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New South Wales: Court of Disputed Returns rules in favour of the ALP challenge to the results for The Entrance electorate

PAUL MURPHY: The tenuous hold Nick Greiner has on power in New South Wales slipped another notch today, with a by-election due next year in the disputed seat of The Entrance, on the Central Coast. The Court of Disputed Returns has ruled in favour of the Labor Party's appeal against the narrow Liberal victory in the seat. A similar appeal against the result in the seat of Maitland was not allowed. Nick Greiner holds Government with the support of the five Independents in the Lower House. Felicity Biggins has been looking at the implications of this latest development.

FELICITY BIGGINS: Nick Greiner has been up against it since the shock election result last May, when what was meant to be a shoe-in for the Coalition became an unexpected cliff-hanger, thanks to a vigorous campaign by Opposition Leader, Bob Carr, and a perception of complacency within the Government. Mr Greiner hung in as Premier but with an uncomfortably small majority - 49 seats to Labor's 46, with four Independents.

Mr Greiner breathed a little easier when it became clear that Tamworth Independent and disaffected National Party Member, Tony Windsor, would support his Government when it counted. He began wooing the three other Independents - Clover Moore, Peter MacDonald and John Hatton - and things were looking up when former Education Minister, Dr Terry Metherell, dropped a bombshell. He resigned from the Liberal Party and declared himself an Independent. Then came the signed agreement between Mr Greiner and the three so-called non-aligned Independents. This has allowed Mr Greiner to keep the confidence of the House and push through the guts of his agenda, but not without compromise, the most recent being legislation banning virtually all forms of tobacco advertising.

Today's court ruling has declared invalid Bob Graham's 116 vote win in The Entrance and has taken away his entitlement to a seat and a vote. Justice Slattery upheld the ALP's case that a polling clerk error disenfranchised enough voters to lose it the seat, held at the time by Grant McBride. If Labor wins back the seat at next year's by-election, it will have as many seats as the Coalition - 47-all, with five Independents. Crucial to Nick Greiner's survival will be the continued support of those Independents. Dr Peter MacDonald says the status quo will remain, thanks to the support for the Government of Tony Windsor and the agreement between the Government and the three Independents which will continue even if Labor wins The Entrance.

PETER MacDONALD: Within that agreement, Windsor was to be regarded as a member of the Government, so you could argue that that leaves it at 48-47-4. And in any event, if one just looks at it at 47-47 we would see that as a status quo position. But it's all about not seeking to destabilise anything. I mean, if in fact - and this opportunity always arises in our agreement - that if, in fact, an occasion arose where a motion of no confidence was moved by the ALP and there were grounds for it on the basis of mismanagement or corruption, we would be supporting them. And that's allowed for in the agreement, still.

FELICITY BIGGINS: But aren't you really fudging it a bit, in the sense that Tony Windsor was elected by his electorate as an Independent, therefore if Labor wins The Entrance it will 47-47, and won't you have to reconsider your loyalties to Mr Greiner?

PETER MacDONALD: Well, I mean, that's a fair question. Let's say that it is 47-47 with Windsor as an Independent, which is the five, you're saying that we should reconsider. Well, I think that's a situation where we .. there's no particular provision for it within our agreement. The agreement does state quite clearly that only in the event of the Opposition having more than the Government would it allow us to move our own motion of no confidence. So you can say that it's going to be a matter of judgment at that stage, that the Independents may well seek to move a motion of no confidence if they had discussed the matter with the Government; and certainly, if there are grounds for it, particularly, if those numbers do eventuate, and in fact, legislation's not getting through, that the Government's not being effective, certainly, the Independents do have that opportunity to move a motion of no confidence.

PAUL MURPHY: New South Wales Independent, Dr Peter MacDonald, with Felicity Biggins.

So now that The Entrance has to be fought all over again, when will the Premier, Nick Greiner, call a poll, and how does he see his chances of winning in a line ball seat? I asked the Premier if he'd been disappointed with the court decision.

