Thursday, March 22, 2007

NSW Election

Four years have slipped by since we last trudged off to the NSW polls to wrangle over the question of a lesser evil. Its always painful, but I can’t actually recall a NSW State election in which we didn’t know the outcome well in advance.

I’m not sure when a Liberal, National or Coalition Government last won a State or Territory election in Australia. However, I’m fairly confident that it has not happened this century (its nice to be able to make such wild and sweeping statements in the first decade!).

The 2003 NSW election was a landslide victory to Labor with 55 of the 93 lower house seats. The Liberal/National Coalition won 32 seats with the remaining six going to independents.

The NSW Labor Government have faced a number of crisis moments and much lingering dissatisfaction during the last 12 months. The Cross City Tunnel debacle was arguably Iemma’s first crisis, closely followed by the outcry against the unpopular seawater desalination plant that his Government is so determined to build, -rain or no rain.

Against this background, Debnam must have felt that he was at least in the race. However, his first problem was getting noticed. For months, he seemed to be jumping up and down on the sideline screaming ‘look at me! look at me!’. When nobody did, he took the matter into his own hands to make some press for himself any way he could.

Soon after the Cronulla riot, Debnam found a TV camera to glare into and promise that on “Day 1” of his Government he would arrange for the NSW Police to round up “200 Middle Eastern thugs” and “charge them with anything”. It certainly worked in terms of attracting media attention. However, I suspect that Debnam overestimated the degree of reactionary xenophobia in NSW and probably lost more votes than he gained.

Once the election campaign began in earnest, Debnam played what was clearly his strongest card in the first hand. He read the opinion polls and saw that a strong water recycling policy would trump Labor’s contentious desalination plant. He played it reasonably safely, but promised that under extreme conditions, he would “flick the switch” to divert a miniscule amount of highly purified recycled water into Prospect Reservoir. As planned, the very suggestion of potable water recycling generated headlines in all the major papers.

The opinion polls responded in earnest. Consider this article from the Sydney Morning Herald last month:

Recycled water still the way to a voter's heart
Anne Davies State Political Reporter
February 28, 2007

THE Coalition's plan to recycle sewage and other waste water to boost Sydney's drinking water supplies is still more popular than Labor's desalination plant, according to a Herald/ACNielsen poll.

The poll, taken last weekend, found that 64 per cent supported desalination, while 75 per cent supported recycling.

Respondents to the NSW-wide poll were specifically told that recycled water would include recycled sewage.

The questioners asked: "Thinking about increasing NSW water supplies, one option is to treat sewage and other waste water. This recycled water would be safe for drinking and other household purposes. Do you support or oppose the introduction of recycled water to supplement the NSW water supply?"

Yet despite Labor's contention that voters will not accept having to drink recycled water, about 48 per cent said they preferred recycling over desalination. Another 40 per cent said they preferred desalination over recycling.

"Both major options for supplementing our water supply are popular with voters, but when asked for a preference, recycling is picked by more voters than desalination," said the research director of ACNielsen, John Stirton.

Support for recycling was higher among Coalition and Green voters (81 per cent in both groups) and lower among Labor voters (70 per cent).

More men than women supported recycling, and it was more popular among older voters. Support for desalination was higher among Labor voters (75 per cent) than Coalition voters (55 per cent) or Green voters (49 per cent). Younger voters were more supportive of desalination.

The results will give the Coalition some comfort that its water plan was not behind its decline in the Herald's broader poll revealed yesterday. The Coalition trails Labor 43 to 57 on a two-party preferred basis.

But Labor strategists are adamant the electorate is vulnerable to a scare campaign on recycling, and once they understand that they will be drinking recycled effluent under the Coalition plan, they will not support it.

All politicians need stunts for election campaigns. Of course Debnam had the wholly unoriginal idea of a taste test. Just like Labor had done with desalinated seawater a year or so earlier, Debnam visited shopping centres and busy thoroughfares challenging people to guess which cup contained recycled water. When it was revealed that Debnam had sourced his recycled water from the North Richmond Water Filtration Plant, a few people cried foul. Debnam was kind enough to respond by saying “Dr Stuart Khan from UNSW says its recycled water so therefore it is”. If only more people would see the world that way.

While the ACNielsen poll revealed Debnam’s water policy to be more popular than Labor’s, it is clearly not sufficient to win an election for him. Every single other policy announcement since February has been a dud. I suspect that Debnam recognised that he played his best card too early and tried to play it again this week. However, the media has clearly lost interest and moved on. Debnam’s preference for skimpy swimming attire and his apparent early concession speech have been the main media focus throughout March.

The only seat for which water policy can reasonably be assumed to be a sustained election issue is the new seat of Goulburn. Star Liberal Party recruit Pru Goward would have to be considered a serious contender and the seat is currently notionally Liberal with a margin of around 4.5 per cent.

Goward has been criticised in the media this week for her apparently contradictory position that potable water recycling is viable in Sydney, but not in her own electorate. I know that politics is politics and you simply say what you gotta.

Let’s just let Saturday happen.


NSW voter said...

Debnam is going to go down in a screaming heap trying to make people drink recycled water and then vote for him.

