SEAN NICHOLLS August 25, 2012
Climbing ... Labor's popularity has increased by 5.5 per cent in the latest poll. Above, NSW Labor leader John Robertson. Photo: Adam McLean
It has gone largely unnoticed but the beleaguered NSW Labor Party recently got a rare shot in the arm courtesy of an unexpected bounce in the polls.
A Roy Morgan survey taken over six days in July and August found Labor's primary vote has risen to 27 per cent. On a two party-preferred basis, Labor's vote was recorded at 40.5 per cent compared with the Coalition's 59.5 per cent.
While it's true that Labor isn't exactly scaling the dizzy heights of popularity, it represents an increase for Labor of 5.5 per cent on its primary vote when compared with the findings of a Morgan poll last month.
Even better news for Labor is that it is matched with a 3.5 per cent dip in the Coalition primary vote, which now sits at 50.3 per cent.
None of this is likely to create enormous excitement within Labor ranks. One year into opposition, the challenge of climbing back to a position where it can regain government remains Everest-like.
The question is whether the shift is due to more people finding a reason to vote Labor or a response to the first year of Barry O'Farrell's government.
The results for preferred premier and, in particular, the comments of the people who were interviewed, suggest that it might be a bit of both.
The poll suggests O'Farrell's popularity has dropped 8 per cent but he remains streets ahead at 55.5 per cent, compared with John Robertson's 21 per cent, which is up 7.5 per cent - all consistent with the primary vote.
But tellingly, when those who preferred O'Farrell as premier were asked to explain why, the most definitive responses focused on Labor's record.
Typical quotes include ''mainly because of the previous records of Labor'', ''because Labor had so many years and got the state into awful debt'' and ''because of the past performance of John Robertson and the past Labor government''.
The most common positive thing voters had to say about O'Farrell was that he was ''honest'' and ''more experienced'' while one said he was ''doing a good job at the moment'' and another declared he was ''tough and gets on to the job''.
Those who preferred Robertson tended to explain their choice mainly because they always voted Labor, although one said he had ''a lot more guts and get-up-and-go than O'Farrell'' and another said Robertson ''is a better people person than the other dude''.
(Ironically, one person cited Robertson's ''business background''. Robertson worked as an electrician and was the secretary of Unions NSW but has never run a business.)
So the primary vote indicates some voters may be thinking about coming back to Labor, possibly reacting to the more controversial policies of the O'Farrell government such as the two rounds of public sector job cuts and overhaul of workers' compensation entitlements.
And the preferred premier results seem to show that voters who favour the O'Farrell government are still defining it by what it isn't, rather than what it is achieving, which is something sure to give both sides pause for thought.
For the Coalition, that will be frustrating, as it suggests that even after 12 months and in the face of a severely depleted opposition it hasn't yet been able to convince people of the merits of its reform agenda. In fact, the opposite appears to the true, which will be read as a worrying sign.
For Labor, it's the ultimate backhanded compliment and a reminder of how difficult it will be to shake the reputation that caused it to be thrown so violently out of office.