premiers in two terms. As Labor discovered post-Carr, this conveys not only instability but also the suggestion of longevity.

Second is the timing of the next federal poll, which is also due in 2019.

There are suggestions that, facing a resurgent federal opposition, that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull could delay the election until after NSW voters have a chance to take out their frustrations on the state Coalition in March.

Foley is marking the government’s mid-term mark with a predictable list of its failings. But he presents himself as a policy heavy leader who, like Berejiklian, wants a contest of ideas.

For the first time in more than a decade, come 2019 NSW voters could find themselves in for a truly engaging contest.

Sean Nicholls is state political editor.