Stuart Khan said...

Either that, or he may find that his policy to make jailing 10 year olds easier is somewhat unpopular.

nsw voter said...

I cannot see why Debnam thought drinking recycled water was an election winner. Regardless of your thoughts on the issue, electorates in different places around the world have shown that it is not a vote winner. Guess he heeded the false polls. His mistake.

Stuart Khan said...

NSW Voter,

Yes, I agree with your observation. Indirect potable reuse has been shown to be a politically unpopular proposal in many places previously (although lets not forget that it does occur in numerous places including the East and West Coasts of the USA).

A number of political careers have been shortened over this issue, including in Australia during the 1990s. This unpopularity surely explains the timid approach that most Australian politicians have shown towards planned IPR …at least until Di Thorley came along!

However, I think there are a few factors in Sydney that have made the proposal slightly more palatable than it might have otherwise been. An obvious one is the willingness of many to find a less energy-intensive alternative to seawater desalination. Most Sydneysiders also accept that damming the upper-Shoalhaven is not a sustainable solution.

But another important factor is certainly the fact that cities such as Toowoomba have been debating and discussing the idea. This has raised awareness that it is actually a realistic and viable component of water supply management.

Whether the demonstrated support for IPR in Sydney was sustainable in the long term is unknown. Its possible that many people may support it in principle, but feel differently once a real proposal becomes imminent.

NSW voter said...

I think geting the issue on the table to discuss it is admirable. Staking or partially staking your political future on it without months or years of public consultation is close to political suicide.

Stuart Khan said...

Yes, you are probably correct. Politcians can't expect to pull these proposals out of the air and expect them to be instantly popular.

However, I think it is fair to say that Sydneysiders have been discussing potable reuse in a public manner for a couple of years now...long before the words ever passed Peter Debnam's lips.

I would politely suggest that like most Australian politcians, Peter Debnam was following public opinion, not leading it.

Greg said...

You will not win an election like that! The only way you will be able to get it through in a place like Australia is to do what Beattie did, promise that you will not do it and then when you win the election go back on your promise and force it on the people in a very undemocratic way. All the arguments about other places doing it and that it is safe is all in vain, because in China they eat dogs, perfectly safe apparently, would you do it Stuart!
The truth of the matter that here in SEQ we all know that all our treated wastewater could easily be consumed by heavy industry and power stations without the extravagent costs of treating it to potable standards to be dumped back into the dams for domestic use and that you should be the first option for the re-use of it!

Stuart Khan said...


Your cynicism rivals even my own!

Excellent analogy about eating dogs, by the way. I agree that its really no different to eating any other species but that I would still have a serious aversion to it. It would take me a long to time to come around to the idea purely on the basis that it is safe and it is done in other countries. I’ll use this example myself in future, -and try to remember to give you credit for it (‘Greg the recycled water blogger’)!

NSW voter said...

On my trip to Cambodia, I noticed a restaurant which advertised "we don't serve dog, cat, rat or worm". Never knew whether it wasn't on the menu or they were picky about their customers!

nsw voter said...

Pretty predicable result.

Stuart Khan said...


Stuart Khan said...

The race in Goulburn between Independent Mayor Paul Stephenson and star Liberal recruit Pru Goward is apparently neck-and-neck. I previously missed noticing that Labor had decided to support (pro- water recycling) Stephenson so strongly:

"Her main rival has been the well-known Mayor of Goulburn, Paul Stephenson, who received a boost from Labor 's apparent tactical decision to assist his campaign rather than solidly back its own candidate, Rob Parker. With Labor and the Greens both preferencing Mr Stephenson, there was palpable fear in Ms Goward's office on Saturday night that this would overcome her clear lead on primary votes."

It kind-of puts Iemma’s comments about Debnam ‘making people drink recycled sewage’ into some perspective.

Sam said...

Debnam's recycling policy was good and in light of the desal plant had good traction amongst voters. But it came out of the blue so close to the election. He had to reverse his position to get there, didn't fully grasp other aspects of urban water use and didn't have the charisma to sell it.

The only upside was that it put recycling on the public agenda. It also force the hand of the labor party to roll out their detail-less plan for a "massive water recycling grid" which we have to see the substance of yet.

Stuart Khan said...

Thanks Sam,

You managed to say in two paragraphs what took me a couple of blog posts…and I still didn’t manage to communicate it quite as directly as you did!

nsw voter said...

'But it came out of the blue so close to the election'

Why? Not because Debnam was particularly interested in recycled water but because he (wrongly) thought it would get votes.

Stuart Khan said...

NSW Voter,

I agree with you again. Some people may have changed their vote because of it, but the number of such people was clearly not significant.

nsw voter said...

Ah politicians, can we not recycle them all???

Stuart Khan said...

Good suggestion NSW Voter,

I’m all for long as our purification technologies are sufficiently effective for recovering the good stuff (what little of it there may be), while leaving the unwanted impurities behind!

nsw voter said...

very little good stuff - lots of hot air.

Greg said...

Lots of hot air, egos as big as a hippo and brains as small as a pea. Its a new breed of animal and they think there king s... and they live in it and speak it. LOL

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