NICK GREINER: Well, of course I was, Paul. I wasn't totally surprised. I mean, it was always a technicality. There's no doubt that some people were disenfranchised. The question was: was it there fault or the fault of the system? The judge found it was the fault and responsibility of the system and, obviously, we accept that and we've got to get on with the business.

PAUL MURPHY: So when will you call a by-election?

NICK GREINER: Well, I can't say that, precisely. I've indicated I'm not about to postpone it, sort of, artificially, that would be stupid and unproductive. It obviously isn't the world's greatest time; it's a week before Christmas, which is not exactly the time you'd have a by-election anywhere, especially in a resort area. So we'll have a look at it, but it's certainly not going to be artificially delayed.

PAUL MURPHY: All right. Well, obviously you can't give that date yet, but are you tempted, Premier, to fight a general State election rather than one by-election?

NICK GREINER: I don't think I'm particularly tempted with that, Paul. I noticed today's Morgan poll has the Government a couple of points in front, and for Governments, these days, in Australia or elsewhere, that's unusual, but no, I think our intention is to honour the commitment we have to a fixed four-year term and so I don't think that's likely to be the outcome at all. My expectation is that relatively early in the new year there will be a by-election in that seat. I mean, after all, this seat doesn't actually change the overall situation which is that the Government will have more committed votes than the Labor Party, and we have the support of the three non-aligned Independents and, essentially, we have a fixed term of Government through to 1995, short of some sort of dramatic corruption or mal-administration.

PAUL MURPHY: If Labor wins that by-election in The Entrance, the numbers would then be 47-all - the two major parties - and how long could you, if that happened, continue to govern, relying on Independents?

NICK GREINER: Well, I just answered that, Paul. I mean, in fact, if the numbers would be 48-47, for practical purposes, given Mr Windsor's position, and the Independents have agreed to both on budgetary matters and on votes of confidence, they will support the Government. So the answer is I could continue to govern until 25 March 1995, and it would be my expectation that that is what would happen.

PAUL MURPHY: Would you fight the by-election on local or national issues?

NICK GREINER: Oh, no, on local issues. I can understand, you know, the desire of the media and the P.M. program to say this has got a lot to do with the GST. I mean, that's really drawing the long bow. John Hewson has spoken to me and said he's happy to go and promote the GST there or anywhere, and I don't blame him because it's doing very well. But this is an issue about whether the people of The Entrance, north of Sydney, want to have Bob Graham as the existing member, who's a strong local member and is part of the Government, or whether they want to have someone from the Opposition, and it really is that sort of local election, I would have thought, but I guess I'm prepared to accept the fact that inevitably you and some of your colleagues will want to try and draw Federal implications. They mostly won't be there.

PAUL MURPHY: But you would welcome Dr Hewson if he offered to come and campaign?

NICK GREINER: Oh, absolutely. I welcomed him May, I welcome him at any time, certainly.

PAUL MURPHY: And yet, of course, Bob Carr did so well in the May election on a GST tax. He did very well there.

NICK GREINER: Well, he did very well on telling a big lie about the possibility of a State tax, I think it's fair to say, that he did con the people. I think people now have a better understanding of what it means, and the fact that it's a Federal, not a State issue. So, you know, I guess they're welcome to run another GST scare campaign if they like. I think that would treating the people the of The Entrance as fools.

PAUL MURPHY: So you don't think that that would work at all?

NICK GREINER: I would not have thought so. And as I say, I certainly don't pretend that this is .. we're going to run a Federal campaign State by-election; that would be nonsense.

PAUL MURPHY: And yet, of course, this is really, I suppose, could well be seen as the first real outing for Dr Hewson's GST package.

NICK GREINER: Well, it might be, but only by people who want to draw that in for the sake of, you know, the bigger picture of excitement and conflict the people in the media like to create. The truth is, Mr Graham has lost the seat on a technicality, nothing to do with him or the Government or the Liberal Party, and he would like to continue representing the seat. Labor would naturally like to win it, but I don't realistically believe that you can draw the GST or Federal politics into this. I'm quite sure Mr Hawke will not be campaigning for the Labor Party.

PAUL MURPHY: So you're confident of victory, whenever you call this by-election?

NICK GREINER: I think we've got every chance of winning. It's obviously tough; it's a seat we won by 100 votes in a general election. It will be a tough challenge, but I think Bob Graham's got every chance of winning the seat.

PAUL MURPHY: The New South Wales Premier, Nick Greiner.

Meanwhile, the Opposition Labor Leader, Bob Carr, lost no time in heading for The Entrance, where he's been spending plenty of time recently. He's on the line now. Mr Carr, when do you expect the by-election?

BOB CARR: I think early February would be a sensible time for the Government to determine it. We can't campaign here over the Christmas period, it's full of holiday makers then, and campaigning is very difficult. And beyond that, I think people deserve a break with their families over Christmas.

PAUL MURPHY: Now, what will you campaign on? Will the issues be the same as in May?

BOB CARR: Oh, yes, the issues will be the fact that on the one hand the people of New South Wales, including those at The Entrance, are paying very high levels of State taxes and charges - water bills, electricity bills, car registration - the burden is enormous, given the savage increases this Premier has inflicted on ordinary families in the last three years. But on the other hand, people are seeing a deliberate and callous run-down in the quality of local education, the quality of local hospitals, of local ambulance services, and there's been a 40 per cent cut in road funding for the Central Coast region. So, savage increases in State taxes and charges, but at the same time, a colossal loss in the quality of local services.

PAUL MURPHY: Will you be damaged by the terrible divisions in Federal Labor at the moment and the way the Government and the Prime Minister are looking in the polls?

BOB CARR: No, because this will be a State by-election fought on State issues, and if you doubt my capacity to define it in those terms, you've got to remember that in the State election in May 1991, we successfully defined that campaign in the midst of pretty terrible problems, not only in Canberra, but interstate for Labor. We successfully defined that campaign which Mr Greiner expected to win convincingly on Federal issues and because of the state of Labor in other States. We came within an inch of winning that campaign because I defined it as being a State campaign about State issues, and so it will be with this by-election, even more so.

PAUL MURPHY: Mr Carr, paradoxically perhaps for you, the Hewson GST package seems to be popular, although you did very well with the issue last time, but perhaps not so now.

BOB CARR: Oh, the issue here is going to be the taxes that Mr Greiner has already imposed on the people of The Entrance .. you talk to the people, here where I am now, in the club I'm in, at Tuggerah Lakes, about Greiner's taxes and charges - they're aware that they're paying extortionate levels for car registration, water, electricity. They're paying for State charges, levels that have been increased by Mr Greiner, well beyond the general movement in the cost of living. And this campaign is going to be about the taxes that Greiner has already inflicted on communities, not those that Dr Hewson, down the track, might inflict on the community.

PAUL MURPHY: Now we just heard from Mr Greiner that Dr Hewson is welcomedto campaign in The Entrance. Would you welcome the Prime Minister, whoever it is?

BOB CARR: No. As I said in the last State election campaign - and I went hoarse saying it for a few days into the last State election campaign, and eventually the media accepted it - a campaign about State issues, a State campaign about State issues. It was the case in May, and it's the case now, and to invite in Federal politicians only clouds the choice. It's about whether people want to go on paying extortionate levels in State taxes and charges under the Greiner Government for a run-down in the level of education and health services or whether they opt for the positive alternatives that I've been advancing in the New South Wales Parliament over the last six months.

PAUL MURPHY: So Bob Hawke is not welcome?

BOB CARR: Oh, we're simply fighting a State by-election about State issues. And just as I defined the last State election campaign as being a State election campaign, this one is defined in the same way.

PAUL MURPHY: Okay, Bob Carr, many thanks indeed. Bob Carr, the New South Wales Labor Leader.